Realism and Ineffability

Is any philosophical or religious discourse about ineffability necessarily realist? Here is what I mean. I have often used the general distinction between apophaticism and kataphaticism as what I take to be a helpful way of differentiating between the anti-realism of much of continental philosophy of religion and the realism of much of analytic philosophy of religion. While I know that these referents are not all that stable and that the traditions to which I am applying them are also dynamic and plural, but it has still seemed to me that by viewing the work of Jacques Derrida or John Caputo, say, as generally affirming an anti-realist account of the divine such that all notions that would affirm a mind-independent state of affairs (as suggested by classical theism, say) are denied and then some sort of poetic remnant of transcendence is maintained in a way that resists any determinate knowledge claims, we find a productive way of distinguishing between their important and influential work and similarly important and influential work by such thinkers as Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, say. For Plantinga and Swinburne, although at odds in a variety of ways regarding the stakes of evidence and inference, I believe, they are consistently realist when it comes to not only their affirmation of a mind-independent state of affairs that is true about God, but also that such affairs are knowable by human inquirers (if not through reason, at least through revelation, say).

For my part, I have often made much of the distinction between epistemic realism/anti-realism and metaphysical realism/anti-realism such that we might find more theological alternatives available within a deconstructive approach to the philosophy of religion. In particular, I consider myself to be a metaphysical realist insofar as I do think that there is some mind-independent state of affairs that is true of/for God, but I am an epistemic anti-realist in that I do not think that human inquirers can know that knowledge of such affairs has ever been achieved. Simply put, I try to maintain the hermeneutic necessities that attend a postmodern philosophical perspective and also the confessional possibilities of historical religious communities that have often been seen as at odds with the postmodern rejection of onto-theology. Accordingly, my suggestion has frequently been that epistemic anti-realism does not entail metaphysical anti-realism as Caputo and Derrida, and many others, at least seem to suggest on occasion. Nonetheless, continental philosophy of religion has tended toward what I have called an apophatic excess that yields its own orthodoxy regarding the options considered viable within philosophical discourse. Alternatively, analytic philosophy of religion has tended toward what I have called a kataphatic excess that yields its own orthodoxy regarding the views that are worth considering in the first place.

Though I still think that this general framework is correct, I wonder whether apophatic discourse in philosophy of religion or philosophical theology requires metaphysical realism in order for the claim about the inadequacy of human language and the predicates affirmed within it to be held as true in the first place. Now, notice, I am not claiming that there is an epistemic realism assumed here. It seems entirely possible that one could hold all sorts of true beliefs for the right reasons and still not have knowledge of the possession of such knowledge, etc. In this way, I think that epistemic anti-realism might require some sort of externalist criterion about which one would probably not be able to justify in internalist ways. In any case, to say that the divine is “beyond” language, or concepts, or understanding is still to make some sort of truth claim about the divine. Now, it is easy to think that this claim would be some sort of meta-poetic discourse that is intended not to say anything true about God, say, but instead just something true about the hermeneutic requirements of all human discourse (as Caputo seems to contend in some places). And yet, if that is true, then it still seems to bear implications for the model of God being considered viable for participants in such discourse.

Nonetheless, believing that language is always inadequate in relation to the divine seems to require that one take it to be true that such a state obtain regarding the divine. I don’t think that making this point assumes correspondence regarding truth, but simply that it requires the belief about such a state as true (on whatever theory of truth one affirms) be held by the person affirming the thesis about linguistic or conceptual inadequacy. As such, it would seem that apophaticism is necessarily realist in that if the apophatic gesture is genuinely in reference to the divine, and not simply to human discourse, then this requires that one hold something to be the case about God independent of the way things are for us. Or so it seems.

I am not sure this all works out as I have so briefly worked out here, but hopefully this post will at least stimulate some thinking about how it is that speech and the states of affairs described by that speech stand in relation to one another when it comes to the philosophy of religion. If I am on the right track at all, then it seems that three important consequences would follow:

  • Analytic and continental philosophy may not be all that far apart when it comes to metaphysical realism, but simply the way in which such realist accounts are fleshed out.
  • Philosophy of religion may need to focus its attention to various forms of realism/anti-realism, rather than spending so much time working through the varieties of theism. Perhaps the latter is interesting because of unacknowledged or undiagnosed assumptions regarding a particular version of realism being the only game in town. One variety might encourage determinate God-talk, say, while another one might encourage a poetic minimization of such determinacy, for example.
  • Attending to such issues would bring the epistemological and metaphysical closer together when it comes to aphophatic and kataphatic discourse. The stakes of epistemology in the philosophy of religion might be a matter of what versions of reality are even possible for human knowing, whereas the stakes of metaphysics might be a matter of how one can weigh and consider evidence for a particular model of God under consideration. In either case, epistemic humility and hermeneutic charity seem to be indispensable requirements of serious work in this area.

As is the beauty of blog posts, this is not meant to be conclusive, but instead merely an attempt to think out loud, while thinking on paper. Hopefully as this project continues, I will get clearer in my own mind about how it is that such thinking ought to proceed.


12 thoughts on “Realism and Ineffability

  1. As obfuscatory as Lacan is, he did provide us with at least one tool worth using: the three registers. It seems here that epistemological realism/anti-realism corresponds roughly to the symbolic, while the metaphysical realism/anti-realism corresponds to the Real. What if the Real is manifest negatively in the ruptures in our symbolic register? This would have to be the case if the Real were qualitatively different from that expressed in the symbolic. Then this negation of the symbolic is the only way to get at the Real. If something like this is the case, then we would HAVE to be anti-realist epistemically for the sake of a metaphysical realism. I think this is similar to the project of Hegel (sort of kind of), Heidegger, Derrida, and Caputo. Of course this is different than the apophatic tradition, in which God is both transcendent of language (Pseudo-Dionysius, Meister Eckhart), and also captured in language to some extent (i.e. the creeds, Thomas’ Summa). Even Thomas Aquinas fits nicely into this version of the apophatic tradition! In other words, I think that the deconstructionists are (at there best, and read charitably) offering THE account of metaphysical realism by refusing to attempt to bring the Real into the symbolic register (again, reading them at their best and reading them charitably). I will concede that the deconstructionist side slips into equivocation about God and truth, confusing phenomenology and metaphysics at times, but this should be read as a deviation from a properly deconstructive hermeneutic phenomenology. Loved your post, thanks for writing!

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  2. I think I am inclined to be a realist in both metaphysical and epistemic registers for pragmatic reasons, but therefore also a fallibilist. We are wrong so often in our hypotheses about the way our environment is or is trending, in big and small ways, that it seems a bit pointless to be a metaphysical anti-realist. If reality were panpsychic, metaphysical anti-realism as you’ve characterized it is hilariously ironic; short of pan-psychism, anti-realism seems just to beg too much trust in the face of experience that so often suggests otherwise.
    When it comes to knowing and/or being God, there’s more to wonder about. I like Robert Cummings Neville’s argument that God in the most realistic sense (if that’s a fair way to put it) is beyond being and exceeds metaphysical determination. God is not a determinate being among beings and shares none of their metaphysical traits except insofar as God creates them. So metaphysical realism or anti-realism is somewhat beside the point with respect to God. What we have instead is religious efforts to symbolize from determinate things what makes the difference between there being something and nothing at all. There are a variety of ways to play out such symbolisms, across cultures.
    Just an opening thought. I hope to continue in conversation!

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  3. Hey Jacob and Andrew, thanks for the comments (and for reading!). In the attempt to continue conversation, let me offer an all too quick response (sort of thinking out loud, as it were).

    Jacob, I rarely use Lacan as a frame for my own thinking, but this is probably more due to a distaste for psychoanalysis, in general, than it is a reasoned critique of his claims, in particular. That said, I think that you may very well be on to something (and it would fit with Derrida’s own sympathies for psychoanalysis, I think) regarding the idea that the Real is necessarily excessive in relation to the Symbolic. In the language I tend to use more often, that of hermeneutic phenomenology, I would say something like the phenomenality of phenomena “overflows” (Levinas) any attempt to adequately circumscribe it in expression or comprehension. Here, I like the language of excess one finds in the new phenomenologists (think of Marion’s notion of “saturation,” say). That said, I do think that such an affirmation of excess (even as a possibility (phenomenology), rather than an actuality (metaphysics)) seems to require some form of realism at the level of thinking that there is a “thing itself” (Husserl) toward which our comprehension and expression strives. My question is whether it is even coherent to be a metaphysical anti-realist in any serious sense (indeed, what would it even mean to affirm such anti-realism as true, then? – perhaps one could reinscribe truth back into simply a power discourse or something, but that seems to lose something about the traction that our truth-claims need even in the play of discourse itself).

    Andrew, I have not done a lot of work with Neville, but probably should. That said, I think that you and I are quite close to each other in the sense that, when I affirm metaphysical realism and epistemic anti-realism, I take it to be true that my discourse will never circumscribe the totality of the divine, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have knowledge of God (this is why I tend to locate epistemic anti-realism as a matter of not knowing that one has knowledge, not a rejection of the possibility of knowledge). That said, it is quite possible that God would somehow be “beyond being” such that even our discourse about the excessiveness of the divine would miss the point (which is what you are getting at, I take it, toward the end of your comment). This seems right to me, but I worry that if we slide too far in the direction of God’s transcendence (hence an increasing degree of apophaticism in our God-talk), we can lose the very epistemic humility that you and I would see as necessary to all truth-claims about the divine. The tension between apophatic and kataphatic discourse seems to be what is distinctive about religious understanding – or so those of us working on this project are at least hypothesizing. We will see where we end up at the end of the day.

    Thanks to you both,


  4. Dear Prof. Simmons,

    Thanks for this great post. If you have the time/interest, I’d be very interested in what you think of classical/medieval approaches to these sorts of questions.

    It’s often suggested that so-called “classical theism” (i.e. Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas) is pretty much “realist” across the board–perhaps even uncritically so. But I just don’t see how this is the case. If the affirmation of a world “independent of language/mind” is the fundamental criterion for realism, then all three ‘A’s mentioned above are anti-realists–and quite uncontroversially so. Without the divine Word/intellect, not only is the world unintelligible, there is no world at all. Put simply, God’s Word/intellect is constitutive of the world.

    This point is rarely appreciated, I think, by those debating questions about realism vs. anti-realism in contemporary Christian philosophy. Now of course you could just qualify this and say that what is implied by the realist criterion is simply the affirmation of a world “independent of [created] language/minds,” but this changes the discussion; for the motivation behind at least certain (correct, in my view) anti-realist criticisms of realism is that it makes no sense to speak/think of a world that exists “independently” of language/mind. If we remember that there is literally nothing that exists “independently” of language/mind–as classical theism does–then maybe we could make progress on this discussion that we could not make otherwise.


  5. Hey Joshua,
    Thanks for the comment. I am sorry it has taken me so long to respond. I have started a reply several times and then had things come up that prevented me from finishing. So, anyway, here are my initial thoughts in reply to your very sensible question.

    If metaphysical realism is taken to mean that there exists a state of affairs that is mind-independent, then you are right to ask “independent of what minds?” I think that it would be fairly safe to suggest that there is an implied “human” or “finite” qualifier on the minds being referenced in such a definition. I know that I was thinking of such finite, specifically human, minds when I defined realism as I did in this post.

    That said, there is no reason that one couldn’t say that metaphysical realism should be expanded to reference “any mind whatsoever.” There are some cool results that might follow from such an expansion – for example, anti-realism would, as you seem to indicate, be far less worrisome to many theistic philosophers. However, I am not sure that this is really as beneficial as it might at first appear. For, it would look like we would, then, need to introduce distinctions between the sort of minds that we mean such that we distinguish between “subjective metaphysical realism” and “objective metaphysical realism,” say. Accordingly, “subjective metaphysical realism” might indicate something like “there is a state of affairs that is independent of finite minds,” and “subjective metaphysical anti-realism” would mean “there is not a state of affairs that is independent of finite minds.” Yet, we would could say that “objective metaphysical realism” indicates that “there is a state of affairs that is independent of any mind whatsoever,” etc.

    Notice, though that we seem right back into the debate as often considered and presented. Though there are very important questions about whether there could be reality that is entirely mind-independent, the question usually asked gets more at the question of whether it makes any sense to affirm a reality entirely separate from our (finite) conceiving of it. The first set of questions might be ultimately a debate between non-theists (of some variety – perhaps explicitly atheistic, but not necessarily so) and theists (of some variety), the latter (and more common) set of questions is more a debate between those thinkers (whether atheist or theist or non-theists, etc.) who think that there is some (finite) mind-independent reality and those thinkers (whether atheist or non-theists, etc.) who do not. My concern in this post is definitely with the latter debate and whether the second set of thinkers could plausibly be theistic. In other words, does theism entail some sort of realism about a state of affirms independent of our (finite) minds? Expressly kataphatic discourse seems quickly to arrive at such realist proclamations (even if fallibly held – via epistemic anti-realism, or something similar), but what about expressly apophatic discourse? It seems to me that the apophatic denials might similarly require metaphysical realist affirmations (at least insofar as one thinks that the apophatic denials are better, or closer to truth than kataphatic alternatives, etc.).

    Anyway, I do think that the promise of what you are suggesting might be found in that it makes anti-realism less scary to many theists. And, it also might go a long way toward, subsequently, inviting more productive dialogue among philosophers working in diverse philosophical traditions, but I am not sure that it resolves the issue that I am trying to think through here. I could be wrong, but as I see it, it simply moves it up (or down) a level. Now, recognizing that there are different levels in this debate might, itself, be an important dimension that is too often ignored. So, thanks again for illuminating such occluded aspects in the current discussion.

    In appreciation,


  6. Thanks for this very thoughtful reply! Admittedly, my thoughts are directed towards an already-theist audience, but I think even Plantinga does a pretty good job making a similar case to non-theists in his “How to be an anti-realist,” APA Proceedings, 1982.

    You say, “[W]e would, then, need to introduce distinctions between . . . “subjective metaphysical realism” and “objective metaphysical realism[.]”

    Yes, this is much more concise and clear than my own confused ramblings!

    Then you say, “Notice, though that we seem right back into the debate as often considered and presented.”

    I wonder if the difference that I’m trying to get at here is the difference between a “reality” that is essentially passive and inert (i.e. it “just is”, Heidegger’s Vorhandensein), and a “reality” that lends itself to human intellects because it is, at its most fundamental level, *spoken* (i.e. a product of the divine intellect). Put simply, if (1) there are less problems with human intellects understanding “speech-acts” than with understanding “realities” (realities as Vorhandensein, that is); and (2) the created order is at its most fundamental level precisely that–a speech-act of God (all things created by the Word, after all)–then perhaps we might have more resources for saying that the created order is conspicuous to human intellects.

    Perhaps the “realism/anti-realism” discussion would then move to the difference between understanding the speech acts of a human speaker to understanding the speech acts of a divine speaker. But if this is true, this seems like a result that might get right to the heart of your (absolutely correct, I think) point: namely, that realism/anti-realism is indexed to kataphatic/apophatic in interesting ways.

    Thanks again!

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  7. Thanks for a very clear and helpful response, Aaron. I had a reply that got lost in cyberspace, so it’s taken awhile for me to get the energy to try again.

    “For, it would look like we would, then, need to introduce distinctions between the sort of minds that we mean such that we distinguish between “subjective metaphysical realism” and “objective metaphysical realism,” say.”

    Yes, precisely. This is far clearer than my ramblings.

    “Notice, though that we seem right back into the debate as often considered and presented. Though there are very important questions about whether there could be reality that is entirely mind-independent, the question usually asked gets more at the question of whether it makes any sense to affirm a reality entirely separate from our (finite) conceiving of it.”

    Right, I agree that this is how the debates are usually conducted. Here are a few points on why I think an “objective” anti-realism [OAR] can change the “subjective” realism/anti-realism [SR/SAR] discussion in productive ways.

    1. Although folks obviously have different accounts of how language/intentionality works, for the purposes of the SAR/SR debate there seem to be less problems with the idea that we can really understand communicated *concepts* or *ideas* (as opposed to “real things” in the world, say).
    2. But if OAR is true, then literally everything is, in some fundamental sense, a communicated concept or idea (i.e. participations in the *Word* Hebrews 1:3; John 1:3; Psalms 33:9; Col 1:16).
    3. Thus, if OAR is true, then the question of understanding the “real world” is not a matter of understanding some kind of inert, voiceless, purely passive “object”. In some sense, the world is *spoken*.
    4. But if (3) is true, then this seems to move the discussion directly to the apophatic/kataphatic issue (that you so rightly raise as the important issue here), i.e. how can we understand divine words as opposed to merely human words?

    Hope that makes sense. Thanks again.


  8. Pingback: History and Historicity, or Realism and Ineffability, redux. | A Cross-Cultural Inquiry into Religious Understanding

  9. Hey Josh,
    Thanks again for thinking with me. It seems right to me that if OAR is true, that the question shifts to the epistemic register such that we are left wondering how we (finite) inquirers are able to know the “word” of reality itself (in a more Christian sense, we might phrase this as the infinite reality of the divine logos). In other words, OAR would raise the stakes of the epistemic anti-realism considered at the outset.

    I am not sure what to say in response to that because a lot depends on what assumptions one begins with and what bullets one is willing to bite, etc. But, as just a few possible places to go, the following seem to be plausible options (both working within a Christian framework, but within two very different philosophical traditions):

    1. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks (Cambridge, 1995).

    2. Michel Henry, Words of Christ (Eerdmans, 2012); see also Henry, I Am the Truth: Toward a Philosophy of Christianity (Stanford, 2003).

    I hope those books are helpful as we both continue to think through these difficult issues.



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