Diagnosing Predicaments and Attending to Futures: Responding to William Franke’s Account of the “Predicament of Philosophy of Religion Today”

By J. Aaron Simmons

In his 2014 book, A Philosophy of the Unsayable, William Franke devotes a nearly 70 page chapter to the topic of “Apophasis and the Predicament of Philosophy of Religion Today.” He begins by announcing his general thesis by claiming that “the situation of philosophy today makes it peculiarly receptive to a great variety of apophatic discourses” (2014, 139). Franke’s basic argument is that “mysticism and negative theology have again become powerful paradigms for knowledge in a postmodern age,” precisely because such knowledge is “no longer bound to the rational foundationalism that guided the leading strains of philosophical thought and culture throughout the modern period” (2014, 139). Focusing specifically on the Neoplatonic tradition of apophatic Christian theology, Franke suggests that “Neoplatonism provides . . . a general theory for why philosophy and indeed knowledge in general must, in rational terms, remain foundationless” (2014, 143).

This Neoplatonic critique of strong epistemic foundationalism does seem like an important site of potential engagement between some strands in contemporary philosophy of religion and some dimensions of medieval apophatic Christian theology. I am not going to comment further on that engagement, since I am working on it in more detail for the larger work of this grant project. Here in this short post, though, I want to highlight something that might otherwise go unnoticed in the framing of Franke’s otherwise very compelling project. Specifically, I am troubled by the ease with which “philosophy today” and “philosophy of religion today” end up referring only to a very specific continental approach to philosophical inquiry (and actually, only a particular version of continental philosophy occurring in a specific tradition within the broader continental framework).

Had Franke specified that he was only concerned with a “situation” and “predicament” that some deconstructive phenomenological continental philosophy/philosophy of religion faces, then fine.  Indeed, designating the scope of one’s inquiry is always helpful and a narrow scope need not entail a narrow set of potential appropriations. However, although Franke does at one point refer to “the situation of philosophy today, especially of Continental philosophy . . .” (2014, 147), and later to the “apophatic moments” of “contemporary phenomenological philosophies” (2014, 153), he is not consistent in the delimitation of scope, but returns to the trope of “the situation of philosophy today” (2014, 156) even when specifically discussing the work of Jean-Luc Nancy.

There is no problem with using a specific example as illuminative of a larger tendency, but absent from Franke’s very long chapter is any substantive engagement with a philosopher who is likely to appear in a contemporary philosophy of religion textbook. Now, admittedly this could reflect the limitations of contemporary philosophy of religion, and the general “analytic” assumptions and authorities operative therein (thus displaying its own narrowness—as diagnosed by Kevin Schilbrack 2014), but regardless, to refer to “predicament of philosophy of religion today” and not engage the dominant strands in contemporary philosophy of religion is problematic.

I have no evidence of Franke’s motivation for such a generalization, and I will not speculate as to his intention (it may have just be simply a matter of shorthand reference and reflect no deeper diagnosis of the current politics of contemporary philosophy of religion). Yet, I think that it provides occasion to comment on the troubling polarization that so frequently characterizes contemporary philosophy of religion and leads to missed opportunities for engagement around the very sort of issues that Franke considers.

In another recent book, The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion, edited by Clayton Crockett, B. Keith Putt, and Jeffrey W. Robbins (2014), three guiding themes are put forth as especially promising directions for this “future”: the messianic, liberation, and plasticity. Focusing on the work of John Caputo, Philip Goodchild, and Catherine Malabou, respectively, as leading examples of such directions, the book explores how such themes might invite constructive philosophy of religion in light of the “death of God” and “radical theology.”

Although Crockett, Putt, and Robbins make clear the focus of their collection is a specifically continental approach to the philosophy of religion, and the three sections reflect different trajectories within continental philosophy itself (thus displaying the dynamism and plurality of continental philosophy), their book envisions a future for continental philosophy of religion that is defined by a continued disregard for the vast majority of contemporary philosophy of religion. As I see it, if there is a “predicament of philosophy of religion today” then perhaps the most troubling aspect of it is that there are two philosophies of religion and neither is interested enough in appropriating and learning from the other. I have long advocated for “mashup philosophy of religion,” whereby we do not attempt to overcome the divide, but allow the differences to remain precisely in order that different resources be available for constructive work that can now be more attentive to the complexity of religious phenomena and the dynamics of faith. But, this idea has yet to catch on in a pervasive way, though I am hopeful and excited about a special issue of The Journal of Cultural and Religious Theory that I edited exploring such possibilities.

Were we to be more attentive to work occurring in philosophy more broadly (regardless of the specific tradition upon which it primarily draws), then we might more readily see that Franke’s analysis of Nancy is but one possible site in which the limits of thought and apophatic trajectories might appear in contemporary philosophy of religion. Similarly helpful (though distinguished in the specifics) might be Graham Priest’s analysis of dialetheism and logic “beyond the limits of thought” (Priest 2002), say. Similarly, the themes of the messianic, liberation, and plasticity, might themselves been importantly developed were they not simply considered in relation to continental thinkers, but in the context of larger debates concerning divine foreknowledge, religious ethics, and cognitive linguistics. There is nothing that necessarily ties any of these debates to specific philosophical traditions other than the history of their occurrence therein. Yet, as Franke notes, the demise of some versions of strong epistemic foundationalism opens the space for thinking more productively about what it is that we are able to think, and speak, about.

Today there is room for apophatic resources, not obviously as an endorsement of a specific trajectory in philosophy of religion, but instead as an important reminder of the humility that should guide all philosophical and theological inquiry. Humility may or may not lead to silence, however, and it is important not to be too quickly be convinced of the virtue of such an approach. It is precisely by resisting temptations to think that there is a stable “predicament of philosophy of religion today” that we are able to live into a “future” where continental and non-continental philosophies are participants in the shared discourse of philosophy of religion, tomorrow.

Works Cited

Crockett, Clayton, B. Keith Putt, and Jeffrey W. Robbins, eds. The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Franke, William. 2014. A Philosophy of the Unsayable. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Priest, Graham. Beyond the Limits of Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schilbrack, Kevin. 2014. Philosophy and the Study of Religions: A Manifesto. Malden: Wiley Blackwell.

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4 thoughts on “Diagnosing Predicaments and Attending to Futures: Responding to William Franke’s Account of the “Predicament of Philosophy of Religion Today”

  1. I’m something of a novice in the wider territory of 20th “continental philosophy of religion” but I have an off-the-cuff response to your in many ways very helpful short essay. First, it’s good to talk of “mashup” or at least openness between diverse traditions and to question the provincialism of much discussion in the field you’re exploring. Second, I doubt that helps to frame mysticism and even apophaticism as concerned (solely or predominantly) with knowledge. It seems more and more evident that philosophers I admire [Kierkegaard, Thoreau, Wittgenstein, Cavell) critique epistemology not in order to offer an improved version but to set epistemology aside in favor of writing that focuses on ways of life, acknowledging others, sympathy with wonder and illuminating moments in the course of a life, the place of awe and a deep-seated suspicion of the penchant for abstraction and simplification and false-clarity so endemic in philosophy, and philosophy of religion.
    I’ve argued that the unquestioned goal of getting better knowledge belongs with the unquestioned goal of getting a better grasp of mind-body dualism — relics of our Cartesian heritage. We ought to avoid framing issues baldly in these terms. We need an avoidance of knowledge and an acknowledgment of the richness of subtle attunement to an endlessly complex and wondrous (and terrible) reality. Philosophy of religion can dive into these waters with abandon.

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  2. Hey Ed,
    Thanks so much for your comment. I agree that if knowledge is something that is understood in a reductive way in line with our Cartesian heritage, then it is problematic (especially in relation to the ways in which so much of existence is then ignored as a result). But, it is because of the general continental/postmodern rejection or overcoming of epistemology that I think we need to be careful. You are right that avoiding false-clarity is crucial and that we must not think that there is some objectivist framework in which all subjectivity then must be understood (Kierkegaardian sympathies here run deep for both of us),but I do take seriously that if Kierkegaard/Thoreau/Wittgenstein/Cavell/Mooney are right, then they/we should be able to give good arguments for the truth of that view. I am not concerned about “having knowledge” of that truth, but I am very much invested in the existential and ethical importance of being able to justify why we stand where we do. Such justification is not in the name of reinforcing our own status or power, but in the name of taking seriously that we could stand otherwise. Unless we are willing to do the difficult epistemic work in this direction, we can quickly allow the moral and religious and existential reasons for abandoning epistemology (classically understood) to become not much more than their own version of power-play. I see a robust and non-reductive epistemological project to break from the problematic portions of the Cartesian legacy, but to remain true to the value of truth-seeking as a project for individual lives and communities of trust.
    Thanks again,
    Aaron

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  3. Hi Aaron,
    It looks like you’re afraid of being lumped with post-moderns/continentals if you discard epistemology. But people like Charles Taylor avoid epistemology without being in those camps. And I sense we may mean different things by “epistemology.” You write, “I am very much invested in the existential and ethical importance of being able to justify why we stand where we do [and] taking seriously that we could stand otherwise.” But we can discuss and elucidate ‘where we stand’ without epistemology, I’d think. We can elaborate our aesthetic, moral, or religious takes on the world without having recourse to epistemology. We just engage in fruitful discussion of commitments, experience, consequences of perceiving the world this way rather than that — none of which, to my ear, rings of classical text-book epistemology (nor of a non-epistemological phenomenology, either).
    Thanks for the engagement !

    Ed

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  4. Hey Ed,
    I think you are right that we might mean two different things by “epistemology.” That said, I am not worried about being categorized as postmodern/continental. Rather, I am interested in being defined in that way because I think that there are good reasons to be so characterized. If abandoning the task of justifying one’s beliefs and actions, etc., is part of what it is to be continental, then I am unsure how one could give good reasons for affirming such a position/identity. That is what I mean by saying that we postmodernists must not avoid epistemology, but instead attempt to rehabilitate it such that it speaks to the moral, existential, political, religious, aesthetic, etc., dimensions of human intersubjective living. In that sense, I am not sure that I am willing to go all the way with you when you say that we can discuss/elucidate where we stand without epistemology (and, indeed, I think that Charles Taylor is right to describe much of postmodernism as having engaged in the task of “overcoming epistemology,” but wrong not to think that this is straightaway a problem). Absolutely, we can discuss such things, but I think at least part of the philosophical task is not simply to describe things as we see them, but to recommend the way we see them to others as true, beautiful, useful, or whatever standard in operation in our discourse. Yet, that task requires, it seems to me, being able to give good reasons by why we do stand there according to that operative criteria. So, yes, there might be non-traditional-epistemological ways of presenting such reasons (in my own religious tradition, for example, testimony often operates such that it recommends something to others by simply saying the way it seems to oneself), but as philosophers reflection on how such ways function in discourse and count as reason-giving in social contexts is something that I see as decidedly a matter of epistemology (properly understood). Ultimately, it is because I agree with you about the basic goals of discourse and intersubjective engagement that I continue to seek a postmodern epistemology that would provide a theory of how it is that such goals are not only reasonable given some social standard, but preferable (read justified) to other relevant alternatives within our shared discourse.
    In appreciation,
    Aaron

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