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.

Religious Understanding Town Hall

Here are some pictures from the Religious Understanding Town Hall hosted by Avila University on March 10, 2015.

Photos by David Armstrong.

History and Historicity, or Realism and Ineffability, redux.

This post is in many ways a response to my friend and colleague, Aaron’s post on “Realism and Ineffability.” There, Aaron asks, among other things, whether any religious discourse about ineffability is necessarily committed to realism of some sort. My own work orients itself around slightly different traditions than those Aaron is referencing, and I’m especially not (any longer) much interested in figuring out how to situate (so-called) ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophy, but nonetheless there are common themes here about how to think these relations.

One way to raise this point is to cite a chapter that I have been enjoying recently. It is from William Franke’s A Philosophy of the Unsayable; there Franke spends the chapter looking at the poetry of Paul Celan and Edmond Jabès. On p. 97, he frames the two poets as exemplifying two alleged lineages of apophatic thinking:

This comparison between Jabès and Celan can help us to discriminate between what are historically two distinguishable lineages and logics of apophatic thinking, one based on the ineffability of the singular existence, whether of God or of the individual human person or event, and another based on an ineffability inherent to language itself.

Franke wants to say roughly that on one hand, one of these (Celan) relies on an apophaticism that is based on the inability of the human epistemological apparatus to properly capture an event or experience or phenomenon (or whatever). This sort of stance, at least it seems to me, exactly seems to be both epistemically non-realist and metaphysically realist. Why can our human apparatus not capture the phenomenon in question? Because it is the sort of thing (used here just as a logical place-marker, not as a term taking an ontological stance) that cannot be captured. On the other hand, another option (Jabès) is to see language itself as leading to the apophatic domain, where language itself is defined above all by overflowing its meaning–expressively, figuratively, in fact, linguistically (I am inclined, in order to make sense of this option, to conceptually link this idea to how Kant frames at least one strand of his thinking about reflective judgment in the 3rd Critique, where what is significant is that the phenomenon in question–say, beauty–is incapable of being exhausted by conceptual capacities, but it is not thereby non-conceptual or a-conceptual, it is still conceptual, through and through). In this way, I think that this other option is epistemologically realistbut metaphysically anti-realist: there just is no (stable) phenomenon there, but the problem is not with our conceptual capacities, which are working just fine (another way to put this, as Kant does in framing the experience of natural beauty, is that the issues arise because of how the world links up to our conceptual capacities — all of this with the important caveat that this entire discussion is thoroughly un-Kantian, to the extent that he is committed to transcendental idealism).

I have wanted to stress this point for a few reasons:

1. I have done some work on the role of language in relationship to ethics, especially in the work of Emmanuel Levinas and Stanley Cavell (in fact, I’ve got a very lengthy piece on Davidson, Levinas, and Cavell called “On the Ethical Basis of Language” forthcoming on this topic in a special issue of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory edited by Aaron). I find this to be interesting in this context because Levinas is frequently presented as an apophatic thinker (and, of course, elements of this are undeniable in his oeuvre). At the same time, when one explores the connection to Cavell, especially on how they think about language, I think it is interesting to figure out where such an apophaticism is to be located. In Cavell, there are two moments: one is in what he terms “word projection,” where he is describing our ability to project old and current words into new contexts, where such contexts are true forms of novelty, presently inexpressible, but because linked to and dependent for their projection on an entire form of life, capable of being understood, even if entirely new (this theme is present in Levinas, as well as Davidson, as I show). The other is in our inheritance of language altogether. Cavell says this more elegantly and persuasively than I likely could, so I’ll just quote him here:

Language puts us in bonds, that with each word we utter we emit stipulation, agreements we do not know and do not want to know we have entered, agreements we were always in, that were in effect before our participation in them. Our relation to our language—to the fact that we are subject to expression, victims of meaning—is accordingly a key to our sense of our distance from our lives, of our sense of the alien, of ourselves as alien to ourselves, thus alienated (from In Quest of the Ordinaryp. 40).

Cavell is here highlighting the extent to which exactly the form of life in which we are embedded and is responsible for our having language in the first place, is one whose parameters we can never entirely grasp. Our abilities in language cannot be known in advance. In part, this is because they are not entirely up to us: the threat of skepticism is a perpetual worry (of another not understanding me, refusing to understand me, misunderstanding me, or of me misunderstanding myself, just to name a few options).  In another part, because they are themselves historically evolving (and so even more not entirely up to us). We thus feel alien to ourselves, alienated, as Cavell points out. If this might be called an apophaticism, then it seems to revolve around notions of history: the history of the human form of life as well as the language that animates and accompanies it, is one which is forever closed off to us (even despite our best efforts at history and historiography). But if that is the case, then the apophaticism in question is not one tied to our epistemological capacities (more on this shortly–but say now, they’re working just fine) and it is also not tied to any sort of metaphysical realism (history is not the sort of thing that is knowable in this way, its meaning exactly always is incomplete, because the meaning of history depends on how it is understood by us, i.e., on the social, and because it is always underdetermined, leaving out some perspective or other).

2. To highlight this last point, I would mention Walter Benjamin’s work. What’s crucial for Benjamin–speaking from a very high altitude view–is that history is written by one group of people (the victors), but any such history necessarily neglects the (just as important) views of another group (the vanquished). This is one way to understand his critique of Hegel’s procedure (notably in the Phenomenology). Hegel’s historicism is, in many ways, commendable, it allows for the (alleged) solution to many philosophical problems by showing how they are through and through historical, tied to particular places and times. But, as I have argued elsewhere (see the fourth chapter of Autonomy after Auschwitz), there is a reason the book is called the Phenomenology of Spirit, i.e., that its historical second-half is essential to what the book is (it is not, as Hegel’s first title for the book suggested, ‘simply’ A Science of the Experience of Consciousness). But if that is the case, then that history can always be disputed, and therefore the project of the Phenomenology is infinitely capable of problematization (this is one way to situate scholarship which highlights Hegel’s problematic understanding of non-European history and culture). (I should note, though, that as I argue in the aforementioned chapter, I do not believe this impugns Hegel’s project in the Phenomenology, since he never intended it to be complete or totalizing). This problem, though, is not an epistemological one in any plain sense though: our conceptual capacities are capturing history, but they are our conceptual capacities, and there are the capacities of others (working fine themselves), which are also (equally) important to what history is, which is something that is fundamentally incomplete, and also infinitely sedimented (much like language itself). In this way, the problem is something I might term moral or ethical in nature.

3. In this way, to take up some of Aaron’s thoughts and terminology, I’m not sure that anti-realism vs. realism (whether metaphysical or epistemological) are our only options in thinking about apophaticism or negativity. In fact, the option that I want to explore is when the negation in ‘negative theology’ occurs or is spurred by means of something like an ethical or moral orientation, where what drives what we can’t say are such ethical/moral concerns (much in the same way we don’t say certain things in, say, polite company–for a first stab in this context, I cite my presentations this year at the Academy of American Religion and the Society for Contemporary Jewish Philosophy).

Cross-Cultural Playing Field

As part of our project on the varieties of religious understanding, I presented my research at two conferences, in Delhi and Kolkata, in December 2014 and January 2015. The conferences were entitled Languages, Cultures, and Values: East and West and were organized by the Institute of Cross-Cultural Studies and Academic Exchange. The Kolkata conference was specifically focused on philosophy, while the Delhi conference was thematically more open. Both conferences had international scholars, from Europe, America, India, Near and the Middle East, both well-established names in their field as well as upcoming young scholars and graduate students. I am thankful to all of them for a very rewarding experience.

The conferences turned out to be a fantastic playing field for a wide spectrum of East-West interaction. The spectrum was indicative of the identity politics that oscillate between upholding the East-West dichotomy and diffusing it in favor of a more dialogic mutual enrichment. There were various papers juxtaposing Western and Eastern thoughts, ancient and modern, to look at a range of issues, from freedom of will to sustainability, from gender differences to divine unity. It was interesting to observe the occasional passionate defense of Indian traditions vis-a-vis Western ones by various arguments: at times by showing how similar and equal they were to various Western systems or particular Western philosophers’ visions; other times by arguing that they presented better solutions to past and present quandaries; sometimes implying that India had worked out these sophisticated philosophical issues much prior to the West. Sparks flew in the conference room on a couple of occasions, when some argued that women enjoyed a high status in ancient India and that a fair and sound Gurukul system still continues to date. Others refuted these claims as an uncritical glorification of India’s golden past that had been fueling generations of national pride. There were some excellent papers and discussion around cultural values, cultural relativism, and globalization, and how, in the face of such matters, change occurs, ideas evolve, and personal identity is negotiated.

More directly beneficial to my research, many papers discussed a variety of Indian schools (as we all know) of Vedānta, Sāṃkhya, Nyāya, Kaśmir Śaivism, etc, and lamented that the Non-Duality school of Advaita Vedānta often glosses over this variety and is taken to be the representative Indian school, especially in cross-cultural/ Western comparative endeavors. The hermeneutics of German interpretations of “Hinduism” in my research illustrates this fact as well, and it is extremely relevant to how German thinkers conflated kataphatic and apophatic approaches to God in Hinduism. Two sets of related terms were discussed often in the conferences that will prove to be very important for my research going forward: on the one hand Pantheism, Panentheism, Panpsychism along with Substance, Spirit, Pure Consciousness, and the cosmological argument for God’s existence as the uncaused cause and ground of all causal regress of contingencies. Debates in Europe around these concepts filtered and influenced European understanding of Hinduism in the 19th century. And on the other hand, terms such as awareness, knowledge, understanding, apprehension, imagination, and experience of God that would nuance the rational, linguistic, aesthetic, intuitive, or mystical grasp of God and thus reveal the tension between kataphatic and apophatic modes.

All in all, the conferences turned out to be very productive for my further research. But they were also an excellent reminder of ground realities and cultural intricacies with which scholarship and academia run in India.

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.

Mashup Philosophy as a “Task for a Lifetime”: A Conversation with J. Aaron Simmons

An Interview with J. Aaron Simmons

Interviewd by Martin Shuster


1. How did you get interested in philosophy of religion? And how do you understand the role of this sub-discipline within philosophy more broadly? I ask especially because in many Anglophone circles it has fallen into great disrepute being equated essentially with Christian apologia. 

Well, ironically, I got into philosophy of religion largely through such Christian apologetic work, though I have a very different view of such work today than I did when I first started reading it. When I was in graduate school, I realized that my own Christian identity was something that was often viewed as problematic to the life of an intellectual. Much like Martin Heidegger once noted regarding religious belief, some of my professors seemed to indicate that being a Christian academic was simply to start where I was supposed to finish. For them, I was like a lived example of question-begging. Though I agree that religious belief and identity can serve as an obstacle to engaged thinking, I don’t think that religion is somehow distinct in this regard. We all start from somewhere when we ask questions. Indeed, the questions we ask are largely products of such starting points. That said, I remember being very troubled and wondered whether I had to abandon my Christian identity in order to think well. There is certainly no shortage of voices in the academy who would answer in the affirmative. Nonetheless, I figured that I needed to make sense of how that famous relationship between faith and reason, or Jerusalem and Athens, or the soul and the mind, or whatever, was going to play out for me. Continue reading

“Our own moment, grasped in time…” (An Interview with Martin Shuster)

An Interview with Martin Shuster

Interviewed by J. Aaron Simmons


  1. As a philosopher, what interests you about religion?

Is ‘everything’ a possible answer? More seriously, likely because I spent significant time around Hent de Vries, I often tend to think of knowledge in terms of archives. And religion is so interesting, at least to me, because its ‘archive’ is actually far deeper, more dense, and significantly older than the archive of philosophy. Furthermore, I think it is no secret that at times (all times?) the two archives comes to be intertwined (one thinks here quite recently of the variety of work from Charles Taylor to Hent de Vries to Carl Schmitt, as well as something like Anscombe’s wonderful essay, “Modern Moral Philosophy”). The issues animating how philosophy (taken here broadly and stressing especially ethics and social/political philosophy) and religion are and ought to be understood in relation to each other are still very much alive, and if we take a global view of them, they play out, often in dangerous and sad ways across the globe. So, what interests me most about religion as a philosopher is how the religious archive both informs and deforms our projects as agents, whether political, social, aesthetic, or ethical.

Continue reading