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.