Milank_OnlyTheology.. - The Centre of Theology and Philosophy

By Kimberly Butler,2014-04-26 23:22
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Milank_OnlyTheology.. - The Centre of Theology and Philosophy


     1Only Theology saves Metaphysics: on the Modalities of Terror.

John Milbank

1. The end of the end of metaphysics

    The 20thC, on one characterisation, might be regarded as the age of the anti-metaphysical. Analytic philosophy initially sought to show that metaphysical speculation, and the invention of metaphysical entities, was based on logical and linguistic confusion. Phenomenology, for its part, claimed to displace ontology with a strict science of appearances. In either case, a claim was made to be able to establish certain finite bounds of the knowable, whether in terms of transcendental categories of meaning, or else transcendental categories of the fundamental kinds of things that can be shown to us. Certain ethical hopes were invested in this enterprise: if there can be a consensus around the nature of the limits of our understanding, then perhaps a certain chastened human solidarity should result. From henceforwards human beings would pursue together what can be pursued and not seek through reason the ineffable. Since such a quest is impossible, it is all too likely to engender cruel dissent and finally bloodshed.

     1 This title deliberately inverts that of my earlier essay ‘Only theology overcomes metaphysics’ in John Milbank, The Word Made Strange (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 36-55. However, this denotes no change

    of heart. The ‘metaphysics’ that is overcome in the former piece, is the onto-theological science of

    transcendental ontology that has prevailed at least since Suarez. The ‘metaphysics’ that is saved in the present piece is the perennial ‘realism’ that lasted from Plato to Aquinas and then was reworked by Eckhart and Cusanus. Here, characteristically, being is not a transcendental framework that includes even the divine; rather being and God are identified as the transcendent source in which all else participates.


    Of course, the history of the 20thC was in part one of unparallelled state terror, of unbridled economic, international and inter-ethnic conflict. But this is naturally no proof that the anti-metaphysical endeavour was in any way the cause of these things, nor even that it was an impotent salve in the face of such violence. To the contrary, one could claim that the mood of sober finitism which prevailed in 20thC philosophy was intended in part to counteract ideologies which stemmed from 19thC idealist narratives about the necessary direction of history, but much more from positivist ideas about a new era in which physical science would support metaphysics by usurping its role and providing a new, scientific, all-encompassing world-view. From this perspective, one can see Marxism as a Comtianism of the left, and Fascism as a Comtianism of the right.

    Despite the complicity of many famous 20thC philosophers in fostering these naturalistic ideologies, one could argue that, by and large, 20thC philosophy in both its major currents was as adverse to naturalistic reduction as it was to metaphysical or quasi-religious speculation. This is shown, above all, in Frege and Husserl’s shared

    refusal of psychologism, or the view that the supposedly objective ‘reasoning’ carried out by ‘mental process’ is merely an epiphenomenon of the contingent physical

    2operations of the brain of the human animal organism.

    Perhaps, in consequence, the overwhelming mood of 20thC philosophy was neither

    3atheism nor religiosity but rather agnosticism. Indeed one could claim that it was just

    this agnosticism which distinguished it from 19thC philosophy. This was exhibited in

     2 See Martin Kusch, Psychologism: a case study in the sociology of psychological knowledge (London:

    Routledge, 1995) 3 This is asserted by Quentin Meillassoux in his Après la finitude: essai sur la nécessité de la

    contingence (Paris: Seuil, 2006) 39-69


    two ways: the one philosophical, the other religious in tone. Philosophically it was shown by what Quentin Meillassoux calls ‘correlationism’. For this perspective, the non speculative-idealist view that our thought is indeed about a world external to us is balanced by an equal stress that the only world we know is the world as it is known to

    4 (Of course there are many exceptions to this, but as a generalisation it holds good.) us.

    The overall tone of 20thC philosophy was Kantian in the sense that epistemology not ontology dominated, but an epistemology of a quasi-realist bent. Dogmatism about how the world is in itself was largely eschewed, but likewise eschewed was any hypostasisation of human thinking-processes themselves.

    Such a philosophical agnosticism encourages also a religious agnosticism. And here Wittgenstein was not atypical but rather representative in suggesting that there may well be a realm of mystery that can disclose itself to an awareness in excess of the rational. In social and political terms this view did not favour the intrusion of the religious into the public and political realm, governed by norms of free, open, rational discourse, but it did favour a respectful tolerance of private belief, and even, in Wittgenstein’s case, a sense of the importance of a religious social space of ritual and collective ethical activity. Again, Meillassoux is not without warrant in speaking of a new sort of ‘plural fideism’ here, still linked, as are all fideisms, with a certain measure of rational scepticism. However, this is no longer the committed fideism of, say, Pierre Bayle in the past totally sceptical and indeed almost nihilistic by dint of his reasonings, committed Huguenot in Dutch exile by bent of his faith. This is now rather a more general formal recognition of the validity of faith as an idiom a kind

    of faith in faith, if you like. Hence one has a general rational acknowledgement of the

     4 Meillassoux, 13-111


    possibility of many approaches to the one mystery, or else of a myriad private modes of access to rival mysteries.

    One could contend, by contrast, as I have already suggested, that the terror of the 20thC in fact sprang from a 19thC hangover: from the persisting influence of idealist

     and so from both metaphysical speculation and also from and positivist ideologies

    an unwarranted scientistic claim to take the place of this speculation. From such a viewpoint, 1990 saw the final defeat of a certain reading of Hegel, besides the defeat of Marx, Comte and Spencer. The twin agnostic thrust of both phenomenology and analysis could be regarded as entirely in keeping with this moment. Hence the reputations of Frege, Wittgenstein, Husserl and even Heidegger (despite everything) naturally survived it. Thus it might be argued that the final arrival of a post-ideological era was fully in keeping with the anti-metaphysical thrust of 20thC philosophy.

    I hasten to say that I regard this verdict as an overstatement, but, for the moment, let it stand.

    As we now know, the end of history lasted, if that is not an oxymoron, for about eleven years. Since 9/11 we have been confronted with the apparent displacement of ideological terror by religious terror, whether perpetrated by small groups or by nation states. (Or at least we can speak of state and anti-state terror that is in part propelled by religious belief.)


    In the face of this situation, Quentin Meillassoux argues that we should become less sanguine about the anti-metaphysical and ‘correlational’ character of 20thC

    philosophy. Is its modest, bounded humanism really as bland as it seems? Or does the self-limiting abjuration of the speculative tend to leave the field free for the voices of religious fanatics, whose rival claims a plural fideism is powerless to adjudicate? It is all very well for philosophy to foreswear any talk about ultimate reality, final truth and the nature of the good, but are there not social exigencies which tend inevitably to require at least implicit collective stances on these matters? Where reason has retreated, there, it seems, faith has now rushed in, often with violent consequences.

    So if Meillassoux is right, the contemporary ‘return of religion’ is not evidence of either atavism or recidivism. Rather, we are talking about a fideism that is the inevitable complement of a modern, post-Kantian rationalism. And to Meillassoux one needs to add, I think, a further point. This is that the ‘modesty’ of modern epistemology can, of itself, be a source of terror. For in a neo-liberal world, where there is only consensus as to formal procedures which promote narrowly-defined utilitarian benefit combined with negative freedom of choice, all positive preferences, including fideistic ones, have to be simultaneously encouraged and yet severely policed if they are not to invade the rights of others. For plural fideism is inherently unstable by insisting that the public sphere lie under the governance of

    transcendental reason, one cannot rule out the claims of religious belief, and yet these same claims, in their traditional forms, are most unlikely to accept their exclusion from the public forum, since their faith-perspectives include strong views as to how this realm should be both constituted and conducted.


    Hence the more anti-metaphysical modernity encourages pure faith, the more it must also rein back its socio-political intrusions through the deployment of excessive policing; the more also it must strictly confine the public realm to the procedural and the pragmatically measurable. But the more it seeks to do these things, the more it must perforce generate a new sort of liberal totalitarianism involving constant surveillance and ever-more exhaustive indexing and categorising of all citizens and all their activities.

    There are, therefore, some good reasons for now being concerned about a style of philosophy which eschews the business of trying to determine the ultimate categories

     to put it of being (or of reality) and the fundamental ways in which they may be said

    in Aristotelian terms. Is it simply enough, by contrast, to try to determine merely the ultimate presuppositions of our human mode of thinking about the world and of living within it? For this can still leave the way open to a species-relativism which brackets the questions of an objective truth and goodness and thereby leaves them to be answered by the assertions of irrational cults. Do we not after all need a public rational discourse about substantive truth, goodness and beauty which will rescue these universal and necessary concerns from the hands of fanaticism?

    Were this perception to take hold (and perhaps it is already beginning to do so), then

    stthit is possible that 21 C philosophy will revert to something more like a 19 C battle

    between naturalism on the one hand and more religiously-inclined speculations on the other.


    But it is not precisely the case that we face the prospect of a new ‘return of metaphysics’. For it is now time to qualify certain statements made above. The substitution of epistemology for metaphysics could itself sometimes bend back into the metaphysical. So, for example, in the case of both Russell and the early Wittgenstein, logical atomism became the basis for an ontology which could declare that ‘the world is everything that is the case’. And Heidegger’s relation to Husserl essentially repeated Hegel’s relation to Kant. The latter (to oversimplify) restricted valid theoretical philosophy to a listing of the fundamental modes under which we can know; Hegel turned this critique of speculation into a new sort of speculation by giving ontologically absolute status to the human process of knowing and its historical unfolding. Somewhat similarly, Husserl restricted philosophical knowledge to the exploration of the fundamental modes of givenness in appearance; Heidegger later turned the givenness of being to problematic human awareness and practice (Dasein)

    into a disclosure, again unfolding through history, of Being itself.

    At times, therefore, in 20thC thought, agnosticism was somewhat breached, by hypostasising the epistemological. In both the two cases cited however, it was at the same time confirmed. Wittgenstein offered a purely immanent ontology which still reserved ‘the mystical’; Heidegger, while mostly plundering and usurping

    5(dishonestly) the theological legacy, in order to articulate a new sort of quasi-

    religious ontology of his own, nevertheless left open a Lutheran space for a positive discourse of revelation that might possibly break through the field of ‘being in general’.

     5 See, for example Phillipe Capelle, ‘Heidegger, lecteur de Saint Augustin’ in Finitude et Mystère

    (Paris: Cerf, 2005), 155-68


    And in both cases one appears to have a speculative excess which exceeds the inherent scope of either the logical or the phenomenological, respectively -- how can the discourse of what there can be pronounce on what there most fundamentally is? How can the discourse of the modes of appearance say how being itself ineluctably appears to us, much less what being in itself may be?

    So one is left after all with a confirmation of the anti-metaphysical agnostic character

    thof 20 thought . But for the reasons we have seen, should not this idiom be questioned in the face of religious and neo-liberal violence both the terror of pure

    faith and the terror of pure reason, whose collusional purity agnosticism helps to promote and preserve? Should not both its correlationism and its encouragement of

    6plural fideism be called into question.

    However, the agnosticism of 20thC thought, as we have seen, charted a mid-course between naturalism and religious speculation. So it would seem that if one questions it, then one must veer either to the left or to the right. And there is considerable evidence that this is already happening. One reaction, in part, to (understandable) fear of neo-religiosity is to espouse again a scientism of the Dawkins of Hawkings variety where, essentially, science itself does the work of metaphysics and offers a comprehensive vision of all of reality. A large public readership for difficult works expounding such views suggests that this scientism fulfils an immense social and psychological need. Meanwhile, within philosophy itself there are many endorsements of this physicalism or else what one might describe as expositions of a kind of ‘neo-pythagoreanism’. By

    this I mean the view that that the only categories of the real presupposed by the

     6 This question can be seen as also in the spirit of Pope Benedict’s Regensburg address.


    physical sciences are those of mathematics: physical reality is then regarded as the aleatory instantiation of pre-existing mathematical possibilities. At times Quine seemed to suggest that mathematics itself supplied an ontology; much more recently, in terms of a philosophy that somewhat bridges the analytic/continental divide, Alain Badiou has attempted to present set theory as an ontology, and category theory as the

    7 Badiou’s link between the ontological ground and the realm of actual appearances.political alliances are specifically Marxist and Maoist, and his tolerance for revolutionary terror as a temporary measure of the State leave one fearful that his mode of evading an agnosticism that colludes with fideistic violence merely passes one back into the arms of an equally dangerous naturalistic ideology.

    For all that, Badiou and his follower (in some measure) Meillassoux make two important points about the post-Kantian metaphysical legacy which broadly run in favour of the pre-Kantian and yet already modern metaphysical approaches of Galileo, Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz. The first point is Badiou’s: Kant’s (and later

    Wittgenstein’s) finitism is at variance with the specifically modern discovery of the immanence of the infinite with Cusanus, the primacy of the infinite (over the finite) with Descartes, the calculability of infinite quantities with Leibniz and finally the plurality and non-totality of the infinite with Cantor (who, as Badiou points out, was

    8in many ways a Thomistic philosopher and theologian). For this reason, it is not that

    a speculative use of mathematics by philosophy is arbitrary; it is rather that mathematics has itself made a controlled speculation about the infinite newly possible. (One can agree with Badiou about the primacy of the infinite while still insisting that Nicholas of Cusa’s more ‘negative’ understanding of this priority – the infinite is

     7 Alain Badiou, Being and Event trans Oliver Feltham (London: Continuum 2005); Logiques des

    Mondes: L’être et l’événement, 2 (Paris: Seuil, 2006)


    projected by us as in-finite, is preferable to the Scotist-Cartesian tendency to say that we can grasp infinity ‘clearly and distinctly’ as a ‘positive’ notion, even if we cannot

    fully comprehend it.)

    9The second point is Meillassoux’s, in part after Jean-René Vernes. Ever since

    Galileo and Descartes, and still more since Darwin, modern science has presumed to speak of the way that physical reality really is, in itself, independently of human observation. But the post Kantian ‘correlationist’ view, which transcendentally restricts us to talk about how the world is for us only, is again at variance with this. One can add here, that this is based in Kant upon a wholly dubious claim to be able to intuit a priori extra-logical necessities (the doctrine of a priori synthesis). Without

    this claim, the Kantian ‘middle’ of critical idealism is surely derailed.

    This second point, however, is not as clearly defensible as the first. Surely Meillassoux exaggerates his case, by playing down the role of the divine observer in Galileo and Descartes, as guaranteeing the objectivity of external reality. Moreover his supporting claim that correlationism especially breaks down with relation to the non-human past seems entirely doubtful. Why do evolutionary theories as developed by strictly scientific techniques of tested hypothesis (insofar as such theories do, indeed, respect such protocols) necessarily imply the strongest mode of realism as Meillassoux avers? Surely they only require the minimum philosophical assertion that they establish (approximately) how the pre-human natural world would have appeared to human beings had they been present to observe it?

     9 Jean-René Vernes, Critique de la Raison Aleatoire ou Descartes contre Kant (Paris: Aubier

    Montagne, 1982)

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