I have been feeling somewhat bothered by the fact that my post with the same name from a few days ago was not especially clear–one might even say, badly written. I confess, I wrote it in haste! But there is an idea in it which I wanted to express, so I’m going to try it again. This time more straightforwardly.
After now ten years spent in the context of higher education (particularly in the fields of continental philosophy, theology, and religion), I am left with the impression–and it is at this stage only an impression, not something which I have researched and am prepared to demonstrate, but nevertheless a persistent impression–that a certain kind of critical thinking has become hegemonic.
The particular sort of critical thinking that I have in mind exhibits a complicated relationship with Kant’s Critiques and what they represent: namely, a very sophisticated form of modern skepticism, objectification, or suspension (epoche), for which he is obviously not the only representative. This bracketing procedure can approximate a certain kind of nihilism. Because everything would seem to be, as far as we know it, determined by the conditions of transcendental consciousness, everything has, to some significant extent, lost its gravity, its credibility, its affirmability (for lack of a better word). However, many thinkers who have come after Kant have subjected his own critical work to a further critique. His transcendental approach was too naive, precisely because it neglected or concealed many of the conditions for its own possibility: history, culture, power, language, flesh, environment, etc. But if Kant’s critique destabilizes a positive and meaningful sense of the whole, the mode of critique which has sought to move beyond Kant (a mode which one might call “meta-transcendental” or “postmodern”) has seemed, at times, only to increase the threat of some sort of implicit nihilism. I acknowledge that this tradition can be interpreted in another way, as seeking to retrieve or rediscover sources of meaning which modern transcendental reason excludes. But what I am concerned with here is its critical aspect, which is often salient, and which departs from Kant only while amplifying the intellectually elite negation of the whole which is expressed powerfully in his work.
My point is that much contemporary critique gives me the impression that we are still embedded in a kind of Kantian danger. The message of academic discourse is still, basically, that everything is suspect, unreliable, already invalidated by a critical awareness of the conditions for its possibility.
Given this state of affairs, I would not want to advocate an end of critique but rather a more concerted effort to articulate a positive context which is larger and more powerful than the critique itself. It seems to me that, without this effort, the intellectual life becomes a kind of badly infinite “gotcha” game, in which the goal is to pull the rug out from one another, to reveal with ever greater acuity the depths of another’s unacknowledged naivete and implicit culpability. To put the point more positively, we need to try to answer questions like: What is not illusory? What is it that we are attempting to protect by means of critique? What ultimately warrants our allegiance, our fidelity, our affirmation, our praise? It is for this reason that I want to suggest precisely theological praise as a point of departure for reflection concerning the bases for saying “yes” definitively and, therefore, for saying “no” in a localized and meaningful way. Even Qoheleth, who sees the world and declares “vanity of vanities!” does not make this critique in the absence of God but rather in recognition of God’s glory.
Kant exemplifies, and thereby verifies, the following claim: modernity is an age of critique. In what sense is “critique” characteristic of this age? There can be no doubt that negation is not a modern invention. To say “no” and, moreover, to show or explain why “no” must be said in this or that circumstance is an act for which humanity has had the competence since time immemorial. But to say “no” to the whole, to all things, and with reasons for doing so? Even this radical negation finds a certain kind of precedent in the ancient words of Qoheleth. And yet, it is the modern epoch that one calls “critical.”
Why? Because there are hardly grounds any longer on which to say “yes” and, therefore, to say “no” in a believable, trustworthy way. These grounds have been invalidated by a style of critique which one recognizes as “transcendental,” i.e., as implicating consciousness as such. Because they must be doubted (Descartes), or at least objectified (Kant and, maybe, Husserl), the bases for our thought and action have been thoroughly jeopardized as bases. The explicitly transcendental project was, of course, far too naive. It, too, has been invalidated by a sense that every act of consciousness–if one can even speak this way anymore–is localized in history, culture, language, power, flesh, environment, etc. The now prevalent judgment against transcendental reason of the Kantian type exhibits a meta-transcendental character. One is obliged to hold that the conditions for the possibility of thinking (like Kant) about the conditions for the possibility of consciousness are universally and necessarily history, culture, language, power, flesh, environment, etc. and, simultaneously, their concealment. In short, to attempt what Kant attempts, one must suffer from illusion or be engaged in some kind of self-deception. Such is the central tenet of critical theory and postmodernity, of various sorts. Its elaboration is always almost (but perhaps not quite) a performative contradiction. In other words, one may very quickly find oneself accused of something very much like the sort of illusion which one imputes to another.
Now, the following analysis may seem exaggerated, but I think there is some truth in it. Having been deeply informed by these traditions, the academy currently finds itself in what might be called “critical condition.” As soon as one begins to speak positively about something; begins to propose an idea; begins to invest in a particular form of life; begins thereby to shift power in this or that direction; begins, in all these ways, to cultivate a philosophy, a theology, a culture, a people, a vision for the future–there are immediately countless meta-transcendental critiques which can and must be made. Implicit in any position will be an infinite debt to a particularizing, destabilizing, and delegitimizing background of uncertainty, violence, chaos, oppression, absurdity, vanity.
The problem is that, when one points this out, or constantly feels the need to point it out, or makes only this sort of remark lest someone else make it about one’s own work (which might happen in any case), all that is empowered is the meta-transcendental critique itself. Everyone is made to circulate its power and to wield it, with the result that everything comes to seem already negated as though by an a priori collective judgment. Everything is potentially illusory. But this means, paradoxically, that everything is affirmed weakly, surreptitiously, obscurely, inconsistently. At least, this is the practical consequence. After all, life must go on; people will believe this or that about the whole of reality and actually seek to live by it; no words of a critical academic will deter this natural mode of human being; and, in any case, the suspension demanded by the current form of the postmodern epoche is not sustainable even for the thinkers themselves, in their own lives. And so everyone is left without anything positive to contemplate and, therefore, with a (perhaps highly cultured) sense of indifference or apathy. Because no one will have the courage to say “yes” to a course of thought which seems promising, fruitful, or edifying, the effective message will be that it matters little what one thinks. Meta-transcendental critique, having become all-powerful, will empower nothing and no one. Worst of all, many will not have been empowered to stand their ground when it is really necessary, precisely at the decisive moment when “no” must be said with one’s full heart, with everything on the line, in order to defend something which we have forgotten how to articulate and which we no longer even attempt to specify.
Hope lies in the attempt to offer something positive, a genuine possibility, to others, however troubled may be its already and inevitably grave preconditions. It seems that the intellectual life, in order to remain worthy of the name, must seek to shed light in this direction. If one can, perhaps, begin to praise God even in the world’s distress, one can perhaps begin to think also through the implications of this praise.
Has this been an argument for uncritical thinking (if there is such a thing)? Let me say, in conclusion: no.
I wonder if it would be fair to divide all concepts of freedom into two basic kinds—call them, to use Hegel’s terms, abstract freedom and determinate freedom. The former defines freedom over against all conceivable restraints, while the latter defines freedom within those constraints taken as essential to the being whose freedom is at issue.
On Hegel’s estimation, Kant advocated an abstract idea of freedom: human freedom was understood as precisely the discontinuity between human choice and natural causality, as arbitrariness. Hegel granted that this was true abstractly, but insisted that freedom couldn’t be identified with its abstract side alone because as such it never exists—human freedom needed to be identified, instead, with concrete self-determination in given circumstances. This meant that human freedom included contingency and dependence as part of its own definition. This is determinate freedom.
I’ve been reading Shawn Copeland’s Enfleshing Freedom lately (which I promise to review soon), which argues among other things that determinate bodies—and particularly bodies of enslaved black women—need to be taken as a condition for the thought of freedom. The effect of this condition is that freedom is seen as the historical realization of bodily, psychic, and social integrity among human beings, a decidedly determinate form of freedom, rather than the position of someone like Karl Rahner who identifies human freedom as our transcendental openness to being as such. Bodiliness and all the limitations that it entails are worked into the definition of freedom itself, without the sense that freedom is somehow “less free” on account of that determination. Or take as another example the difference between Hobbes and Rousseau. For Hobbes, freedom exists where law is absent, and so human beings are only truly free before they establish the social contract. For Rousseau, on the other hand, the law is conceptually included in a definition of human freedom, such that the achievement of real freedom necessarily involves the existence of a certain kind of law.
Is it true that this constitutes a kind of fundamental option in one’s thinking about freedom?
Does Kant have anything to teach us about the unity of contemplation and action? One might doubt it, given the wedge which he drives between theoretical and practical reason. And yet, within the practical domain, he m have some important things to say. In particular, I’m concerned with his account of contemplative prayer and how it relates to his theory of moral agency.
In the fourth “General Observation” of his Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (Harper, 1960; originally 1793), Kant briefly discusses prayer as one of four “means of grace” (the others are church-going, initiation, and communion). Means of grace are, in turn, one of three kinds of “illusory faith that involve the possibility of our overstepping the bounds of our reason in the direction of the supernatural” (the others are beliefs in miracles and mysteries) (182).
In view of these categorizations, one might expect Kant to say that prayer as such is an action pointing beyond the realm of pure reason and therefore wholly illusory. Interestingly, this is not what he says. Rather, he distinguishes two sorts of prayer. One sort, which Kant calls “verbal prayer,” can be a dangerous “superstitious illusion (a fetish-making); for it is no more than a stated wish directed to a Being who needs no such information regarding the inner disposition of the wisher; therefore, nothing is accomplished by it, and it discharges none of the duties to which, as commands of God, we are obligated” (183). And yet, even this dangerous form of prayer as verbal address is good for children who need it to acquire an idea of God (186) and for some adults who need the spoken word as a kind of temporary crutch, helping them to reach the true moral disposition (185).
The other sort of prayer is something occuring within. Kant calls it “the spirit of prayer, which can, and should, be present in us ‘without ceasing'” (183). This spirit of prayer captures the core experience of reflective faith which Kant believes is the basis for moral religion. One finds in this form of inner prayer, for which Jesus’ teaching provides the model, “nothing but the resolution to good life-conduct which, taken with the consciousness of our frailty, carries with it the persistent desire to be a worthy member in the kingdom of God” (183). Such prayer contains “no actual request for something which God in His wisdom might well refuse us” (183). Even when the “Our Father” asks God for daily or superessential bread, this, in Kant’s eyes, is “more a confession of what nature in us demands than a special deliberate request for what the man [in us] wills” (184). Moreover, there is nothing in the spirit of prayer which addresses God, attempts to work upon God, or even presupposes God’s existence or presence; rather “the man” [sic] who abides in the spirit of prayer only “adopts an attitude (even inwardly) as though he were convinced of [God’s] presence” (183).
My take on this is mixed. On the one hand, there are many things to critique: (1) the false separation of verbal and spiritual prayer, which no serious thinker today could formulate so dichotomously; (2) the regulative “as though,” which disallows, it would seem, sincere faith in the presence of God, and for what reason?; and (3) the flimsy rejection of prayer in the mode of address based upon a doctrine of divine omniscience, which overlooks the consensus in the Christian tradition that prayer is not meant to give God information. On the other hand, despite the rationalism of his age (which he fosters and exemplifies) and the correlative suspicion of pietism, Kant nevertheless manages to distill a certain essential connection not only between contemplation and action (taken abstractly) but more specifically between contemplative prayer and the moral disposition which leads to good action grounded in good reasoning. The other problems aside, Kant may actually be a resource for thinking through the idea that the spirit of prayer–more adequately conceived (1) as inclusive of voice, (2) as sincerely affirming the mysterious presence of God, and (3) as a real address whose goal is nevertheless not to give information–has a lot to do with the struggle for moral agency in the modern world (for which Kant, despite–or rather because of the endless criticism–remains a touchstone).