What Would Kant Say?

Kant famously put strictures on metaphysical speculation. Sometimes it sounded as if he intended to abolish metaphysics altogether, but I think his actual intent was a reform. What would he say about my recent dwelling on medieval debates about omnipotence? Perhaps the most obvious answer is that these all involve unknowable claims. But this might be proceeding too hastily. It was actually a tangent in a post on Kant’s notion of moral faith that got me thinking again about the first volume of Gwenaëlle Aubry’s “archaeology”, which led to my discovery of her second volume.

Aubry suggests that for Peter Abelard, actual good ethics are the most important thing in religion, more important than professing adherence to revelation. I think Kant would have been profoundly sympathetic to the broad spirit of this. Abelard seems to have held that ethical reason and revelation, properly understood, teach us the very same lessons. His faith was a moral faith, not the kind that claims to be a superior knowledge. Granted that saying is a special kind of doing and that what we say in life has a deep ethical importance of its own, it is still true that what we actually do in the general sense counts for more than what we say or profess.

Enlightenment, Faith

It is easy to denounce superstition. Such denunciations were a common trope of the 18th century Enlightenment. Hegel took a more radical approach, defining what is commonly translated as “revealed” religion in terms of an openness and availability to all, in contrast to supposedly esoteric content available only to a few. In a later section Harris says “It is a mistake to call this final phase of Religion ‘revealed’ (as the English translators both do). It is not geoffenbart but offenbar — not ‘revealed’ but ‘out in the open’ or ‘manifest'” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 649).

Hegel effectively separated this openness and availability from any proto-fundamentalist claims of unconditional supernatural givenness. Nonetheless, he was deeply convinced of the importance of spiritual values and the recognition of something greater than our individual selves. He was sharply critical of those who would reduce all religion to superstition, and of D’Holbach’s talk of a conspiracy of priests and kings against the rest of us.

The Faith to which Hegel gives a positive sense really has nothing to do with belief in certain assertions as historical fact. (One might even argue that to put revelation on the plane of historical fact is to mistakenly give it a worldly rather than spiritual interpretation.) As Harris puts it in his commentary, “The ‘world’ of Faith is a world not of things, but of conscious interpretive processes” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 349). Faith has to do with how we actively respond to situations.

What Hegel would call the “truth” of Enlightenment is a vindication of the positive value of life in this actual world, as against its denial in favor of an otherworldly Beyond. Everything about what is greater than us should be interpreted in terms of how we ought to act here in this actual world.

Ricoeur on History

Having just treated Ricoeur’s views on historiography at a semi-technical level, and having just received a copy of his collection of essays History and Truth (French ed. 1955), I think this less technical earlier work, roughly contemporary with Freedom and Nature, merits a digression. It gives broad expression to his desire to mediate and reconcile, as well as more specific voice to his personal views on religion and politics.

At this stage, history for Ricoeur particularly meant two special kinds of history — the history of philosophy, and the historical dimension of Christian revelation.

The kind of history of philosophy he wanted to practice would not involve treating views of philosophers as instantiations of generic types of views, but rather treating each philosopher as a singularity. He argues that good history in general is largely concerned with singulars. I would agree on both points. There is a precursor to his later argument about the mediating role of singular causal imputation, and one of the essays begins with the wonderful quote from Spinoza that to better know singulars is to better know God.

In contrast to adherents of philosophical “systems” who would reduce the history of philosophy to moments in a monolithic “philosophy of history” subordinated to a system, he poses the idea of a simultaneously sympathetic and critical account of irreducibly multiple, integral philosophies. Philosophical “problems”, he says, do not eternally have the same meaning.

I find this very admirable, even though Ricoeur at this stage sounds like he uncritically accepted a Kierkegaardian view of Hegel as the bad “systematic” philosopher of history par excellence, whereas I follow more recent readings of Hegel as a leading critic of that sort of thing. On the other hand, he very correctly points out how Hegel reduced away Spinoza’s genuine concern for subjectivity.

Somewhat circumspectly, he suggests that a Christian notion of revelatory events in history creates something like a surplus of meaning that acts as a safeguard against totalizing views of history. I’m generally very nervous about claims of revelation, as revelation is often regarded as an unchallengeable knowledge with self-evident interpretation. Arrogant humans too often claim to just know the will of God, and want to impose their certainty on others. This has nothing to do with piety, and certainly does not reflect any humility or respect for mystery. The idea of a surplus of meaning on the other hand is precisely not a claim to “just know” that meaning.

Ricoeur’s idea of an inexhaustible “surplus” of meaning exceeding any interpretation has been criticized as implying that the meaning then must be predetermined on some virtual level, but that objection seems artificial to me, because Ricoeur’s idea is an acknowledgement of lack of knowledge rather than a knowledge claim. The inexhaustible surplus seems to me to be a less “metaphysical” analogue of the neoplatonic notion that ultimate principles are “supra-essential” and therefore beyond the grasp of rigorous knowledge but only hinted at in symbols, which I think actually reflected a kind of epistemic modesty. This seems to me no more objectionable than Kant’s notion of things in themselves as exceeding our knowledge.

As in the later discussion in Time and Narrative, he ambivalently develops a notion of historical objectivity and truth. On the one hand, he finds the quest for this both necessary and admirable, but on the other he worries that the truth of the historian abolishes both history as grounded in subjective consciousness, and the eschatology associated with revelation. Ricoeur wants to make room for personal faith, without compromising the autonomy of philosophy by asserting its subordination to revealed theology. He advocates for historical objectivity, but remains wary of any objectifying reduction of human or spiritual realities. The antidote to objectification is Marcelian mystery, and a recognition of ambiguity that he associates with faith. Ultimately, he wants to promote hope.

The later, even more nuanced discussion in Time and Narrative carefully weakens this work’s apparent claims on behalf of subjective consciousness, but here too, there is considerable subtlety.

In contrast to Sartre’s identification of freedom with negativity and nothingness, he wants to emphasize the primacy of affirmation. In contrast to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception, he says he wants to emphasize the primacy of a phenomenology of signification and meaning like that developed in Husserl’s early Logical Investigations. Ricoeur already thinks it is an error to treat human perception as if it could be separated from our involvement in language.

One essay is a tribute to Emmanuel Mounier, to whose journal Esprit he was a frequent contributor. Mounier’s “personalist” movement aimed at a new pedagogy to combat modern alienation, combining Christianity and a concern for the individual with a sort of democratic socialism. Another piece deals with nonviolence, and another contrasts Christian Agape with the “punitive violence of the magistrate” (p. 240).

Political power, Ricoeur says, is eminently prone to evil. Utopian belief in the future withering away of the state allowed many to justify a disregard for terrible abuses in the present, while the “false truth” of fascism was morally far worse. Clerical power is as dangerous as political power. “[T]he religious totality and the political totality are genuine totalities of our existence. This is why they are the two greatest temptations for the spirit of falsehood, the lapse from the total to the totalitarian” (p. 189). Ricoeur says that “the Christian has everything to learn from the critique of power elaborated by classical ‘liberal’ thought from Locke to Montesquieu, by the ‘anarchist’ thought of Bakunin, by those who supported the [Paris Commune of 1870], and by the non-Stalinist Marxists” (p. 117).

Strong Omnipotence

The Greek-speaking Jewish theologian Philo of Alexandria (1st century BCE to 1st CE) was perhaps the original antiphilosopher. That is to say, he used some philosophical ideas with learning and sophistication, but was unequivocally hostile to the autonomy of reason, which was something of a commonplace among the Greek philosophers.

For Philo, any equivalent of ethical virtue seems to come exclusively from faith in the revelation of the Greek Old Testament, taken as the literal word of God. To me, this sounds like an unfortunate precursor to today’s fundamentalisms, which ignore all sounder theology, and preclude the very possibility of genuine ethics. Where there is no allowance for virtue independent of one-sided authority, it may become all too permissible to hate whomever is called an unbeliever or heretic. Many other theologians have been far less one-sided, allowing for at least a relative autonomy of reason, and a possibility of genuine virtue independent of sheer obedience to presumed dictates of revelation. With them, a moral philosopher can find common ground.

Philo may have originated the suggestion that Platonic ideas exist in the mind of an omnipotent God. An emphatic supernaturalist, he defended creation from nothing, grounded in an ultra-strong version of divine omnipotence. On this view, God has absolute liberty, and thus can do absolutely any absolutely arbitrary thing at any time, as with the later Islamic occasionalists. Philo explicitly contrasted this view with those of all the Greek philosophers and those influenced by them, who at the very least would expect God to act in ways that are genuinely reasonable and good, and thus put reason and goodness before any will. Unlike the God of Aquinas, for instance, the God of Philo is even supposed to be able to do logically impossible things if he so wills. This is extreme theological voluntarism.

Philonic strong omnipotence is precisely the kind of thing Leibniz later said would make of God an arbitrary tyrant, with disastrous ethical and social consequences. Notions of divine will tacitly assumed to be known with certainty by human authority, and not subject to any inquiry go against the whole better tradition of faith seeking understanding, and make it all too easy to mask hate in the name of supposed holiness.

In all three of the major monotheistic traditions, this dangerous kind of voluntarism has been applied by some to God. Some have gone on to attribute similar supernatural free will to humans as well, on the ground that they are made in the image of a God that has that kind of completely unconstrained freedom. This is using bad theology to justify bad anthropology. As anthropology, it is what Hegel called the illusion of Mastery. Some bad philosophers have simply postulated a similar completely unconstrained “negative” freedom or “freedom of indifference” for humans, without even a pretended explanation of how this could be. (See also Freedom and Free Will.)

My main source for statements about Philo here is the actually sympathetic essay by Harry Austryn Wolfson, in his book Religious Philosophy: A Group of Essays (1961). I always thought of Wolfson as a Spinoza scholar, but Wikipedia says he is actually best known for another, larger work on Philo. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a nice summary of current Philo scholarship. (See also Fragility of the Good; Theology.)