Secularism, Immanence, and the Philosophy of Religion

“We could say that the production of an end belongs to signification. Immanence itself is atelic, but the impossibility of escaping signification is simultaneously the impossibility of not producing ends (even though these ends may be revisable).” Daniel Coluccciello Barber, Chapter 7, p. 166 in ‘After the Postsecular and the Postmodern: New Essays in Continental Philosophy of Religion.’ edited by Anthony Paul Smith & Daniel Whistler, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010.

The great joy of being a non-academic is that one can compensate for the knowledge of never going to be discovered as an original thinker with the presumption of being an auto-didact who continually discovers original thought. There is a sense in which it is unavoidable to accept the challenge for giving ‘meaning’ to life, for providing either ‘a purpose’, or ‘a ground; in fine a sense in which it is unavoidable to turn to the religious. Being an auto-didact I can credibly maintain I so turned irrespective of the goings-on in the world of serious academics; having turned to the book quoted then is just sheer good luck.

But let me turn to the quote: It is a bit odd to say, in a way, that everything is without an end but that at the same time ends are unavoidable (I do – by the way – believe that the quote should be correct to read that ‘these ends must be revisable’ because if there is the potential of one end that need not be revised then there at least can be an end to everything). Odd but enlightening in the typical ‘Continental’ way. When one would merely say: ‘Things are arranged such that it is impossible not to ask the question about their purpose, or meaning( &tc, & so forth), even knowing that there is no final answer to that question.’ – one would alleviate the feeling of paradox that is associated to a certain existential Angst (or whatever one wants to call it); and there is no doubt that capturing that existential feeling adds reality value to the statement.

There is however, for all of the reward that may lie in a certain paradoxical mysticism, a risk here. Indeed, the insight as to the inescapability of ends and the impossibility of articulating final ends is easily lost in new transcendence where one at least ‘has to ask the question of end’ or ‘where one at least has to be inspired by certain ends’ or, just to give more concrete an example, ‘where there is an initial and an end state imaginable that are blissful in having transcended needs to ask such questions.’ The risk is that – realizing there is no end – one religiously feels a duty to at least have it in mind & maybe even feels tempted by the opportunity to conduct a leap of faith towards it.

The risk is, to put it paradoxically, that people would, knowingly, take the risk because it is unavoidable (and maybe it’s a Freudain-slip type of explanation of why in the quoted passage the ‘must’ has been weakened into a ‘may’). The risk is that in doing away with alfa and omega rationally, one re-invents them mystically and somehow beyond any rational criticism.

I don’t think the risk is unavoidable. On the one hand because it is not strictly so that everything is without an end, but merely that everything is without a final unrevisable end. On the other hand because it is not true that it is impossible not to produce final unrevisable ends. Turning to Bergson it is quite so that there can be no closed end because with the closed end creative life would end (see Chapter 13 in the same book quoting a certain Hägglund saying: “God is Death.”) but this does not mean there is no sensible direction. There not only is direction but direction is inescapable because it is precisely the direction of that creation;  creation cannot exist without a duration in which something changes – and a change like this cannot be without a direction, without a before or after.

It is more difficult to argue from here to the cultural optimism of the unavoidability of progressive insight. Clearly this can’t be a matter of an evolution to a certain specific goal (or from a certain specific primitive origin for that matter). It has to be something where rather less is certain than is currently assumed by zealous secularists and environmentalists that believe we either have achieved some final state already or that believe that we need to conserve the present state as much as possible; but it also has to be more than the nihilistic and untenable radical cultural relativism that negates both the possibility and the desirability of progress.

If signification is unavoidable then the ever increasing possibilities cannot but signify anything but progress, and more specifically measurable progress even if a measure that has neither a zero nor a limit. One may never be able to attain a language in which everything can be said, and can be said clearly and unambiguously, but one can compare languages and opt for the one that allows to express more. Sure, one may well say that the choice is arbitrary and that progress as well could have been called steady deterioration but that is a weak challenge as we may well find it, in such a choice of words, to be the most ethical behaviour to promote a steady and as fast as possible deterioration.

Maybe I should not resist the temptation to start talking about thermodynamics here. The fact that everything tends to disintegration has never meant that some things cannot be on a path of ever increasing integration; more specifically is it quite accepted that we can measure without too much difficulty the ever increasing levels of co-ordination in our – surrounding – evolution.

[Whilst writing this I was listening to Valentin Silvestrov by Sergey Yakovenko ‘Silent Songs’.]

One response to “Secularism, Immanence, and the Philosophy of Religion

  1. Pingback: Sunday Stories: Gravity’s Rainbow (7) « The Weblog

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