X, Our Contemporary

I notice a certain structural homology among some contemporary thinkers — an attempt to reactivate a previous debate in the history of philosophy as though its (undecided) outcome were of massive importance to the present moment. To some degree, Agamben does this with the relationship between Aristotle and Neoplatonism, but much moreso with the “debate” he stages between Benjamin and Schmitt (or Benjamin and Scholem, or Benjamin’s Kafka and Scholem, or Benjamin and…). For Zizek, the relations among the main figures in German Idealism is an urgent concern, requiring many italics and fine distinctions, and the Radical Orthodoxy crowd is obviously trying to reactivate the main debates of late scholasticism and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Neoplatonism. There have been many other examples throughout the modern period — Nietzsche, for example, especially in The Birth of Tragedy, fits this pattern insofar as he so aggressively takes sides among the various Greek tragedians and philosophers.

What all these “reactivations” share is a certain indifference toward the scholarship — they are not trying to contribute to the existing industry of interpretation surrounding their chosen figures. Thus the true rigorous scholar can always object that the “reactivators” haven’t done their homework and point out any number of specific instances where they have gotten things wrong. But the very act of reactivating a past moment is dehistoricizing, implicitly rejecting the very form of historicist scholarship, and so even if the reactivator immerses herself in the existing scholarship, even if she “does her homework,” it necessarily will fail to be in the spirit of a true scholar contributing to the growth of scholarship. (In fact, it seems that the true test case would be a “reactivator” who actually had mastered the scholarship and was invulnerable to any specific quibbles — her stance itself would serve as a kind of “zero degree” offense against scholarly rigor, showing that her guilt was strictly a priori, original sin as opposed to concrete sins.)

Here I think that something of a paradigm case can be found in the relationship between theology and biblical studies in the modern period — the theologian is one for whom the Bible and the various other authoritative figures have an immediate contemporary purchase, and so the biblical scholar can always object that the theologian is “misusing” scripture. But taking modern biblical scholarship as emblematic of historicist research in general, every scholar in the premodern period was a “theologian,” even and especially those who were primarily biblical commentators — the “biblical scholarship” of the medieval period can’t help but strike the modern biblical scholar as abusive and even absurd.

To draw a parallel here, in the context of the modern university, continental philosophers and “theorists” of every stripe are, on the purely formal level, theologians. Constitutively “dilettantes,” a priori offenders against positivist and historicist “rigour,” keeping the past alive so as to be ready to greet the new. That’s the problem with continental philosophy and theory — not that their use of authorities is overdone and constitutes an imposing scholasticism, but that it’s not scholastic enough, not scholarly enough, always and everywhere setting the authority to work even in the most seemingly inoccuous commentary.

22 thoughts on “X, Our Contemporary

  1. Adam, I am confused by exactly what you mean when you say “not that their use of authorities is overdone and constitutes an imposing scholasticism, but that it’s not scholastic enough, not scholarly enough, always and everywhere setting the authority to work even in the most seemingly inoccuous commentary.” Are you suggesting that contemporary theorists function more like Medieval theologians, assuming authority, but never demonstrating it?

  2. I’m saying two things — first, yes, they’re using their sources as “authorities” if we take that in the broad sense of a past figure whose position is directly relevant to the contemporary debates; and second, they’re not “scholarly” precisely because they are using their chosen figures as authorities. (This latter point is meant to counter the perception that continental philosophers are too busy exegeting Heidegger to get at the real “ideas” themselves.)

  3. And, so they should be more scholarly; or, is this a way of defending their unscholarliness on the basis of its openness to the new?

    Either way, how do you think this would apply in the domain of theology? (Presuming of course that you define theology as a community’s discourse, and not merely a theoretical discourse.)

  4. Maybe I just shouldn’t be reading this as a question of value at all, but rather of fact. I just keep trying to work through this question myself; and, inasmuch as I am prepping for my theological method exam right now, I have it on the brain.

  5. No, they shouldn’t be more scholarly, nor should they get “deal with the ideas directly” — they should stay exactly like they are. (I was intending to present the “problem” from the point of view of the “true scholars.”)

    In practice, theology seems to be the (church) community’s discourse in much the same way that philosophy or theory is the (general educated public) community’s discourse. That is, theology’s relationship to the community is largely a theoretical matter.

  6. Adam,
    I would chime in an ‘amen’ on this parallel with current philosophy: ‘the relationship between theology and biblical studies in the modern period.’ I would not side with those you portray as the ‘true scholars,’ because I am not sure they are the true scholars. I did a lot of research about patristic interpretation of scripture for my thesis, and realized that church fathers (and damn, I wish I could say ‘mothers,’ but I have never really read any) were aware of what we might call historical criticism — of its own kind for their day — and yet they ignored it. If one was interpreting Paul, for example, one was more concerned with thinking in the spirit of Paul than ‘getting it right’ with Paul’s texts. The ironic thing is that people like Irenaeus claimed that this was how Jesus read, e.g. the prophet Isaiah, and how Jesus taught his disciple to read sacred texts. On the back of many who have shown how impossible/improbable indifferent/disinterested scholarship is, Rowan Greer has pointed out that biblical scholars are just as likely to read in their conclusions about texts as are mere theologians who ‘abuse’ scripture.

    It does strike me as odd, however, when one feels compelled to appeal to certain authorities to legitimate their positions. For example, why does a Wesleyan need to say Wesley was an Augustinian Thomist? If he is not, and yet you like Augustine and Thomas, so what? Just part with Wesley when/where necessary! (This is just an example – I have not yet developed a mature opinion on this issue of Wesley and Thomism).

  7. Good post. I have often felt this about both continental philosophy and theology, that they aren’t scholarly enough. In my own meagre research I have attempted to constantly try and work out what the latest scholars of x figure think, in order to try and undercut the standard reaction from my imagined opponents – you haven’t read x very well. This results in everything being written very slowly and taking a long time – there comes a point where you have to stop and just get on with it. If you do this too often and for too long, you will end up becoming an expert on the debates surrounding figure x, which are likely to be as complex as the debate you yourself are trying to address.

  8. Adam, I have been thinking about this, and I am still not convinced. I think that this is a real problem in teh “theory” undergirding theory; and, considering the facts that this has been an issue since the infamous “St. Paul debates” and Alex, you, Nate, and myself are all interested in this issue, I think this might warrant continued discussion.

    What bothers me is the way this approach seems to amount to an ahistorical sublation of the historicity of the “authorities” themselves. I agree with you about the openness to the new that theory necessarily manifests in its deployment of sources, texts, etc; and, that that openness itself cannot be strictly determined by those sources insofar as it is genuinely creative and productive. But, it is difficult for me to see how the form of this argument does not amount to the literal negation of the sources that founds it. It is the Hegelianism here that bothers me, which appears to negate not so much the conditions under which that productivity is deployed (a necessary condition for any genuinely new act), but the actual historicity of those authorities in such a way that what is produced is ahistorical, transcendental. Since what theory is purported to be about is “history,” then it would seem that the condition for the possibility of theory as such (considered in this way) is actually the negation of the conditions of its possibility. If this is the case, then theory really is absurd.

    If theory is to be really meaningful for history, it has to matter what “scholars” say. It has to matter if a certain theorizing of the history of Nicea, for example (like Anthony’s above – not picking on him!), is really wrong. But, it has to matter not so much in terms of “getting it right,” but because the deployment of theory only makes sense because it operates within the history of which Nicea is a part. If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t seem to me that the “truth” that is revealed “in spite of the facts” can ever be actually relevant to history in any meaningfully transformative way.

  9. I had forgotten that you actually mentioned the dehistoricizing moment in theory in the original post. The point still stands, I think.

  10. I don’t know if this is going to match with what I said in the post or not, but anyway — I do think the reference to the scholarship is necessary in order to do serious work on a figure, of a scholarly nature or not. What I’m saying, though, is that putting the figure to work in the present moment — what I call in the post treating them as an “authority” — is always, in principle, a dehistoricizing move, even if one has properly consulted all the historical scholarship.

    I would agree with Derrida’s invocation of the necessary “guardrail of traditional criticism,” but I just don’t think it’s finally possible to simultaneously invoke a figure as a contemporary authority and be properly grounded in the historical scholarship — because within the realm of historical scholarship, historical scholarship is determinative, and it never can be (in the last analysis) for the person setting a figure to work in the present.

    Another aspect that occurs to me, though, is the possibly subversive effect of re-historicizing. But as far as I can see, such a move can only either remove the authority as authority (turn them into a figure of “merely historical interest”) or set the stage for that authority to function differently.

    The break or minimal distance between the two modes seems to me to be unbridgable, though. I’m biased toward the “authority” mode, because that’s what I tend to do — but I also think it’s important to explicitly advocate for it, because in the context of the modern university, there’s a built-in bias toward “mere” historical scholarship.

  11. Ok – I agree; but, I think there is the further problem of how the “scholarship” continues to function within that use and what “rights” it has over it. (I think this definitely works both ways, with “scholars” deploying theory in their scholarly endeavors.)

    It just seems to me that this kind of claim is not peculiar to theory, but would apply to the resposible deployment of any discipline; and, therefore it has an obligation to be explicit about its criteria of legitimacy. They at least have to be subject to critique, right? I think there may be something of a real crisis here, and I say that as one who wants to preserve theory.

  12. The “theory/scholarship” divide does work in probably any discipline, at least in the humanities — such as the “theology/biblical studies” divide.

    To a certain extent, I think that the crisis is constitutive — i.e., that it’s not a fixable problem. Yes, I do think that theory has to be subject to critique, but the supposed unverifiability of theory has not kept theory from generating whole libraries full of debate and critique — though the critiques that are taken more seriously are those that are immanent to theory. But you may be right that there’s a crisis in contemporary theory that goes beyond the structural issue.

    Continuing to use theology/Bible as the model, we can obviously think of plenty of examples where the Bible people came up with some result that didn’t fit and the theology people had to deal with it on some level (though the scholarship itself didn’t set the terms of this “dealing with it”) — there just doesn’t seem to be a way for historical-critical scholarship to gain that kind of leverage over theory. The whole Foucault controversy we’ve seen in recent months shows that the theory people were, by and large, willing to preemptively concede that Foucault was a shitty scholar. As if that wasn’t even a battle they thought was worth fighting. That’s a serious problem!

  13. JD,
    Are you saying I’m wrong? This is the problem, in my mind, with historicism. You, and I don’t mean this as an attack, obviously would have an agenda in claiming that Nicea functioned differently and would no doubt provide your historical reasoning. I don’t deny that there wasn’t a myriad of interests at Nicea and I don’t mean to suggest a cynical view of Nicea, but my (and Philip’s) reading is plausible. That what came out of Nicea was exactly an example of theological determination. Now how would you show that this “theorizing” (as opposed to simply reporting the facts? or what? because I do fail to see how even Pelikan’s writings are not in some sense undergirded by a theoretical understanding of the development of Christian doctrine) is indeed wrong?

    Obviously my views are different from Adam’s. I’d even go so far as to say that what I’m presenting is pretty banal and repeats the same basic stance of the non-historicists.

  14. Anthony,

    No, I am not saying that you are wrong; I just thought that your use of Nicea in that instance provided a good opportunity to point to the possibility of falsifiability, even if not verification.

    To be honest, I don’t actually have an opinion about your reading of Nicea; I do find it plausible, and am inclined to think that it is a much better paradigm for conceiving the situation than others; but, I don’t have a definite position.

    What bothers me about it — and this goes for the “orthodox” reading of Nicea as well, and Catholic “tradition,” in general — is the way that this particular account of the history is abstracted from the history in such a way that it no longer has anything to do with its object as historical. Now, I don’t have a problem with abstraction; and, what is at stake for me is not the objective verifiability of the theoretical construct – it seems to me that such a criterion is both impossible and undesirable. So, although the claim may be unverifiable (even in its truth), it is still falsifiable on the basis of the history that gave rise to the possibility of the claim in the first place. My point is that if you say that the claim is not falsifiable on that basis, you have ceased actually talking about history, and are now making ahistorical, transcendental claims that could apply in principle to any state of affairs, and therefore its doesn’t matter what you say. It has to matter that these people, at this time, in this place, were talking about these things, with these forces bearing down on them in such a way that any given analysis of that situation is falsifiable in principle on the basis of that situation.

  15. Let me just reiterate: I am not trying to undermine theory; I just think that it might be a much more demanding task than people give it credit for — which is why it should be respected above mere “scholarship.”

    (And on Pelikan, that is my point; he’s not doing anything different than you are, except he accepts the fact that his theory is falsifiable by the history itself, and not merely in terms of its “truth.”)

  16. I have to admit, I am bit lost as to what you are saying. I feel as if it is a bit of a catch-22 you’re giving me here, but I’m wondering if that is more my own misunderstanding than your position.

    Encore un effort?

  17. Anthony, I am not trying to catch you in anything. I probably shouldn’t have used your example; it was just the most readily available.

    I suppose the easiest way to say what I am getting at is: just because the truth expressed by the theory is not historically verifiable, does not mean that the truth of the theory is not historically falsifiable. So, to continue with your Nicea example, you and Philip have offered a perfectly reasonable paradigm for thinking about the set of relations that constitute Nicea and that explanation cannot be completely verified by the facts; however, because your claim is an historical one, your theory can be falsified by the facts of that history. If you claim that it’s not, then the theory is in principle ahistorical, meaning that it doesn’t pertain to the case at hand, and transcendental, meaning that the theory itself can have no historical significance.

    I suppose the point about a transcendental argument not having historical significance is up for debate; but, reinvigorating transcendental arguments does not appear to be a viable option for a purely immanent philosophy. So, I suppose you are right to detect a certain catch-22 for you here, because this would suggest that insofar as this mode of engaging history requires just that form of argument, there doesn’t appear to be any historical-material significance for it.

    The only point I am trying to make, though, is that theory just needs to admit a degree of historical determination if it wants to be historically and materially significant; but, this comes at the price of significantly delimiting the scope of its invocation of the “New.” That is, a strong emphasis on the creative possibilities of imaginative production comes at the expense of undercutting its immanent material goals.

    I think it really does matter, politically, if Zizek’s reading of Hegel is justifiable, for example — or Milbank’s reading of Scotus, or Cavanaugh’s reading of the history of the Eucharist, or Foucault’s history of sexuality. But, each of these matter politically for precisely the opposite reasons than they each appear to think: namely, because the future of the history of the present is actually a part of that history.

  18. You seem to be proposing a “dialectical materialist” approach to this problem, in Zizek’s sense of the term — the theory has its own relative autonomy on its own level, but it is always grounded in (for lack of a better term) actual facts. The other side of that would be that the agglomeration of actual facts is exactly what requires us to move to the level of theory, because the mere rattling off of facts is necessarily lacking in some way.

    But going back down to that level can itself be politically subversive — I’m thinking here of Benjamin’s praise of the “chronicler” in the Theses.

    So let’s assume Zizek is substantially wrong about Hegel. To disprove such a claim, it’s not sufficient simply to say, “But look how productive my misreading is!” Such an approach would encourage people to misread on purpose so as to produce spectacular effects — a “perverse” (i.e., bad) stance, Zizek would say. He would have to justify his reading as plausible on the level of scholarship. (And there are some writings where he actually does back down from his hyperbolic claims that his Hegel just is Hegel — the same with Lacan, too — he grants the other readings their own plausibility and says he nonetheless finds something else to be going on too, etc.) Pickstock’s essay in T&P could be taken as another effort to confront the scholars on their own turf (I have no way of judging its accuracy currently, though).

  19. Good discussion by all, since I think this is the crux of the debate in a lot of modern philosophy.

    Here is another thing to throw into the mix, just for the sheer hell of it: historical determinations that x is the case (for example, with regard to Scotus etc) are themselves inherently fluxy. Indeed, the worst thing about doing ones homework is the fact that when one enters into (for example, again Scotus) one finds a whole field of debate, a bit like a (moving) tree (or maybe a fractual). Once you look at the branch, you find a myriad of sub-branches, and sub-sub-branches where one could research the case. This creates a form of infinite regress, where uncertainty becomes deeper and deeper and more like a quagmire. For example, the relation between the Gospels and theology – every time I quote them, I feel a million biblical scholars contesting whether the particular phrase is genuine, or is mistranslated, or means something different in 1st century palestine and I know at every point this will be contested almost infinitely.

    Then I just think, you have to stop the flux and just say something…

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