Reflections on the Theological Heritage of Contemporary Thought

The main questions which have puzzled theologians for centuries have lost none of their relevance. They have survived to puzzle us, and though we may phrase them differently, we have done all we can to ensure their survival. Philosophy has never freed itself from its theological heritage; its questions have always been no more than clumsy formulations of those eternal enigmas which confound us still.

But are they, in fact, enigmas? Not always; we sometimes see riddles where there are none because we cannot bring ourselves to accept the facts, even when these are obvious and undeniable.

For example, nothing is more deeply rooted than our belief in moral entropy: we have a profound conviction that the second law of thermodynamics applies also to the moral sphere. We believe that our world will ultimately reach a state where merits are rewarded and crimes punished, wrongs avenged and good deeds recompensed; that all moral accounts will be settled and human values realized in a final reckoning. This belief allows us to rejoice whatever befalls us, for we shall be amply rewarded in heaven.

Accordingly, the first question philosophy took over from theology was the question of whether eschatology is possible at all. Our way of putting it is slightly different and ostensibly non-theological: we ask whether the human values which we accept can ever be fully realized: whether history tends in a particular direction, and if so whether it tends towards some ultimate reckoning where universal justice will be done.

It is no wonder that we ask such questions. The principal cause of philosophical reflection about history is discontent with it; its principal hope is that man’s essence will one day be fully reconciled with his existence, and the immutable aspirations of his nature at last fulfilled. In other words, that he will be deified. And since such a state would put an end to the discontent which gives rise to the philosophy of history, one might say that the principal hope of the philosophy of history is a situation which will lead to its own extinction. Whatever optimism is to be found in it derives from its incurable suicidal tendency.

This secular eschatology presupposes, of course, that man’s “essence” is a value, and consequently that its realization is a good thing, which history, in its wisdom, will bring about. Secular eschatology trusts in history’s final judgment—the day of reckoning. We are hardly in a position to sneer, for which of us has not, at some time or other, succumbed to this belief? Each time we think that history will avenge the suffering of the dead, or that age-old accounts of wrongs will one day be settled, we express our faith in the last judgment. Each time we assume that the aspirations of “human nature” will be fulfilled, we demonstrate our belief in eschatology—and thus in the finiteness of man’s existence.

The question of eschatology—whether it is possible, and whether belief in it is justified—is one of the main questions preoccupying the modern philosopher of history, and therefore also an important element defining the modern view of the world. It emerged with a new force in the eighteenth century in Europe—the moment when “History” and “Progress” deposed Jehovah and usurped his throne, and made it clear that they were perfectly capable of replacing him in His main functions. At that moment historical eschatology revealed its possibilities. When History and Progress proved acceptable substitutes for God, ready to assume his burden and lull his wretched subjects into contentment by visions of a happy end to their strivings and sufferings, the history of humanity became a compelling argument for atheism.

But belief in historical progress need not presuppose a belief in eschatology; endowing historical facts with value does not by itself entail chiliastic visions. For these an additional assumption is needed, namely the assumption that the course of history tends towards a certain permanent and well-defined end, and that this end, when reached, will definitively resolve all conflict. It makes no difference whether we call this result the end of history or its beginning; in every eschatology the end of history on earth is both an end and a beginning: the end of human suffering and the beginning of a blessed new existence, a state of which we know nothing except that it will be one of eternal happiness and joy.

The question of whether eschatology is possible, whether answered in the negative or in the affirmative, has become a central question in philosophical anthropology—a discipline which touches upon most of the vital issues of philosophy. But theology was never more than a projection of anthropology onto the domain of the non-human. Philosophical anthropology continues to seek solutions to the conflicts of human nature—the conflicts which arise between natural human aspirations and the external forces which influence our fate. It can seek them (as Christian existentialists like Jaspers or Marcel have done) in transcendence; or (as Marxists do) in history; or (as Freud once did) it can pronounce the conflict unresolvable. This last view is also embraced by atheist existentialists, although they state it somewhat differently. But whatever the arguments, and whatever the technical language in which they are expressed, the question itself is common currency: almost everyone will have an answer ready, shaped by personal experience and the influence of tradition (which may conflict with experience or confirm it). These popular versions of answers need not be argued theses; they may not be explicitly formulated, and sometimes are not even consciously expressed. Most often they emerge in practice, implied by our general attitude to life: whether we see it as no more than a collection of successive facts or events, each existing and having meaning only as long as it lasts, or whether we believe that each of these facts or events is something more than the content of its time span—an expectation, a hope of facts as yet unrealized, an unveiled sliver of some ultimate prospect of fulfillment. The answer determines how we approach the facts and events of our everyday lives: as the absolute and final reality, to be taken at its direct, empirical face value, or as sections of a broader path at the end of which lie peace and consolation: pennies in a piggybank, saved up towards our (or mankind’s) eternal retirement. In the latter case we run the risk of dismissing present facts and present values as insignificant; in the former, of dismissing those that go beyond the present and require, for their fulfillment, a certain amount of effort and preparation on our part.

The choice is a common and familiar one, almost banal: either (at one extreme) we fritter away our lives by disregarding present values in favor of some imagined ultimate values (which may turn out to be illusory); or (at the other) we impoverish them by shutting our eyes to the possibility of greater values, refusing to recognize facts that go beyond the present and demand a transcendental interpretation—one that endows them with meaning by virtue of their relation to something greater that lies beyond them. These are the two poles between which everyday life oscillates. The extent to which we are drawn to one rather than the other depends on why we ask the question in the first place: from a need for consolation, to help us bear the suffering of our lives, or from a fear that we might waste our life on illusions—a fear that increases with each disillusionment we experience. The magnetic force exerted by each depends on the relative importance of these two factors.

The choice, when put this way, may indeed be banal, but it is part of a larger issue which, inherited from theology, has preoccupied philosophy for centuries. Another issue directly connected with it, and also inherited from theology, is that of theodicy. In its modern version the question of theodicy translates into a question about the rationality of history: whether the course of history is guided by some universal, purposive force, some Reason which can justify and give meaning to individual suffering and unhappiness. Traditional theodicy teaches that God’s infallible justice shines through the wretchedness of the damned and that human misery proclaims the glory of His supreme goodness. The question theodicy deals with is not quite the same as that which is dealt with by eschatology: eschatology tries to make sense of all facts by relating them to the prospect of an end, an ultimate resolution; theodicy tries to justify the existence of evil—each particular instance of it—by the idea of a universal order, a rationality or a divine reason which governs the world, regardless of whether this justification is part of that end.

Ideologies based on theodicy need not be conservative (although in general they tend to be, and most of them have been). They are conservative if they try to justify all evil, regardless of its cause and the role played in it by human decisions; they are not necessarily conservative if they limit their justification to evil which results from freely made human choices. Theodicies of the first type are simply ideologies of human powerlessness in the face of the external conditions which influence our lives: they tell us that we must resign ourselves to the fact that we cannot change the world, but claim to compensate for this resignation by endowing it with value. Theodicies of the second type can boil down to ideologies which sanction the risks of participating actively in human conflicts, whether on the side of good or of evil.

Theodicy is not limited to abstract theories or restricted to the history of philosophy. Like eschatology, it is also part of popular philosophy—the philosophy of everyday life. Our acceptance or rejection of it is evident in our attitudes and behavior; it is a practical philosophy, one of which we may be only dimly aware but which we apply in our daily lives. On this level it can express itself in a number of ways. Some may find consolation in the thought that their suffering and misfortunes are God’s will, brought about by His unerring hand in order to do good elsewhere in the world, according to His unfathomable plan. Others may find it in the more general belief that nothing happens in vain: that suffering is never wasted, but scrupulously totted up and inscribed in the ledgers of some bank of history, accruing interest which future generations will be able to draw. Those who truly believe such things can draw genuine solace from them, and there would be no reason to deprive them of this source of consolation if they resorted to it only when the misfortune was irreparable and the evil unavoidable, instead of relying on it even in those cases where the misfortune could be reversed or the evil opposed, and doing nothing.

But most often it is in just such cases that theodicy is resorted to, and in practice its effects are notorious. The conviction that nothing in human life happens in vain, that all things have a purpose dictated by History or willed by God, is a powerful inducement to sloth, and reinforces our inborn conservatism and inertia; it encourages our instinct to resign ourselves passively to our fate and shields us from guilt and rational criticism. How easy and tempting to say to ourselves: “Our fate is only a tiny fragment of the fate of the world; all individual suffering serves the common good, everything influences everything else, and through it all a permanent order is maintained. All evil, everything bad that happens, is a sacrifice on the altar of the whole, and sacrifice is never in vain.” Nothing bears out this optimism: there is no evidence that the fates of individuals are ever “balanced out,” on any historical scale.

Clear-eyed observation shows that while in some cases suffering might serve some purpose, in others it serves none: it is just that and no more—bare suffering. It shows that much effort and sacrifice, and many lives, are wasted every day, to no purpose whatsoever. In short, the holistic and equalizing vision of the world has no basis in our observation of reality. Yet it endures, apparently resistant to argument: our longing for the consolations it provides seems to be stronger than the evidence of our senses, and this vision of the world remains one of the most deeply rooted human superstitions. Let me repeat that there would be no need to condemn it or belabor its irrationality if it were only a way of reconciling ourselves to what is past and irreversible: a false but harmless rationalization of things we can do nothing about. But it is not harmless, for it also functions as a way of rationalizing things present: it is an excuse for accepting situations of whose irreversibility and inevitability there is no evidence.

Theodicy, in other words, is a way of turning facts into values. It endows facts with a significance that goes beyond the empirical appearances, seeing them as components of a teleological order, an interconnected whole in which each part has a specific role to play. The tendency to discern value in facts derives from a way of thinking much older than any speculative theology: it is a legacy of an ancient, magical view of the world, where events were thought to have invisible properties which gave them damning or sanctifying powers. The belief that our real, present suffering will be compensated for by future blessings, bestowed upon us or upon posterity, presupposes a similar belief: that events, and in particular the misfortunes which befall us, have invisible properties linking them to a rational order of the world, and by virtue of this link are endowed with value. This belief is of exactly the same type as any belief in magic forces. For the moment, however, we are not concerned with criticizing the belief in magic, but with identifying the points at which modern thought, even secular philosophical thought, is forced to address questions whose roots lie in theological and even pretheological—i.e., magical—traditions. All belief or disbelief in a teleologically ordered world where History or the Godless universe endows events with value, a property independent of our perception, is belief or disbelief in theodicy. This does not mean that questions about an immanent order in the world are not real questions; we tacitly confirm that they are real every time we agree to answer one, even if our reply is negative. We also confirm that the question about theodicy is a real and meaningful question, and thus that the idea of theodicy itself is not an absurd one—for in deeming a question answerable we presuppose that the field of knowledge with which it is concerned has some claim to existence. Thus theodicy is part of modern philosophy, whether we call it the metaphysics of values or reflections about man’s place in the universe or about historical progress: in all these areas, each one a part of the estate of contemporary non-religious philosophy, theodicy, and thus magic, is an important and far from obsolete element.

Both the belief in eschatology and the belief in theodicy are attempts to find meaning and justification for our lives in something that lies beyond them, some absolute reality which endows all other reality with meaning while itself requiring no interpretation by reference to anything outside it. Absolutes tend to be adopted as a moral foundation because they are a metaphysical foundation: when the world is seen as a metaphysical construction, all its elements become manifestations or particular instances of its metaphysics, and it is only as such that they can be understood. But there are other issues where the idea of the absolute plays a more direct role—issues once important in theology but no less pertinent in their modern form, and still of vital interest not only to philosophers but to all those who want to discover the reasons behind their behavior.

Chief among these is the question of nature and grace. It was central to the conflicts which marked the history of Christianity (Pelagianism, the Reformation, Jansenism), together with the question of theodicy (the Manicheans, the Cathars) and of redemption (the Monophysites, the Arians, the Socinians), but it clearly remains as urgent and complex today as it was at the time of the Council of Trent, for it is a question about determinism and responsibility. In its most general form it concerns the relation between individual responsibility and all the external factors which determine individual behavior: in what sense and to what extent the human individual “can” or “cannot” resist the influence of independent forces which shape his behavior; in what sense he can be said, in view of these influences, to be morally responsible for his actions; to what extent that responsibility lies with forces over which he has no control.

There are many versions of this question—biological, sociological, historiosophical, metaphysical. Some of these variants have become empirical and empirically solvable problems and have lost their purely philosophical character; others have remained within the realm of philosophy of history or metaphysical speculation. But in every case the sources of our enduring interest in the question are the same as they have always been: what we want to know is to what extent factors (biological or historical) independent of us can justify our actions post factum, and to what extent such factors can provide reliable guidelines for future decisions. Historical determinism is an area in which a particularly complex tangle of questions has sprung up—questions that remain among the most vital of contemporary philosophical concerns.

“We do not have the freedom to achieve any particular thing; we only have the freedom to do what is necessary or to do nothing. Historical necessity carries out its task, with the individual or against him.” This attitude concisely summarizes the idea of historical predestination: it tells us that all attempts to resist are doomed from the start, and thereby also justifies our actions, which, since they are dictated by historical inevitability, could not have been otherwise. The words quoted come from the end of Spengler’s Decline of the West, but they encapsulate a much more general line of thought. All constructions which include the idea of natural cycles of civilization—like Toynbee’s, for example—are variations of one model: the vision of the world in De Civitate Dei. In this sense opponents of historical determinism, like Karl Popper or Isaiah Berlin, can be said to be continuing the Pelagian tradition of the idea of salvation. Marxist literature on the subject is varied, but mostly concerned with some version of the decisions of the Council of Trent. These were as follows: actions which accord with the intentions of the historical absolute are ultimately determined by that absolute. Nonetheless, there is no irresistible grace; the absolute extends to all the possibility of cooperating with it, and each individual is responsible for his decision to accept or reject that offer. Since (it is assumed) not all will take up the offer of redemption, the world is divided into the chosen and the rejected. This division and all its consequences is predetermined, and an irrevocable part of the absolute’s plans, but each individual freely chooses the category into which he will fall.

I mention all this not in order to ridicule a concern which is still vital in contemporary philosophy, but rather to bring into relief the hidden rational side of a theological problem which is no longer vital in its original form, but endures in another. There is nothing surprising in this: the central problems of any world view often persist long after our way of expressing that world view has changed, as a result of cultural transformations and conceptual shifts (which also define our lexical resources).

If the above analogies are directed against anything, it is at most against that haughty disdain which characterizes Enlightenment and freethinkers’ attitudes towards problems considered vital in the past—as if today we were not busy trying to solve the exactly the same problems, with the aid of different technology. Ridiculing them is no less absurd than ridiculing people in the Middle Ages for going about on horseback instead of in jet planes. Just as planes are a more efficient means than horses of achieving a certain end, so modern philosophy of history is a more effective means of dealing with problems once approached through disputes about the Trinity and irresistible Grace.

Nor is it surprising that we should want to understand how and to what extent independent forces can influence our behavior, or that sometimes we want to go even deeper, beyond the forces which are merely direct transmitters of energy, and uncover the elementary and autonomous forces which lie behind them—in other words, to get a glimpse of the absolute. If the historical process is such an absolute, then secular philosophy of history has simply taken over the old task of theology, reformulating the same problem in modern terms.

Reflection on the problem of nature and grace can spring from a variety of needs and serve a number of purposes. We may want to find some principle in which we can put our complete trust—a principle that would resolve all conflicts and relieve us of the burden of responsibility. Or we may want to find that highest tribunal on whose justice and mercy we can rely, safe in the knowledge that it will protect us from harm if we follow its precepts and reward us liberally for our obedience. Or, again, we may simply be seeking assurance that we have chosen the right side in life and that everything we do in its name is therefore just. Some solutions to the problem of nature and grace serve to absolve us of responsibility, for all responsibility is assumed by the absolute; this is the Calvinist solution. Others preserve our responsibility, but only in cases where clearly formulated rules exist which, if followed, will infallibly lead us to the right action; this is the Catholic solution. Others still leave us with total and unconditional responsibility, fully answerable to the absolute for every one of our actions, but with some uncertainty as to the intentions of the lawgiver; this is the Jansenist solution. All assume that the power of the absolute is both legislative and judicial; the area of subtle dispute concerns the extent to which it is also executive.

Another area of dispute concerns our knowledge of the absolute’s laws: whether they can be clearly known and how we can come to know them; whether we can fulfill them if they are known; and whether, if they are not adequately known, ignorance of the law is an acceptable excuse for transgressing them. It is around such questions that all the theological controversies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries turned: questions about nature and grace, about predestination and salvation through faith or works. But the existence of a principle that is at once the source of all duty and the tribunal which judges our actions, assessing how well we have fulfilled that duty, was not itself a matter of dispute; those who today deny the existence of such a principle deny a proposition theology once deemed so obviously true that it was rarely even formulated, let alone questioned.

If we disregard all the social conflicts which influence the debate about nature and grace and look at it from the point of view of individual motives, we can see that it is a conflict between two opposing currents. On the one hand there is the need to ground one’s existence in something outside oneself—a need which seems to spring from a fear of the idea that we are isolated entities responsible for our own decisions; we want to leave ourselves behind, as it were, escape our selfhood, shed our individuality. And on the other hand there is the fear that our actions and decisions are somehow not real: that some alien force resides in us which is not only the effective executor of our intentions but also the will which decides what those intentions are. This conflict—between the drive to affirm the self and the drive to destroy it, or rather between fear of losing one’s self and fear of one’s self—is the most general way of describing the content of philosophical thought. To put it another way, the history of philosophy testifies to this conflict’s existence.

It is worth noting that the problem of original sin, closely connected to that of nature and grace, also persists in a modified contemporary guise. For it is a problem which deals with the satanic element in man and thus, more generally, with revolt against absolute power. In its modern version it has, accordingly, become a problem about utopia, understood as an attempt to overcome the historical absolute—that power against which all revolt is supposedly doomed to failure. The question of redemption and incarnation, too, has its secular modern form: it has become a question about the role of the individual in history, and concerns that mechanism by which the historical absolute is incarnated in certain exceptional people. It is also a question about what such people represent: are they individuals who are able to draw energy from some transcendental source, or entirely spontaneous and autonomous “creative principles” in history?

All these issues concern a problem which the philosophy of history inherited from theology: the relation between man and the absolute. But there are also important problems in areas outside the philosophy of history, most notably in the theory of knowledge, which spring from the same source. The most vital of these today is the problem of revelation.

A capricious deity will never reveal all its secrets, but it does sometimes grant mortals a dimmed reflection of its wisdom, in accordance with the capacity of their owlish eyes, so that they may gaze upon it without being blinded. Revelation is simply the absolute on the cognitive level: a collection of unconditionally valid and unquestionable data. It is our way of communicating with the absolute. We need revelation not in order to know for certain what the world is really like, but in order to be able to evaluate, without hesitation or doubt, every opinion about the world that we encounter. Thus revelation, from the point of view of its purpose, is a sort of inquisitor’s handbook. It is a granite throne from which we may pronounce verdicts with no possibility of error; and we need its support, for our rickety skeletons alone are not strong enough to hold us up. Supported by revelation we can do more than move the earth: we can stop it in its tracks.

Revelation is the constant hope of philosophy. We can see that this is so when we look at philosophical “systems” which claim to establish certainty: in accordance with some almost instinctively accepted order, they invariably start by establishing certain knowledge, the absolute beginning of all thought; certainty is their point of departure, not their conclusion. They assume that once the absolute is given as the beginning, the end is also given; that once we are on solid ground, moving about on it is no longer interesting, for if we already have something certain and unshakeable, our thought continues on its way by itself, smoothly and efficiently, like a marble rolling across ice. Revelation would seem to be that first push which thought needs to set it rolling; after that the ball rolls on by its own momentum, automatically. But it doesn’t. It doesn’t because automatic thought is not really thought: it is the antithesis of thought. Thought, in the strict sense in which we are using the word here, means creative thought—precisely that activity which no automatic mechanism can replace. Philosophy is a constant effort of questioning: a questioning of everything that seems obvious, and thus also of existing revelations. But a revelation of one’s own is a tempting thing, and the temptation is an eternal trap for critics: when a philosophy that aspires to the name of “system” questions the revelations of others, it is invariably in order to present its own in their stead.

Indeed, there are few methods of thinking which do not tacitly espouse the Thomist principle that the aim of every movement is rest: “Impossibile est igitur quod natura intendat motum propter seipsum. Intendit igitur quietam per motum . . . .” This principle presupposes that the essence of movement is its opposite, namely rest: that movement realizes itself by annihilating itself and becoming the absence of movement. In other words, it presupposes that all movement is a kind of imperfection—a defect or lack in the thing that moves, for in moving it is striving towards something (namely rest); its striving reveals a need, which must be satisfied in order for that thing to realize its nature. In philosophy this principle appears in the form of the belief that human thought is expressive of an imperfection: we think only in order to attain ultimate certainty, i.e., the perfection of our thought, and therefore rest.

Thought, like any other movement, attains its goal and fulfils itself only once it has ceased to be movement and come to a stop—in other words, when it has ceased to exist. But the craving for absolutes, for ultimate certainty and revelation is one of the simplest needs to satisfy: seekers after revelation generally find it almost as soon as they become conscious of their need to seek it. And when the revelation has been found, and thought has attained its long-awaited fulfillment, philosophy begins (it thinks) building a “system.” But in fact it has reached an end, not a beginning: the roof of the construction is already up when we think we have only just laid the cornerstone. All philosophical absolutes and certainties are substitutes for revelation—the theologian’s alleged point of departure but in fact all that he needs for his conclusion. Theology, too, starts from the belief that the truth is there, given to us; the intellectual effort it involves consists not in wrestling with reality to break down its resistance, but in assimilating the true content of something that is already there in its entirety, waiting for us.

The crucial, historically fundamental expression of secular revelation was Descartes’s cogito: the attempt to question all that seemed obvious, all that was traditionally assumed as certain. It was constructed in such a way that the very act of questioning, the act of destruction, was complete only when the new certainty—the consciousness of one’s own mental processes—was established. Descartes knew that questioning must have an end, in both senses of the word; it would have been meaningless for him if it did not reach a stopping-point—a point where questioning was no longer possible; a point literally beyond question. He knew that if we decide to abandon shifting sands, it is in order to stand upon firm ground. The aim of questioning, for him, was to destroy questioning and bring it to a stop, just as the aim of movement was to reach a point where movement stops—a point of rest. The aim of uncovering the weak points of successive revelations was to reach a revelation without any weak points—a revelation that could not be questioned.

Philosophy after Descartes was largely a series of attempts to imitate this procedure. Philosophers took up the question in the form in which Descartes had posed it (which entailed assuming half of his answer as well), and their persistent attempts to modify and reformulate the cogito lasted until well into this century. The course of European idealism in particular brings into relief a feature of the Cartesian revelation which it shares with all others, namely the fact that its starting-point is also its conclusion. For since the consciousness of one’s thought processes is the ultimate cognitive given, we cannot get at any reality that lies beyond those thought-processes; their reality is the only reality. Or, as Gilson put it, since an immanent world is what we start with, an immanent world is also what we end up with. Which is hardly surprising: the nature of the reality we perceive will obviously depend on the nature of the data at our disposal—those ultimate data from which we go about trying to reconstruct it—and to privilege certain kinds of data by declaring them ultimate is to deny reality to anything that cannot in some way be reduced to them. Thus if the immanent world is our cognitive absolute, it is also the only world accessible to our cognition—just as Spinoza’s causa sui, being the starting-point of thought, is also, inevitably, its conclusion, for it is the only world whose reality can be defended.

Similarly, those who consider the material objects of everyday life as the absolute givens are forced to conclude that these are the only possible data, and the reality constructed from them the only possible reality; while those for whom sensory perception constitutes the only absolute given will construct their reality exclusively from their perceptions. The absolute given which forms the starting point of the philosophical thought process predetermines all the rest: once we stand upon an absolute, that is where we stay; we cannot progress beyond it. All further movement is an illusion: we can only run in place, like a squirrel on a treadmill.

And yet there remains, at the heart of philosophy, an incurable nostalgia for revelation, a constant, ever-present longing for the ultimate and unquestionable. Taine’s positivism sought it in an “ultimate law” of reality which reveals the unity of the world; an “eternal axiom” to which all our knowledge can ultimately be reduced. Phenomenology aspired above all to get at the reality which is “given” in the final and ultimate sense; and any reality “given” in this absolute sense could only be an immanent reality. In this light, the idealism of Husserl’s later works seems a natural consequence of the internal logic of a doctrine originally intended to provide, chief among other things, a way out of subjectivism. Husserl’s case clearly illustrates the contradiction inherent in any analogous quest for revelation. If we say that the ultimate data of reality can only be immanent and want to suspend judgment about transcendent reality, giving it what Husserl called a “cognitive zero index,” we need a coherent concept of transcendence in order to constitute those data; but the concept of transcendence can only come from that natural, pre-critical cognitive stance whose results we want to ignore, or “put into parentheses.”

The initial principle—the principle whereby pure phenomena were endowed with ultimate status—cannot even be formulated without the aid of a concept drawn from outside the realm of pure phenomena; in other words, its formulation requires data from the realm of natural knowledge. Thus Husserl’s cognitive absolute turned out to be weighed down by the same required ballast of non-absolute knowledge as the Cartesian cogito—an assumption made by an imaginary mind that is no more than distilled intellectual substance, entirely independent of all content that experience and acquired knowledge may have deposited in it. The act of questioning presupposed the object questioned, and the formulation of the principle contradicted the principle: the very thought act wherein transcendent reality is relegated to the Husserlian “parentheses” presupposes that transcendent reality is a cognitive given, however many “distinguo”s we attach to the word “datum.” Thus an absolute which cannot be defined without a simultaneous definition of its opposite reveals itself as an imaginary absolute—a fiction.

Modern positivism also succumbed, at least initially, to the temptation to pursue the cognitive absolute. Moritz Schlick’s conferral of absolute status on empirical statements was just another variant of an operation performed in countless doctrines before him, in the hope that it would provide a secular substitute for revelation.

The problem of revelation is a problem about the existence of ultimate data, but it is also a problem about the extent to which conceptual thought is able to formulate and understand such data. It involves, in other words, the problem of mystery; and this, too, like the problem of revelation, is a problem that modern philosophy inherited from theology. In its modern form, the problem of mystery is a problem about the limits of rationalism: about whether and to what extent certain basic components of cognition, or of reality itself, are discursive. Questions raised by personalist doctrines about the non-communicable nature of personality are the same questions, carried over into the human sphere, that theology asked about divinity; far from attacking theology, personalism in its metaphysical guise—the monadology of the human—appropriated theology’s problems. But here, again, it does not necessarily follow that these problems were illusory: the question of the discursiveness of that indivisible whole which is the human personality is a real question. The word “persona” itself, in its ancient sense of “mask,” presented a very real difficulty, one with which philosophers are still grappling. It is most often resolved by the simple expedient of saying that personality is inexpressible; this, however, even if it is true, is no more helpful than saying that God is a mystery unfathomable to the minds of mortals.

The problem of the relation between reason and faith also has its modern formulations. We come up against it whenever think about the extent to which experience and rational reflection can contribute simultaneously to the resolution of cognitive conflicts, or about the extent to which unverifiable beliefs contribute to our vision of the world. We return to it whenever we reflect about how to deal with facts that conflict with our accepted system of beliefs about the world—that coherent body of general assumptions which underlies our understanding of the totality of our past experience: may we ignore them, and if so to what extent? or should we try to fit them, or force them, into our system of beliefs, even if this involves imposing an artificial interpretation on them? We dispute about it whenever we dispute about the unverifiable assumptions made by the empirical sciences, or about the existence of privileged criteria for deciding between conflicting sets of experiences. All these problems contain a large theological heritage; they are they daily bread of scientific thinking, yet they have much in common with the problems which arose when revelation was the skeleton around which the totality of our knowledge was organized into a coherent “system.”  

EDITORIAL NOTE: This piece is taken from the essay "The Priest and the Jester" collected in Leszek Kołakowski's The Two Eyes of Spinoza, thanks to the generous permission granted by St. Augustine's Press, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Featured Image: Jan Matejko, The Jester, 1862; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Leszek Kołakowski

Leszek Kołakowski (1927 - 2009) was one of the leading historians of philosophy and religion in the 20th century. He is the author of many books, including Religion: If There Is No God...: On God, the Devil, Sin and Other Worries of the So-Called Philosophy of Religion.

Read more by Leszek Kołakowski