TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Now Available! Telos 162 (Spring 2013): Subjects and Sense

Telos 162 (Spring 2013) is now available for purchase in our store.

At its inception, Telos pursued a specific project as a journal: to serve as a bridge between the world of what was then often referred to as “European theory” and a U.S. intellectual world largely defined by quantitative methods in the social sciences. Over time, the terminology changed, and it is now more common to use the parlance of “analytic” and “continental” modes of philosophy, and if the latter term still clearly points toward Europe, there are representatives of both trends in the university lives on both sides of the Atlantic. In retrospect, however, the question for Telos was never one of a simple cultural transfer or the pursuit of some intellectual equilibrium in which scholars in both worlds would think the same way. On the contrary, instead of thinking about method in general, at stake for Telos was the difference between reflections on the meaning of the human condition, thoughtful explorations of the good life, and what appeared to be an exclusively numerical measuring of the status quo, a positivist description of what already exists, with no expectation of change. In other words, Telos combined a critical—or again, in the terminology of the era, a radical—stance toward life with a philosophical traditionalism that it found more current then in European intellectual circles than in the United States. That bridge across the Atlantic was therefore, in many ways, a conduit for a radical traditionalism as a source for a critique of modernity gone awry. Not that all of this was fully clear from the start, nor was it ever simple: were the failings of modernity evidence of some insufficient modernization, an inadequate implementation of the program of modernity, or did they reflect flaws inherent in modernity itself? In the former case, the response would involve calls for ever more rationalization; in the latter, a critique of the domination of a one-dimensional reason and the recovery of alternatives.

The interest in “European theory,” then, was not a matter of geographical exoticism, an arbitrary selection of a distant intellectual world, but quite clearly an expression of the recognition that the European philosophical tradition represented a crucial and ongoing reflection on the human condition in general and the particular status of the West within it. This philosophy not only endeavored to shed light on the meaning—and value!—of life; undertaking philosophy, participating in the intellectual reflection and transmission, itself contributed to that meaning. Yet reconstructing these initial points of orientation for Telos, one cannot help but notice how much ground has been lost in past decades. The sense that Europe or the West (or the cohesiveness of any West) might lay claim to some special status and have anything worthwhile to say regarding the human condition is an affront to contemporary sensibilities, defined more typically in terms of multiculturalism or post-colonialism. It is hard to think of a culture in contemporary Western Europe not marked by intellectual predispositions toward burdensome shame regarding its national past as well as an embarrassed inability to articulate criticisms of inhuman conditions in most of the rest of the world outside the West. Given this endemic self-doubting in the European world, it comes as little surprise that a solution—even a straightforward technocratic, policy solution—to the challenges of the European Union has been so elusive. Of course a corollary self-doubt plagues that extension of Europe in North America, the former sole superpower, as evidenced by a new inwardness and flight from global engagement.

Yet it is not only the space of the West as geographical territory that seems to be dissolving; it is also the philosophical project of the West, the imperative of philosophy, that “European theory” which Telos tried to retrieve more than four decades ago. Again, “European theory” does not mean simply “theory” undertaken on the soil of Europe. Indeed, the very point of the universalist tradition includes the claim that the cartographic coordinates of the location of the thinking are not the issue at all: this particular conceptual project has universal and universalizable aspirations. European theory could take place in Paris or Frankfurt, but also in Missouri or California—or Newfoundland or Cape Town, and Tokyo or Kolkata. This potential ubiquity, however, did not mean that any thinking was by definition “European theory.” On the contrary, there were certainly outsides to the tradition, but the difference was not geographical, driven instead by the substance of the tradition. As already noted, from the start, an alternative has always haunted the project, the analytic tradition, a very different conceptualization of philosophy and its agenda. In the meantime, however, the status of European theory has been challenged by other paradigms. One involves, in this age of globalization, claims of other, specifically non-European philosophical traditions, Chinese philosophy for example but also, in some accounts, Muslim thought (although its relationship to the space of Europe is obviously more complex). One should consider these on their own terms, although often discussions suffer from the overdramatization of post-colonial frameworks, i.e., instead of considerations of the particular traditions, attention is grabbed by narratives of imperialism. Yet another challenge to “European theory”—another sign of lost ground—emerges within European theory itself: instead of an effort to think the tradition further, while maintaining connections to the past, forms of postmodern theory have advocated for a break with the tradition, with western metaphysics, indeed with the European philosophical tradition from its beginning, and to replace it with a cynical dismissiveness, coupled with political correctness. This can follow the route from Heidegger to Derrida, or, alternatively, in some readings of Horkheimer and Adorno: in the end, the differences between the two paths may be less important than the shared allegation that the western invention of the concept, the original idealism, was the source of all western evil. We should, so the arguments go, step outside of conceptual thinking: if we do, however, we may find that there is nothing worthwhile left.

Recognizing the subject as the consciousness that internalizes knowledge of the world and tries to make sense of it, mediating between the particular and the universal, and the constant reorientation toward the horizons of thought, the telos, as a guide for practice—these are defining components of the philosophical tradition at stake. It has thrived—and thrives—in secular intellectual versions, but it is also inextricably linked to western religious traditions, so much so that it is pointless to try to drive a wedge between reason and religion in this context. It is a tradition that resists a reduction of the world to the exclusive givenness of naturalism; mere facticity, described by an empirical positivism, is always insufficient. Yet at the same time it also resists the historicism of Zeitgeist, the complete relativization of human experience to the arbitrary prejudices of whatever culture seems to have seized power: thought has to be more than a random endorsement of the dominators of the day.

This issue of Telos is a stock-taking of the current debates on these components of the philosophical tradition, on the viability of the subject—at the center of the legacy—and the sense and senses it came to make out of the world. The issue opens with Dianna Taylor‘s pointed investigation of the often exaggerated gap between French and German legacies, in particular the critiques of the subject in the work of Michel Foucault, on the one hand, and Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, on the other. They agree that the category of the subject has been susceptible to manipulation and betrayed the promise of emancipation. “Horkheimer, Adorno, and Foucault do indeed show that what we have believed to be not only a constant but also a requirement in our lives—the only means by which we are able to encounter and make sense of the world—is in fact a historical contingency. Moreover, they show that subjectivation does not foster a particularly positive mode of engagement with either ourselves or the world and, therefore, does not particularly help us in making sense of either ourselves or the world.” Nonetheless Taylor also demonstrates how the critique of the subject in both traditions allows for a surpassing: “I hope to have called into sharper relief and emphasized the continued relevance of their common view that critical analysis and questioning of what appears most intransigent, ineluctable, and, yes, most valuable about our existence does not undermine but in fact constitutes the work of freedom.”

Unlike for Horkheimer and Adorno, who largely avoid explicit discussions of religious traditions, for Foucault, Christianity plays a large role, albeit a negative one: he dwells on how, through confession and other “disciplinary” practices, Christianity established the subject as a vehicle for domination. His hostile stance toward Christianity puts him squarely in a French Enlightenment tradition and closer to contemporary hegemonic positions than his self-presentation as an oppositional thinker would lead one to suspect. An alternative account, with which Telos has long been engaged, emerges from the “radical orthodox” tradition in the United Kingdom, of which Catherine Pickstock is a leading exponent. In her essay, she makes a strong case for the role of ritual in the production of sense, and for the explicit status of western Christian liturgy: “ . . . ritual opens up the space for there to be meaning, and brings together in a single founding, yet always already repeated, gesture both external norm and internal assent, without according priority to one or the other; neither to the technology of achieving repeated action, nor to the religiosity of venerating such patterns and regarding them as disclosive of the extra-human. This bringing-together of the two aspects, of bodily form with symbolic density, that is characteristic of Christian liturgical or ritual action, makes it hard to draw a sharp line between established western Christian religious practices and ritual action more generally, just as it makes it difficult to draw a distinction between ritual and non-ritual action.” Liturgy is crucial to the religious experience and the engagement of the worshipping subject. Its sensory aspects are inseparable from its sense: “ . . . insofar as the sensory and aesthetic experience of the Mass is a mode of instruction adapted to the mode of humanity, as Aquinas emphasized, it incites the participants’ spiritual desire to penetrate further into the secret, and worship ever more ardently. Were the smell of incense or the sight of the procession or the savor of the elements mere triggers for the recollection of concepts, they might do their work on one single occasion, once and for all. But they must be repeated and returned to, and this suggests that they are vehicles for the forward moving of human spiritual desire, which can never entirely be disincarnate and so separated from these physical allurements.”

Rahul Govind further engages with the question of the subject, or rather its “fade-out” under the weight of that temporality of progress that defines modernity. Providing close readings of Locke’s Reasonableness of Christianity and the Treatises, Govind exposes the lability of the political subject. “Although Locke is known for his epistemological skepticism toward the subject/person in his Essay, this very skepticism indexes an overall interest in thematizing the relationship between subject-formation and temporality. The latter cannot be extricated from a theological cum Christological horizon.” Therefore Govind generates an unexpected reading of Mill: “It has been conventional to further define modernity in terms of the freedom of a political subject from a theological determination: among others, Mill is taken as exemplary. By contrast I wish to argue that a rigorous scrutiny of the meaning and validity of such a subject—in which the rendering of time as progress inheres—calls it into question.”

Three essays follow that provide further framework to the philosophical and political-theoretical tensions of modernity. Rebecca Gould demonstrates how the tradition of a Platonic orientation toward law faces a set of anti-normativist challenges in work of Kierkegaard, Schmitt, and Benjamin, which she carefully parses. Nietzsche too belongs to that anti-normativist camp, and Paul di Georgio exposes aspects of an unexpected necessity in the Nietzschean account of the historical development of Judeo-Christian values. Juan Carlos Donado looks at the status of fiction in Descartes’ Meditations, especially the role of chiasmus.

Steven Knepper dissects pastoral and progressivist myths concerning the countryside; drawing on thinkers as diverse as William Faulkner, Wendell Berry, Raymond Williams, and Christopher Lasch, he calls in effect for a new theorization of the countryside. A robust exchange follows between Luciano Pellicani, who insists on the priority of a secular rationalism among the American “founding fathers,” and Adrian Pabst, who argues for the significance of the Christian tradition. There is a historical dimension to this exchange, alternative estimations of the eighteenth century. However what is really at stake is the status of religion in modernity. The issue closes with a note by Matt Applegate on the fascinating 1956 exchange between Horkheimer and Adorno on the possibility of radical politics, entitled posthumously Towards a new Manifesto. Finally, Derek Hillard reviews David Durst’s translation of Ernst Jünger’s On Pain, and James Schall comments on A Journal of No Illusions, an anthology concerning the origins and history of Telos.

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