I want to thank the many people who took the time to comment on my initial post. You’ve showed me that this guest-blogging stint will be both more stimulating and more time-consuming than I anticipated. I hope it is understood that I cannot possibly respond to all, or most, or even more than a very few of these comments.
I’ll try to write two posts today, the first (this one) addressing the philosophical questions raised by Jim F and others; the second post will bring things back to Mormonism. I think the latter is important because this could easily develop into a debate about theory. I’d enjoy that, but I’m unsure if it would be a good use of the Times and & Seasons website.
So, on to philosophy, postmodernism, Heidegger, etc. . . .
It is true, as Jim writes, that “what is true of God is also true of ordinary objects: ultimately philosophical terms are inadequate to that which they desire to represent, whether divine or no[t].” Yet I nevertheless think a distinction needs to be made here. On the one hand, all discursive statements somehow fail to grasp the concrete particularity of the object they describe. For example, if I say, “that tree is tall,” and the tree is, in fact, tall, then I have accurately described it in one of its manifold aspects. But it is also brown, hard, has green leaves, those leaves are “oak” leaves, its lowest branch looks a little bit like my first girlfriend’s ankle, it’s the tree under which I was married and in which (on a branch that was struck by lightning in 1986) I read the first page of my first Shakespeare play, and so on and so forth, through my own personal experiences and thoughts about the tree and its physical attributes: it has cells of a certain (oak tree) kind, is composed of carbon and other elements, which are themselves composed of atoms in certain configurations, which are themselves composed of sub-atomic particles. Try as I might, it is never possible for me to make a long enough list of discursive statements to capture the essence of the tree. Even when the list is, say, 3,492 statements long — and I find it impossible to think of another one to add to the list — the content of that list does not produce the “tree” I see before me. The lived experience of the tree inevitably slips the bonds of discursive thought — mainly because “experience” (phenomenologically speaking) is a combination of (often implicit) propositions, sense input, and “mind” or “intelligence” (“nous” in Greek). And the propositions can’t “get at” the sense input or “minded” sides of the equation — and without them, there’s no “experience.” This is, I know, not Heidegger’s way of putting it in the “Origins” essay; but I think it ends up in roughly the same place.
So much for that “one hand.”
On the other hand, there are statements about God — which of the opinions, intimations, intuitions, suspicions, etc., floating around in our pre-reflective thoughts can be applied to the divine? And more importantly, how far should we allow our reason (through dialectical questioning and refutation) to move beyond those immediate, pre-reflective givens toward a more refined, rationally acceptable or coherent account? It strikes me that Mormonism (as I understand it) proposes to stop the dialectical ascent very early — very close to the ground of our most basic commonsense, pre-reflective opinions and intimations. “So JS says that God has a body? OK, if that’s what God told him!” The mainstream Christian tradition, by contrast, stops the ascent at a “higher” level — at least by the time of the founding Creeds. Hence God is understood in terms roughly consonant with Greek philosophic categories (like “eternity” and “substance”), which are themselves very far removed from commonsense intuitions (although still much closer to them than most modern scientific claims [bozons anyone?]).
On the narrower (but related) question of whether postmodernism leaves us with “no moorings whatsoever,” I admit that Heidegger and others do leave us with the standard(s) that emerge from within pre-reflective communities; they thus encourage a radical (the most radical) return to the “given” (as it is revealed or disclosed in a “world”) that one could imagine. This is why, I think, so many Mormons find postmodernism to be congenial: Heidegger opens the door to a thorough, profound affirmation of the truth of their own “given.” But of course the content of this “given” that postmodernism affirms is radically indeterminate (indeed, I wonder, with Stanley Rosen, whether Heidegger would have allowed himself to be satisfied with ANY determination of truth, as opposed to insisting on endless, open potentiality that never culminates in any actuality). The point is that postmodern thinkers really don’t provide “moorings,” beyond vague gestures toward there being such moorings out there, somewhere (Levinas is arguably an exception to this rule, but even his mooring is as vague as can be; the “Other” is pretty empty, is it not?). So, the Mormon embrace of postmodernism that I alluded to in my post is a purely negative embrace: Heidegger, et al, clear the ground for a richer awareness of and absorption into the pre-reflective revelatory experience of the LDS community.
One last point. I’m afraid, Jim, that we have very different understanding of Heidegger’s relation to the philosophical tradition. I realize that the European source of postmodernism are less inclined than Americans to dismiss the tradition; good for them. Yet it is, I think, quite misleading to describe Heidegger as an “Aristotelian.” Heidegger’s Aristotle is a radically Heideggerianized Aristotle. And yet he ultimately seeks to go behind even HIM, to find the primordial origins of the West that precede Socrates, the pre-Socratics, and even (one presumes) Homer. Yes, things went badly wrong with Descartes, but this error was prepared by Christian theological errors, which were prepared for by Aristotle’s and Plato’s, and Parmenides’ error before them. All of them flinched in the face of Being; only Heidegger himself (and maybe Hoelderlin) could withstand the violent emergence of truth, which set the West out on its “first beginning” and might, if he and we are up to it, prepare the way for “another beginning.” So, yes: the tradition is there and it’s useful as a means of helping us to think rigorously and to think our way out of our current debased world, rooted as it is in decayed philosophical desiderata. But we can’t learn anything from it in a positive sense.
Well, this has gone on long enough for now. Have fun.