Sounds True to Me

This is from W.C. Harris 2005 book, E Pluribus Unum: Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Constitutional Paradox...
This is the crux of the post-theological crisis: in order to describe the world, you must have precisely the kind of authority that gets lost when theology ceases to be a basis. It is just as incumbent on a secular as on a religious account to come up with some ground upon which to argue value, some authority for narrating the world in a particular way.


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Kevin said...

Hey Casey.

If I understand you, you are agreeing with the idea that 'in order to describe the world', one needs the authority of theology (one 'must have...the...authority that gets lost when theology ceases to be a basis').

Here is a naive--but, I think, natural question: isn't theology itself a description of the world?
If so, how can it both BE an authoritative description and ALSO the source of that ground/authority? Harris, in that quote, seems to say something...unhelpful, and perhaps downright circular: that only an authoritative description can ground the authority to describe.

Note also that this objection runs just as strongly against a description we might call 'secular'--it applies to ANY description that proposes to provide values/ethical authority with a ground, which Harris equates with an 'authority for narrating the world in a particular way'.

But if this objection goes through, it seems NO description (theological or secular) can be shown to ground the authority to describe in a non-circular way.

But this need not (I think) be an ethical/value-related tragedy (even, I would argue, for epistemic norms), because we are wrong to suppose (and here is Levinas) that the 'ground' of ethical authority/value is some description of the world. Rather, description of any kind is ALWAYS ALREADY grounded in values (which, for Levinas, are (a) ethical, and (b) most certainly NOT relative).

Woe--a ramble there. But you get the idea why this quote might not 'sound[] true to me' to someone who thinks Levinas--a secular theologian of sorts--is on to something.

Casey said...


That's a great question. The way I resolve it is to locate authority in the self (for a moment, let that term go undefined).

Then the description of the world is both authoritative and the source of that authority, insofar as the self is not separate from the world (i.e., the self is the world).

But here I'm easily accused of metaphysical dancing... this is at least as slippery a resolution as the "always already" thesis of the Levinasian school.

Still, I'm unclear: what I mean to ask is, isn't the self who trusts in the holy text the same self who "makes" the values in the Levinasian model? Are we both/all faced with that final question: Who is the self? Who am I--who am I--to be persuaded into all of this?

Have you read Elizabeth Bishop's "In the Waiting Room?"


"You are an I, you are an Elizabeth..."

More thoughts?

Kevin said...

Hey Casey,

Sorry for delayed response. Weird week.

I can't really speak to the notion that 'the self is the world' because I just don't understand it. I would have to hear much more to make an intelligent response. Instead, let me address the Levinasian self, which I think you may be at least partially mis-characterizing.

First, the Levinasian self is a RESULT of the ethical relation, NOT the establisher of it. It is not that there is a self, who becomes 'persuaded' of value. For there must first be a self ALREADY there to be persuaded--and THIS is the self Levinas seeks to explain in ethical terms. It is therefore not the case that the self 'makes' values--quite the opposite; it is that a form of value is constitutive of--and therefore 'makes'-- the self.

Meaning what? What is this 'always already' and how can it 'constitute' a self?
I intend to blog this soon. But here is the quick and dirty version.

The BEING of selves is like the BEING of signs. What makes a self is like what makes a sign. A sign does not first exist, THEN get its commission ("Ok, 'A'--you will stand for this sound. 'B' you will...) No. Consider written letters. The orthographics are not sort of sitting around as something ontological, before being put to use. They do not have an IDENTITY PRIOR to function/responsibility; rather, their identity IS their function/responsibility--is what they are FOR. Unless a sign stands for something other than itself, it is not a sign at all. TO BE a sign is to STAND FOR SOMETHING OTHER THAN ONES SELF. To be a sign/self, then, is always already to have a commission to stand for something other than its/ones self. Hence, the 'always already', with respect to what a human being is for--and the complete (and, in my opinion, long overdue) death of the idea of some ontological self, drifting free, isolated, normatively neutral: we are ONLY selves because we are for each other.

One note: the poem is excellent--but not Levinasian. Levinas insists that, contra the poet here, there is no
common 'humanity' or set of features that make us "one of them." The question she asks:
"Why should you be one, too?" is, for him, a mis-taken question. We are not united by "similarities" which "ma[k]e us all just one" as she supposes. Rather, we are united by our sheer other-ness--and this otherness is NOT to be understood in terms of ontological properties, but in terms of the uniqueness of (an ethical) responsibility. I am called out by your suffering--and NO ONE can replace me in my responsibility to respond. I am not a unique person with my own responsibilities. I am a person BECAUSE I have responsibilities which are unique.

Not sure how that went. How about this:
You seem to have had a Christian education. Don't know what sort of theology you were taught, but it might be helpful here to think of the Trinity. Christianity, incidentally, is the only religion that, I think, fully grasped the utter impossibility of a Singular Self. God, the paradigm of personhood, is both inter-Personal, and has an irreducibly Ethical structure--all of which is entailed by the seemingly trite and innocuous claim that "God is Love".
Levinas and the Trinity--a project I would pursue were there world enough and time!

Rrrrgh--that was lengthy--but I hope it made sense to you, as to why I wanted to clarify Levinas' position, and its solution to the authority problem we were originally discussing: we are each authorities to each other to begin with. I AM because I am responsible for you, for all, and no one can relieve me of my responsibility...of my self. And all subsequent talk of values begins with "the face to face" in which we call each other into being in this way.

Casey said...

Kevin, that's actually very clear to me... one of the clearest exegeses of Levinas' thought that I've read. Thanks!

You made a nice point via the Elizabeth Bishop poem -- and I genuinely believe I understand the Levinasian view, and understand how it contrasts to the (what shall we call it?) contrary view of the self.

Or maybe I don't: I sometimes wonder whether we can ever convince each other that we "understand" (or "get it") until we are persuaded. That is: I think I understand what you are saying -- but I don't concur.

But I really enjoy our conversation -- it feels to me like we're circling around a disagreement over the definition of "Self." It's a legitimate disagreement... perhaps a disagreement that's mediated by different experiences?

My education has always been public, except when I've read in Christianity on "my own time."

Incidentally: I think Buddhism might be a better way of explaining my notion of Self... but, I'll spare you the details here!

Kevin said...

Great Casey--glad the Levinas was clear--he's a hard one to 'boil down'.

Ah, Buddhist selves...I've always been more attracted to Taoism (the Zhuangzi is a hobby horse). That said, I enjoy Spinoza and Whitman--and if those two aren't Buddhists, who is?

Agreed: it does ultimately come down to the self. The reason I think Levinas is so original, is the titanic failure (imo) of attempts to try to FIRST find out what people ARE (ontology) THEN going on to try to find out what they are FOR (ethics). This, he has more or less convinced me, is 'bass-ackwards'. Definitions in terms of parts/properties begs the question. It supposes that Being/IS is the ground of 'ought'. And what argument established this? Instead: We interact in the imperative--are imperatives to each other--and this, god bless it, pre-empts the usual question 'Why be ethical?', since, with respect to selves/subjects, one must be ethical to be.

P.S. Not stump for my own stuff here, but, beginning with the very first post on my blog, there is a series on the self--though there I call it 'the soul'. The series isn't finished, but since you know where I'm heading, perhaps the first few will make some sort of sense.
Thanks for the discussion!