The second instalment in our review symposium on Aaron Simmons' God and the Other: Ethics and Politics after the Theological Turn is from Stephen Minister who is assistant professor of philosophy at Augustana College in South Dakota where he specializes in continental philosophy and ethics.
Simmons’ God and the Other is an impressive work, both in its range of ambition and its ability to deliver sophisticated, illuminating, and well-reasoned analyses across this range. It is bound to shake up contemporary religious thought by demonstrating the viability of a continental philosophy of religion that is theistic not only in name but in substance, while also bringing together analytic and continental philosophers of religion into one coherent dialogue.
Simmons argues for three main theses. First, despite their postmodern opposition to metanarratives, Søren Kierkegaard, Emmanuel Levinas, and the thinkers doing “new phenomenology” all advance an “ontology of constitutive responsibility” which offers an interpretation of the human that is contrary to the dominant strands of modern philosophy. Secondly, contrary to Dominique Janicaud’s accusations of religious dogmatism, the new phenomenology of thinkers such as Jean-Luc Marion, Michel Henry, Jean-Louis Chrétien is properly phenomenological. Finally, Simmons argues that the ontology of constitutive responsibility offers vital resources for the challenges of contemporary life. As a performative argument for the practical relevance of this philosophical project, the final section of the book considers the implications of this ontology for religion, ethics, and politics, including a specific application of his notion of responsibility to the issue of climate change. In arguing for these theses, Simmons is seeking to justify both the philosophical legitimacy and the ethical and political value of “God-talk” in a postmodern context. Anyone interested in either of those questions will find this book to be a very worthwhile and stimulating read.
In order to illuminate the obstacles to his project, Simmons turns to Richard Rorty who serves as the main antagonist throughout because he rejects the necessity and even possibility of grounding our ethical and political thinking in an ontological account of humanity. Simmons is concerned that without such an account Rorty’s social vision lacks anything resembling a rational defense and so ultimately and paradoxically relies on political power play to achieve its goal of peaceful, autonomous co-existence. It is precisely because Simmons shares Rorty’s belief in the pre-eminence of working for a better, more humane and just social future, that he endeavors to show that such an ontological account is philosophically possible and can be practically helpful in achieving this better future. As this move illustrates, key to Simmons’ project is a much-needed resurrection (albeit with fallibilistic, hermeneutic bents) of some traditional philosophical notions that postmodernity seemed to have left for dead, such as ontology, epistemology, and justification.
As Simmons points out all practical ethical and political action is inextricably tied up with an understanding, usually unthought and implicit, of ourselves as humans, that is, with an ontology. Precisely because of their practical significance, we ought to articulate and philosophically think these ontologies, even if we no longer believe philosophy can secure the final, right answer. The account that Simmons argues for here is what he calls the “ontology of constitutive responsibility,” where the responsibility is “bi-directional,” both to God and to singular others. This account, which Simmons develops primarily from the work of Kierkegaard and Levinas, thinks of subjectivity as open, vulnerable, embodied, and always already called into loving relations with God and others. This account contrasts sharply with the dominant modern ontologies that define the human in terms of self-interest or autonomy.
Establishing such a bi-directional responsibility from Kierkegaard requires refuting the notion that for Kierkegaard our religious duty negates our ethical responsibilities to others. To this end, Simmons offers a sophisticated and compelling reading of Fear and Trembling in which he shows that Abraham’s God-relation does not eclipse, but actually intensifies his ethical responsibility to Isaac. With regard to Levinas, Simmons’ account of bi-directionality amounts to a rejection of those readings that collapse all of Levinas’s references to God into the idea of responsibility to others. Simmons suggests that such readings are unnecessarily tone-deaf to the consistent and significant place of God in Levinas’s philosophical work. Nonetheless, as Simmons acknowledges, within their bi-directional ontologies Kierkegaard seems to give priority to the God-relation and Levinas to the Other-relation. Herein Simmons leaves the question of priority undecided, suggesting instead that we see these two relations in an ongoing tension. Tension is for Simmons, as equivalent concepts are for Kierkegaard and Levinas, a positive, productive force that, in preventing comfortable complacency, can drive us forward to a future of more faithful, ethical action.
While I find Simmons’ readings of these thinkers’ works generally compelling, I’m not sure what a God-relation means in this book. Certainly, Kierkegaard, the Lutheran, and Levinas, the Jew, have rather different conceptions of this. Simmons is eager to avoid reducing God to an abstract term or mere reference to ethical responsibility as we find in much continental philosophy of religion. However, since the notion of God in Simmons’ book is so regularly coupled with the notion of a responsibility to others, I’m not sure what a relation to God entails over and beyond such responsibility. Moreover, given the fact that responsibility to a multiplicity of others already provokes tension—hence the difficulties of the political—it is not clear why we need a relation to God to add more tension. Without answers to these questions, it is not clear what the force of the bi-directionality really is. I get the sense that when he refers to a relation to God, Simmons has in mind something more Kierkegaardian, like a relationship with a personal, accessible, loving “being,” but this is not explicitly developed here. Simmons rightly notes that his work opens up the possibility of a postmodern Christian apologetics. Perhaps more than that, maintaining bi-directionality actually requires such an apologetics and correlative theology. This point need not be read as a criticism. God and the Other is primarily about ethics and politics, not apologetics and theology. One book can only do so much and this book already does a lot.
Two of Simmons’ other resurrected philosophical notions are epistemology and justification. Because much of postmodern thinking is, as the name suggests, born out of the rejection of the modern philosophical project, it consistently emphasizes the permanent failure of epistemology, the non-existence of neutral, unbiased Reason, and the impossibility of ever giving a final, true metaphysical account. While accepting all of these postmodern points, Simmons helpfully clarifies that the rejection of modernity’s capital-R Reason need not precipitate the end of reason-giving. Since at least Kierkegaard, philosophers have spilt much ink giving reasons for the death of Reason. What is more, to abandon reason-giving isn’t just philosophical laziness for Simmons, but actually an abdication of ethical responsibility. His ontology of constitutive responsibility to multiple singular others precisely calls us to reason-giving, even as it defies the possibility of possessing Reason “whole and entire” within oneself (Descartes) that “determines quite precisely what is to be done…with respect to all duty in general” (Kant). If we are to work towards a just and peaceful social existence, we must be willing to engage each other in reasoned discussion, exposing our views to the criticism of others and listening critically to theirs as well. Hence, throughout his work Simmons gives arguments for his positions, rather than appeals to religious dogma, power, aesthetics, or authority, and then willingly submits his work to critical reviews. There is nothing in any of this fallible reason-giving the guarantees that we’re getting at truth, but it is politically and interpersonally significant nonetheless.
In pressing this point, Simmons brings in analytic epistemology to devise an account of epistemic justification. Simmons advocates a “modest” or “minimalist” foundationalism, according to which beliefs are justified either through logical reference to other justified beliefs or when grounded in experience. Simmons notes that this notion of foundationalism, as developed by Robert Audi, William Alston, and Alvin Plantinga, is fallibilistic and so contrary to any form of foundationalism that would claim we can get at a certain, fixed foundation for knowledge. While I applaud Simmons for practicing what he preaches in being open to voices, such as those of analytic philosophers, that are critical of his tradition, and while this account strikes me as a generally accurate description of belief-formation, it remains unclear why endorsing the value of reason-giving requires a full-blown, normative account of justification. Once we have a clear account of when a belief is justified, once I can know that I am, in the words of Plantinga, within my “epistemic rights” in holding a certain belief, then doesn’t this risk closing off the critical conversation with others that Simmons advocates?
Simmons seems to turn to this epistemology in order to ward off the accusations of relativism or arbitrariness that sometimes dog continental philosophy. It seems to me that reading this epistemology as a descriptive account of belief-formation, rather than a normative account of justification, is sufficient to accomplish this. If beliefs are grounded (or through faulty logic or misperception sometimes misgrounded) in other beliefs or lived-experience, then regardless of whether beliefs are justified, they’re never arbitrary, but are always relative to lived-experience. This descriptive relativism, need not imply metaphysical relativism, but instead in the context of the shared social existence of responsible subjects seems to call for precisely the conversation and discussion among people with diverse experiences that Simmons advocates. So why not replace “justification,” a misleading and potentially dangerous honorific, with the permanent task of “justifying,” that is, the non-conclusive activity of giving honest reasons to others and listening to their responses in order to jointly think through our beliefs and actions. After all, isn’t that what philosophy (analytic and continental), new phenomenology, God and the Other, and this very book review do anyway?