Pairs: A Response to Rashkover, Farneth, and James

Nicholas Adams
University of Birmingham

I am grateful to Randi Rashkover, Molly Farneth, and Mark James for their illuminating responses to my attempt to rehabilitate Hegel in the study of theology. I propose to take this opportunity to discern the weaknesses in that attempt and to consider whether they are primarily a matter of presentation or whether they are intrinsic to any such attempt. That is, in the light of these generous responses, I wonder whether I (or another) could make my case more strongly, or whether the case itself is weak (however it is made).

Each of the responses rehearses aspects of that case, and the emphases are instructive. Rashkover focuses on the distinction between theology as classification and philosophy as rules for classifying, together with Hegel’s distinction between representation and the concept; Farneth and James focus on the distinction between pairs and false oppositions, and especially on the meaning of reconciliation between agents. Each offers a challenge, too. Rashkover, Farneth and James all query whether my claims go far enough: Rashkover is concerned that I attempt to protect the distinction between creator and creature in a way that renders it “immune from further reflection”; Farneth finds that my claim that speech about God appears in Hegel’s texts at moments when false oppositions are overcome does not to go far enough. For Hegel, in Farneth’s account, God not only has to do with mutual relation; God is mutual relation. James suggests that the very notion of a ‘pair’ is just one of the categories developed in the Science of Logic, and one that is developed rather early on and solely within a realm of finitude; a better reading of Hegel means “going beyond Adams to the logic of infinite pairs”. Put in friendly terms, for all three respondents, I offer useful clarifications of some of Hegel’s moves, but I unpersuasively and unnecessarily limit the scope of their operation.

I accept the characterisations of my arguments offered here. I make the case that Hegel repairs false oppositions by developing a logic of pairs, and I make the case (implicit in Eclipse of Grace, explicit in other pieces) that the scope of Hegel’s lessons should be limited, at least in relation to theology. It is appropriate, then, that my response should focus on such limitation. Is it warranted?

There are two different questions to consider. (1) Do I attribute to Hegel, himself, an acknowledgement of the need to limit his insights? (2) If Hegel does not acknowledge the need for such limitation, do I make a convincing case that there is nonetheless such a need?

I changed my mind on this question in the light of the first volume of Cyril O’Regan’s in-depth study published as The Anatomy of Misremembering: Von Balthasar’s Response to Philosophical Modernity. This first volume (from 2014) focuses on Balthasar’s proximity to and distance from Hegel and makes a powerful case that Balthasar rightly refuses Hegel’s tendency to absorb Christian insights into a systematic scheme that is not Christian precisely because it is a systematic scheme. In Eclipse of Grace (from 2013), I cheerfully catalogue certain moves that Hegel makes, show how they are instructive for Christian theology, and imply that this is how Hegel sees things, too. O’Regan offers a sharp corrective to this: Hegel really does aspire to reconfigure the pattern of Christian theology, and the engine for this project tends to obliterate the polyphonic, multi-perspectival tapestry that the tradition has bequeathed. Balthasar is right to resist this (even if his own proposals create further and different problems of their own). O’Regan’s project is just as much a critique of contemporary Catholic tendencies towards monophonic, uni-perspectival schematisations of the tradition; he offers Balthasar as a resource for recovering a more textured and layered tradition, and he quietly warns those who are often vociferous critics of Hegel against producing an account of Christian theology whose pretensions are worryingly Hegelian, to the extent that they are monophonic and systematic.

This is persuasive to the extent that one embraces a polyphonic, multi-perspectival, textured and layered vision of the long Christian tradition, as I (with O’Regan) do. It will thus not do to learn certain important lessons from Hegel while downplaying his systematic pretensions, as I did in Eclipse of Grace. It is much better, if messier and more difficult to follow, to confront Hegel’s ‘misremembering’ of the tradition and to claim that there are nonetheless important lessons for theology to learn from him.

It will be easy enough to discern what kind of response to Rashkover, Farneth, and James this admission prepares the way for. My critics invite a more wholehearted embrace of Hegel’s programme. I shall nonetheless refuse this invitation.

We can pose each of the challenges in turn and consider what is at stake. For ease of discussion, they can be phrased as questions. Rashkover asks: for Hegel, can any claim (including theological ones) be subject to speculation? May theologians limit this arbitrarily? Can certain claims be placed off-limits?

Prased in this way, any attempt to limit Hegel’s insights runs the danger of seeming arbitrary. It is thus necessary to clarify what kind of limiting one might respectably have in mind. I would repeat my claim that Hegel sometimes takes a perfectly good insight with limited application and over-extends it. Again, two questions can follow from this: (1) When are these ‘sometimes’ to be found? (2) Are these objectionable over-extensions primarily matters of theological integrity?

To the first: Hegel brilliantly distinguishes representation (Vorstellung, picture-thinking) from concept (Begriff); he also makes a respectable (if contestable) distinction between religion (which overcomes false oppositions) and philosophy (which self-consciously overcomes false oppositions).  I think these insights are over-extended (in the Phenomenology more than in the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion) when Hegel claims that representation is and should be superseded by concept, or that religion is and should be superseded by philosophy. I believe Hegel corrects these errant tendencies in his later lecture series, but following O’Regan, I am willing to be persuaded that Hegel tends to take valid logical claims (e.g., “Christian theological thinking about the Trinity takes this shape”) and blurs them with doctrinal claims (e.g., “The Trinity means this, and only this”). I admit I am in a minority who believe that Hegel’s investigations in the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion are rightly interpreted as logical – and not doctrinal – claims, but I also acknowledge that the texts remain unclear and that other readings are respectable. More seriously, however, Rashkover could be interpreted as attributing to my reading a willingness to go along with Hegel’s supersession of representation by the concept. If my proposals lend themselves to such a reading, then that is regrettable. I agree with the Hegel of the Lectures on Fine Art that representation is central to a way of life and, indeed, to a way of thinking. Theology is rightly representational, as well as conceptual: these are different modes of thinking (and they are both species of thinking) about the same objects, issues, questions, problems. I do not advocate (and neither does Hegel) a non-representational or post-representational theology. Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection and Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus are surely excellent theology.

To the second: Hegel’s over-extensions are objectionable wherever they might occur, and they are easily corrected by specifying their appropriate theatre of application. There is no difference, in principle, between correcting a theologically grievous over-extension and correcting a more specifically philosophical one. But such correction is not a matter of protecting specific theological claims, or of placing particular topics off-limits. The example of the difference (and not just logical distinction) between creator and creature is surely pertinent, as Rashkover implies. There is an appropriate ‘opposition’ between creator and creature. Hegel’s account of pairs is not, as I repeatedly insist, an abolition of opposition. It is the overcoming of false opposition. The opposition between creator and creature is not obviously and intrinsically a false opposition in the way that an opposition between thinking and being, or subject and object, is false. (Indeed, from the perspective of the long Christian tradition, it is a true opposition, so to speak.) It thus does not stand in need of overcoming. Admittedly, judgements about when oppositions are false or not will provoke debate. The question, “When is the difference between divine and human, creator and creature, falsely drawn?” is one of the classic post-Chalcedonian questions in Christian theology. The tradition has consistently argued that a serious mistake has been made when one says “God is over there, and we are over here.” Likewise Feuerbach’s claim “God is the mirror of man” is errant. How one corrects these mistakes is a matter of disagreement and rival formulations, but there is no serious doubt that one needs to correct them.

This way of putting things should go some way towards addressing the worry that theological interests are attempting to place certain claims off-limits or immunising them against reflection.  Following Peirce and Wittgenstein, there are certain claims that I do not doubt, and there are certain claims whose doubtfulness needs to be stimulated by some demonstrable problem before it has any right to be taken seriously. But again this would apply in principle to any doubt, and theological doubts are not special cases.

These considerations lead to Farneth’s invitation to admit that “mutual relation is God”. The criticism here is that my proposal that Hegel connects talk of God to talk of reconciliation and mutual relation is too soft; Hegel in fact identifies God with mutual relation. Farneth (and James too) is suspicious that I underplay Hegel’s developmental account. For Farneth, Hegel’s developmental project in the Phenomenology is one that narrates the appearance of an absolute standard of knowledge. This standard “inheres” (Farneth’s term) in the relation between subject and object, rather than being either “subjective” or “objective”. God is this relation. To say “God” is “to specify that this relation is worthy of the title reserved by Christians for the absolute and self-sufficient standard”. When religion represents “this standard of knowledge as an entity outside of itself, in the person of God, it has not yet actualized the absolute and self-sufficient standard in its conceptual form”. Let us again put these in the form of questions.

Farneth asks: is the concept the terminus of a development of various candidates for a “standard” of knowledge? Is this terminus an absolute and self-sufficient standard? Is it the relation between subject and object, thus overcoming false opposition between them? Is this relation God?

Farneth commends affirmative answers to all these questions on the grounds that they cohere elegantly with other claims I have made about handling differences and disagreements between religious traditions.  If religious traditions are rightly concerned with truth, if the standard for truth is (as Hegel argues in the Phenomenology) a matter of relation between subject and object, and if one rightly gives up on a claim to possess a God’s-eye view of truth, then surely Hegel offers the always available possibility of reciprocal recognition and reconciliation even under conditions of radical disagreement. This is because the “God” who is acknowledged, in contested and rival ways, names (or as Farneth, puts it “refers to”) the absolute and self-sufficient standard of knowledge.

I detect rival tendencies in Farneth’s formulations. On the one hand, there is a vision of an approach which “acknowledges the perpetuity of difference, and our endurance of it, in right relations of tolerance and reciprocal recognition”. But there is also another repeated note: “reciprocal recognition and reconciliation remain possibilities” (my emphasis); there is a moment of “shared authority and reconciliation” (my emphasis). I wonder quite what to make of this. I wholeheartedly embrace an approach that sustains disagreements in ways that acknowledge the relations between traditions, where such relations partly constitute the traditions (for example, where public declarations identify a group explicitly over and against other groups). I also embrace an approach where members of one tradition recognise that criteria for judging truth and falsity belong to those traditions and where it is arguably unreasonable to expect members of other traditions to adopt the same criteria. Jews and Muslims have good reasons to deny that Jesus is fully divine and fully human.

But it remains unclear to me what kind of reconciliation is imagined here. Farneth leaves this vague, perhaps because she expects that her readers are unlikely to doubt the desirability of reconciliation between members of different religious traditions. It is possible Farneth means that one has reconciliation wherever members of different traditions recognise each other’s claims to truth and acknowledge in a Hegelian fashion that the standard for knowledge is a relation between subject and object. One surely has something precious (and rather rare) in such cases, but is it best named “reconciliation”? It is also possible Farneth means that whenever members of different traditions make mistakes, acknowledge them to each other, and seek and offer forgiveness (classic Hegelian themes), then one sees reconciliation. A good example of this might be Christian disavowals of supersessionism and Jewish responses to them (such as Peter Ochs’ Another Reformation). This is a recognisably Hegelian account of reconciliation (Versöhnung), but this seems rather distant from questions of truth and knowledge. One must acknowledge that Hegel himself in the Phenomenology juxtaposes practices of reconciliation with the development of the concept (and ultimately absolute knowing), but it is not a straightforward matter to draw the lines between them. I would willingly learn more about how such connections might be made. For the moment, I think that Farneth may too quickly be eliding “two individuals who have overcome their opposition” and “overcoming the false opposition between two logical terms”. This merits further investigation.

However, to the question “Is this relation God?”, I would pause before answering. There are two forms of the question here: (1) “is this relation God for Hegel?”; (2) “is this relation God for Hegel’s readers?”

The first is a matter of textual interpretation, and it surely cannot be settled simply by appeal to the text. I suspect that if one reads the Phenomenology as a development of his Jugendschriften, then one might be tempted to affirm the identity of “God” and “the relation that overcomes false opposition”. If one reads the Phenomenology as an anticipation of themes in the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, however, then that identity seems much more doubtful, as Hegel there deals with (and often affirms) more orthodox claims in Nicene and Chalcedonian theology.

The second is a matter of who those readers are. If the reader is Feuerbach, the answer is almost certainly “yes”. If the reader is a Christian who identifies with the long Eastern and Western traditions, then surely it is much more difficult. Thomas Aquinas, at the end of each of the so-called “five ways” says, “[T]his is what everyone calls God.” This variously attaches to the unmoved mover, the first efficient cause, a necessary being, and so on. Why not say also “the mutual relation between two terms in a pair”? This would be unusual, perhaps, but consistent with the train of thought in Thomas’ meditation on Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

Surely the trickier issue is to gauge the force of the identity claim. When Feuerbach says “God is the mirror of man”, he is not quite saying the same kind of thing as “the unmoved mover is what everyone calls God”. In the case of Thomas’ formulation, God is so much more than what is named. In the case of Feuerbach, there is no more to “God” than “mirror of man”. The first, Thomas’, is a partial claim, and it is known to be partial because it appears juxtaposed to four other partial claims: it invites further claims. The Feuerbachian second is a totalising claim: it does not merely point indexically, but it erases all other significations. What kind of claim is Farneth inviting me to affirm? Is it partial (this relation is what everyone calls God), or total (God is the relation, and nothing else)? As a partial claim, I would say it invites further inquiry. As a total claim, it is repugnant.

James offers an outright correction of my claims about pairs. The argument is as follows: I draw attention to Hegel’s pairs as things that are distinct but in relation. Hegel describes this, in the Science of Logic, under the rubric “Something and Other”, but in my account, pairs concern only finite terms whereas in Hegel’s account, there is a transition to the infinite which produces reflexive forms that are absent in my account. If we go beyond my account to a “logic of infinite pairs”, we can repair certain errant accounts of language. Again, we can phrase these as questions.

James asks: is my account of pairs much the same as Hegel’s discussion of Something and Other? Is my account exclusively concerned with finite terms? Does Hegel’s account of infinite pairs constitute a significant advance? These questions invite a deeper question analogous to those raised by Farneth: how is what I do with Hegel related to what Hegel himself is doing? More succinctly, how Hegelian is my account?

Is my account of pairs much the same as Hegel’s discussion of “Something and Other”? There are clear similarities and points of overlap, as Hegel’s language of relation and sameness indicates. There is, however, a significant difference. Hegel, at that point in the Science of Logic, is concerned with “being-for-other” and “being-in-itself” —that is, with objects in the world. James rightly describes these as a matter of the finite realm. Now I too offer a variety of finite phenomena as illustrations of the kind of issue at stake in pair-talk. I use the example of marriage and of bread-and-butter. These are certainly finite, but they are mere illustrations. The main burden of the argument is not to handle finite things, but to draw attention to an explicitly reparative dimension of Hegel’s thinking. The terms I place centre-stage are thinking/being, subject/object, individual/community, divinity/humanity. Hegel’s reparative move is the overcoming of false oppositions between these terms, false oppositions that he discerns in Descartes, Kant and others. The problem that “pairs” solves is the problem of false opposition between terms.

Hegel’s discussion of “Something and Other” could be read in that way, possibly, but much more central (as James points out) is the development of a reflexive account in which thinking about the infinite requires one to consider it both as whole (encompassing finitude) and as part (as distinct from finitude). Put starkly, I draw attention to Hegel’s repair of false oppositions (and I do so because false oppositions cause havoc in theology, and Hegel can help); James draws attention to Hegel’s developmental account of reflexivity in logic when it deals with infinity. These are not enterprises wholly alien to each other, but they are significantly different. “Pairs” solves false opposition; “Something and Other” develops reflexivity in relation to the infinite. R.G. Collingwood encourages the readers of his Autobiography to consider that every claim is the answer to an implied question; the most fundamental task of the reader is to discover the question. We can put this to work here. I ask the question, “How does Hegel overcome false oppositions between terms?” Hegel in “Something and Other” asks, “How do an sich and für sich relations generate reflexive forms when one considers infinity?” These are not the same questions. Even when one has two “answers” that look similar (both my “pairs” discussion and Hegel’s “Something and Other” discussion deal in difference, sameness and relation), there is only a case for comparison when not only the “answers” (the claims) but also the questions are the same. That is not the case here.

James’ suggestion that Hegel’s account in Science of Logic can help repair errant tendencies in contemporary theological reflection on language (he singles out Mary McClintock Fulkerson and James K. A. Smith) is intriguing.  In many ways, James’ suggestion resembles the arguments made by the English philosopher Andrew Bowie that fundamental moves in Schelling and Schleiermacher (moves which invoke the infinite) solve in advance the false problems posed in much post-modern discussion of language. All of this deserves a more thorough investigation.

I take away two lessons from these discussions. The first is that there is no need to attribute my own reading of Hegel to Hegel himself. It is better to be explicit that the lessons one learns from Hegel may be at some remove from the lessons he intended to teach. The second is that any case for limitation (for not going as far as Hegel) needs to be made more robustly. Rashkover, Farneth, and James are not merely unpersuaded: they see the very attempt at limitation as a fundamental deficiency calling for repair. Can one learn from Hegel in the way I propose? Yes, I think so. But the principal corrective, I think, will be to offer a three-part combination. First, “Hegel claims x”. Second, “one rightly refuses Hegel’s excessive claims for x”. Third, “but here are the conditions under which x is valid, and which form the basis for important lessons one can learn from Hegel”. Of course, it is possible that Hegel makes excessive claims more rarely than is sometimes supposed, but that is an argument for another day.

I am grateful to my interlocutors and appreciate not only their careful readings of my arguments, but the attention to detail of Hegel’s texts and the doubts that their attention stimulate. It is gratifying to have this level of engagement, critique and counter-proposal. I am also grateful to Jacob Goodson for editing this issue of the Journal of Scriptural Reasoning.  We are very much in his debt.

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