Of all the presentations I’ll be giving in the next few months, the one that’s caused me the most consternation is Liverpool Hope’s Thinking the Absolute conference. As described in its announcement,

This conference invites proposals which critically consider this speculative turn in philosophy and its implications for thinking about religion. To what ‘end’ is speculation leading? Does it simply announce the closure of religion and its subordination to a philosophy of the absolute, nature or the ‘All’? Can it open new lines for a philosophy of religion which is not wedded to the Kantian horizon? Is speculation itself open to Kierkegaardian critique as yet another move to position and reduce ethical and religious claims, sacrificing the future on the altar of abstract possibility? Does renewed attention to the canon of speculative idealism offer a way beyond the impasse between relativism and dogmatism?

The problem here is that I’m just not sure what I have to say on the topic of religion situated in these terms. I don’t want to engage in the rather mechanical exercise of elaborating what an object-oriented theology would look like and why such a theology would undermine any importance we might grant to theology altogether. Nor do I wish to go in with guns blazing as the atheist object-oriented materialist seeking to demonstrate why any and all theologies are mistaken. Nor, finally, do I wish to show how object-oriented ontology recommends a mode of sociology analysis that focuses on religious practices and objects rather than beliefs in the formation of religious collectives and forms of subjectivity.

It seems to me that the real question ought to be what it is about philosophy as it has historically unfolded that perpetually leads it to be haunted by the invitation of religion as an irresistible supplement. In other words, rather than raising the question of whether we should choose philosophy or religion (clearly we should choose philosophy), and rather than adopting the stance of the new atheists and asking whether the ontological claims of religion are true or false (from a factual perspective they are false), I would instead like to ask what it is about philosophy that almost ineluctably leads to the necessity of religion as a supplement that fulfills something that philosophy cannot itself fulfill. Why, in other words, does philosophy encounter the “eternal return” of religion as a necessary supplement that surmounts the limitations of philosophy?

read on!

Following Levi-Strauss and his account of myth, my hypothesis is that the return of religion within philosophy marks the place of a fundamental speculative project. In other words, because philosophy structurally leaves something vital in the question of being unfinished, religion perpetually returns as a necessary supplement to symptomatically mark the place of this forgotten. Here I draw on Etianne Gilson’s analysis of the questions of metaphysics to locate the place of this remainder that haunts philosophy. As Aristotle tells us in book 4 of the Metaphysics, the “highest science” of philosophy is that of metaphysics which investigates being qua being. However, immediately this project leads to difficulties for the meaning of the term “being” is ambiguous. On the one hand, being is a noun that refers to what being is. On the other hand, being is a verb that refers to the fact that beings are or existence. It is in relation to this dual signification of being that metaphysics encounters the necessity of its first decision. Will metaphysics consist in the analysis of the noun “being” or what being is? Or will metaphysics consist in the analysis of the verb “to be” or existence? Or will metaphysics consist in the thought of the relation between being (noun) and existence (verb)?

Already features internal to the difference between being as a noun and being as a verb incline, according to Gilson, philosophers to treat metaphysics as the investigation of being rather than existence. On the one hand, being, as Gilson reminds us, “…is quite conceivable apart from actual existence; so much so that the very first and most universal of all the distinctions in the realm of being is that which divides it into two classes, that of the real and that of the possible” (3). As Gilson continues, “[s]ince being is thinkable apart from actual existence, whereas actual existence is not thinkable apart from being, philosophers will simply yield to one of the fundamental facilities of the human mind by positing that being minus actual existence as the first principle of metaphysics” (3). In other words, if being as a noun is what recommends itself as the proper object of metaphysical inquiry, then this is because 1) it’s indifference to existence allows it to be thought without need of taking a detour through [contingent] existence (thereby grounding metaphysics as an a priori science), and 2) because insofar as every existence necessarily includes reference to being, existence is already subsumed under the thought of being. In short, it is the existential neutrality of being, its indifference to determinations of possibility and actuality, that recommends it as the proper object of metaphysical inquiry.

The same cannot be said of being as a verb or existence. First, and obviously, existence is obviously not existentially neutral. While we can readily agree with Kant’s thesis that “being (noun) is not a real predicate” in that 100 imagined dollars are conceptually identical to 100 actual dollars, we cannot agree that it makes no difference whether these dollars exist in one’s wallet or not. The problem lies in determining just what difference existence makes. And it is here that thought runs up against a barrier. For, as Gilson remarks, “[i]t is not enough to say that being is conceivable apart from existence; in a certain sense it must be said that being is always conceived by us apart from existence, for the very simple reason that existence cannot possibly be conceived” (3). Existence is like pornography. We [allegedly] know it when we see it, but we cannot formulate a concept that would allow us to represent what existence is. Existence is that which escapes all conceptual determination and which evades all thought. We readily concede that existence exists, that existence is, but try as we might we cannot articulate a set of conceptual criteria that would articulate what existence is. Such is the lesson of Lacan’s discourse of the master (upper right), where the naming of anything leaves a residue or remainder that cannot be accounted for (objet a) and of Hegel’s critique of sense-certainty in the open of The Phenomenology of Spirit. The brute existence of beings always, Hegel teaches, escapes conceptual mastery.

If metaphysics is to be a science it thus follows that it must decide in favor of the articulable or that which is existentially neutral or indifferent to the brute contingency of existence. If metaphysics must choose being (noun) over existence (verb) then this is because being admits of conceptual elaboration. Insofar as conceptual thought thinks possibility and insofar as being is existentially neutral, it also allows thought to think that which is the same as thought. It is this decision on behalf of being and against existence that metaphysics is also so persistently ends in idealism. For in thinking being it encounters the mirror of itself, thereby ineluctably being drawn to the conclusion that being and thought are identical to one another. Nonetheless, this decision is seen as innocent for it is held that being already subsumes existence or that being already contains all that is of importance with respect to existence… Except, of course, it’s brute contingency.

However, just as we expect from Lacan’s discourse of the master, conceptual determination (the relation between S1 and S2) is not without a remainder. Despite the attempt of the philosopher to capture existence within the existentially neutral claws of conceptual possibility, the remainder of contingency persists and haunts philosophy. We sense that while philosophy has taught us much about the structure of possibility it has still missed what is most vital and important to us: the brute contingency of existence. For us it is not what is abstractly possible that matters, but what is. Yet of what is, metaphysics has nothing to say for it has already set existence to the side as a possible domain of inquiry insofar as existence is precisely that which cannot be represented.

It is here, with respect to this remainder, that we encounter the siren song of religion as that seductive supplement that would pick up the slack for what metaphysics has failed to address. For while metaphysics, as the investigation of that which is existentially neutral or the structure of possibility, is unconcerned with existence, the sole concern of religion is with existence. Religion is above all concerned with the fact that this world exists, that it was created by an existing entity (God), and that we exist and that these particular entities exist. From beginning to end, religion is an attempt to come to grips with this facticity of existence and its significance (and here it’s worth noting that the principle of sufficient reason is metaphysic’s sad attempt to do something similar within a framework focused not on existence but on being as existentially neutral structure of possibility; h/t to Tom Sparrow on this point). Just as myth, according to Levi-Strauss, surmounts a fundamental paradox or contradiction within a signifying structure, religion is an attempt to mark the place of existence forgotten by philosophy’s meditation on existentially neutral being. Put differently, religion is the attempt to complete the thought of being by other means.

What I would thus like to conclude is that religion is symptomatic of the speculative project of metaphysics. Religion is what comes forth to supplement metaphysics when metaphysics sets existence to the side. If this hypothesis is true, then it follows that the choice of philosophy over religion– a choice we presumably all make as philosophers –cannot be completed by demonstrating that philosophy is the “rational” choice over religion, nor that the claims of religion are inadequate as descriptions of reality. Rather, philosophy only surmounts religion in completing its project of thinking being. Yet this project can only be successful where the science of being or metaphysics is not simply the thought of existentially neutral being as structure of abstract and indifferent possibility. Rather, philosophy must also think existence. However, if the speculative project of philosophy is only complete in thinking both existence and being and their relation, this entails that there is a paradox at the heart of metaphysics. For in striving to think existence, philosophy must think that which is anterior to all thought, that which cannot be represented, and that which evades all conceptual determination. If the speculative project of philosophy is to be completed philosophy must think that which cannot be thought or the unthinkable. Such is the move beyond correlationism and the condition under which it might be possible to exorcise the endlessly returning specter of religion. How this might be done, I don’t know, but such seems to be the projecting uniting all variants of speculative realism.