Postmodernism and the Bahá'í Writings
By Ian Kluge
Published in Lights of Irfan Volume 9 (2008)
Postmodernism is a general name given to an extraordinarily influential intellectual and artistic movement which in its philosophical form, originated in France – though its foundations are largely in the work of German philosophers such as Kant, Nietzsche and Heidegger – and successfully took root and flourished in North American intellectual culture. Over the last forty years, postmodernism’s influence has been felt in a wide variety of subjects; however this paper will focus on its philosophic aspects and leave aside its manifestations in art, photography, theatre, architecture and creative literature. Wherever postmodernism has appeared, the depth and breadth of postmodernism’s impact is astounding. Some subjects, such as literary studies, have been radically transformed by the encounter to the point where ‘theory’ to swamp the subject of literature itself. Philosophy has felt its very legitimacy and usefulness as a subject challenged not to mention basic concepts such as knowledge, rationality and truth as well as the whole notion of metaphysics. History has been touched by, among other things, the struggle over the whole notion of grand narratives versus small or local narratives, the knowability of the past, as well as the uses of history. Women’s Studies, though not in themselves part of postmodernism, have been affected by the entire deconstructionist project, by postmodernism’s analysis of power relations and, more controversially, by its antipathy to essentialism. Psychology feels the influence of postmodern thinking in its handling of gender and political science in discussions of marginalization and the workings of power. Cultural Studies have opened new vistas for exploration through the study of simulations and simulacra. Postmodernism has also re-shaped and revised Freudian psychoanalaysis
The breadth and depth of postmodern philosophy’s influence make it necessary to examine the nature of its relationship to the Bahá'í Writings in order to assess whether or not there are points of agreement, their extent, and whether or not they are superficial or fundamental. The movement is so important and, in many respects, so radical that thought systems and/or religions cannot avoid taking a position in regards to its ideas. Such is the project undertaken by this paper which will examine the major philosophical issues covered by postmodern philosophy in epistemology and the quest for knowledge especially in literature, philosophy, history and cultural studies; in ontology; in philosophical anthropology (theory of man) and in ethics. This paper shall compare and contrast the positions taken by major postmodern philosophers with those that are given directly or implicitly in the Bahá'í Writings.
This inevitably leads to the question ‘Can a Bahá'í adhere to some form of philosophical postmodernist without losing intellectual consistency, and if so, in what way?’ This paper concludes that the Bahá'í Writings and postmodernism share a variety of ideas but on fundamental issues of ontology, epistemology, philosophical anthropology (theory of man), ethics and cultural theory, they are incompatible. Generally speaking, postmodernism and the Bahá'í Writings do not share the same or even a similar “Denkweg,” or way of thinking. This is not to say there are no similarities between the two but that the similarities are relatively superficial or accidental whereas the differences are deep and foundational.
The plan of this paper is simple: in Part I, we shall survey the major postmodern writers - in particular Nietzsche, Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Rorty and Baudrillard who are “the major philosophical figures in the post modern turn in philosophy.” In Part II, we shall compare what these philosophers say with the Bahá'í Writings.
2. The Nature of Philosophical Postmodernism
In its broadest sense, philosophical postmodernism is a movement that challenges the most fundamental premises that have guided the development of Western philosophy since the time of Plato, and most particularly, the philosophical foundations of the Enlightenment. Indeed, this theme of opposition to the Enlightenment is so strong, some scholars see postmodernism as a continuation of the “Counter-Enlightenment” that began in Germany and France in the 18th Century and found its most influential voice in Nietzsche. The Counter-Enlightenment opposed the Enlightenment’s proclamation of the autonomy of reason and the methods of the natural sciences based on observation as the sole reliable method of knowledge and the consequent rejection of the authority of revelation, sacred writings and their accepted interpreters tradition, prescription and every form of nonrational and transcendent sources of knowledge . . .
Thus we can see that the central feature of the “Counter-Enlightenment” was to question and undermine the supremacy of reason and empiricism in the quest for knowledge and to make room for intuition and instinct, which we deemed to be more natural and spiritual. This feature is clearly evident in the following characterization of postmodernism distinguished by an anti-(or post) epistemological standpoint; anti-essentialism; anti-foundationalism; opposition to transcendental arguments and transcendental standpoints; rejection of the picture of knowledge as accurate representation; rejection of truth as correspondence to reality; rejection of the very idea of canonical descriptions’ rejection of final vocabularies, i.e. rejection of principles, distinctions, and descriptions that are thought to be unconditionally binding for all times, persons, and places; and a suspicion of grand narratives, metanarratives of the sort perhaps best illustrated by dialectical materialism. The specific meaning of this statement will become more clear as we proceed through this paper. Postmodernism also notably rejects the concept of reason, the rational subject, the idea of progress, “epistemic certainty” and ‘truth,’ and all manner of binary oppositions such as good and evil, nature and culture, true and false and perhaps most surprisingly, writing and speech. Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, two of the best known scholars on postmodernism write, that in addition to rejecting representation, i.e. the belief that theories reflect reality, it also rejects modern assumptions of social coherence and notions of causality in favour of multiplicity, plurality, fragmentation and indeterminancy. In addition, postmodern theory abandons the rational and unified subject postulated by modern theory in favour of a socially and linguistically decentered and fragmented subject. Many (though not all) of these attributes can be encapsulated by saying that postmodernism rejects the 18th Century European Enlightenment and its intellectual culture of seeking certain truth and “clear and distinct comprehension” that could not be doubted. This goal received its most powerful early formulation in the work of Descartes whose famous method led him to reject anything which could possibly be doubted. In the last analysis, he discovers, what cannot be doubted is his own existence – to doubt it, he must exist! – and the power of reason to deliver the truth if we reason correctly. Thus he established on a firm philosophical basis, the primacy of the subject in the quest for knowledge and the primacy of reason. These ideas became foundational to Enlightenment, i.e. ‘modernist’ thinking which built on them and applied them to the exploration of reality.
One of the most comprehensive summaries of Enlightenment thought is presented by Jane Flax. Despite its length, it is worth quoting in full.
1. The existence of a stable, coherent self. Distinctive properties of this Enlightenment Self include a form of reason capable of privileged insight into its own processes and the “laws of nature".
2. Reason and its “science” – philosophy – can provide objective, reliable, and universal foundation for knowledge.
3. The knowledge acquired from the right use of reason will be “true” – for example, such knowledge will represent something real and unchanging (universal) about our minds and the structure of the natural world.
4. Reason itself has transcendental and universal qualities. It exists independently of the self’s contingent existence (e.g., bodily, historical and social experiences do not affect reason’s structure or its capacity to produce atemporal knowledge).
5. There are complex connections between reason, autonomy, and freedom. All claims to truth and rightful authority are to be submitted to the tribunal of reason. Freedom consists of obedience to laws that conform to the necessary results of the right use of reason. (The rules that are right for me as a rational being will necessarily be right for all other such rational beings.) In obeying such laws, I am obeying my own best transhistorical part (reason) and hence am exercising my own autonomy and ratifying my existence as a free being. In such acts, I escape a determined or merely contingent existence.
6. By grounding claims to authority in reason, the conflicts between truth, knowledge and power can be overcome. Truth can serve power without distortion; in turn by utilizing knowledge in the service of power, both freedom and progress will be assured. Knowledge can be both neutral (e.g. grounded in universal reason, not particular “interests”) and also socially beneficial.
7. Science, as the exemplar of right use of reason, is also the paradigm of all true knowledge. Science is neutral in its methods and contents but socially beneficial in its results. Through its process of discovery we can utilize the laws of nature for the benefit of society. However, in order for science to progress, scientists must be free follow the rules of reason rather than pander to the interests arising from outside rational discourse.
8. Language is in some sense transparent . Just as the right use of reason can result in knowledge that represents the real, so, too, language is merely the medium in and through which such representation occurs. There is a correspondence between word and thing (as between a correct truth claim and the real). Objects are not linguistically (or socially) constructed; they are merely made present to consciousness by naming and the right use of language.
Directly or indirectly, Flax’s summary touches on almost all of the Enlightenment beliefs against which the postmodernists rebelled in their various ways, thereby revealing the “deep irrationalism at the heart of postmodernism” This opposition to the Enlightenment is also why postmodern philosophy is so heavily indebted to Nietzsche and Heidegger, who were both scathing critics of Enlightenment thought.
What postmodernism primarily offers in return for these wide-ranging rejections is more room for heterogeneity, for difference and the different, for the marginalized, for the colonized, the silenced and the outcast, be they subversive ideas or interpretations hidden in a text, a social class or group, the conquered, dominated, suppressed, rejected and demeaned. It also offers a new way to experience ourselves as subjects and a new way of relating to reality which is regarded as a man-made social construction. Finally, it offers freedom from being enslaved to metanarratives or “grand narratives” which threaten the independence and freedom of our lives. Thus, we can see that postmodernism is, or sees itself, as an intellectual liberation movement working for the freedom of oppressed peoples and ideas. It is, therefore, at least to some extent involved in the politics of knowledge, which means it formulates theories with an eye to their usefulness and suitability for its liberationist goals. It is not simply trying to find truth but truth that makes free.
This oppositional attribute of postmodernism has been observed by such scholars as Lloyd Spencer whose article bears the telling title of “Postmodernism, Modernity and the Tradition of Dissent”. Spencer writes, “postmodernism can be seen as an extension of the critical, sceptical, dissenting – even nihilistic – impulse of modernity.” This oppositional nature fits in well with postmodernism’s liberationist agenda.
To the charge that this reduces it from a philosophy with a disinterested quest for truth, to an ideology which seeks truth that are useful to a particular end, the postmodern reply is that whether conscious of it or not, all philosophy is ideology and is working in the interests of someone or some group. A disinterested quest for truth is a fiction to deceive others and ourselves.
3. The Foundations of Postmodernism: Kant
Whereas Descartes may be seen as the initiator of the Enlightenment or modernism in philosophy, Kant (1724 – 1804) is generally regarded as its towering philosophical intellect.
However, Kant’s role is ambiguous, because he may also be understood as also having laid the basis for postmodernism. Without question, Kant gave primacy to reason in the quest for knowledge; indeed, rationality is our most important attribute as human beings. At the same time, however, Kant put limitations on reason, restricting its effective scope to the phenomenal world of our daily experience. “I shall show that neither on the one path, the empirical, nor on the other, the transcendental, can reason achieve anything, and that it stretches its wings in vain, if it tries to soar beyond the world of sense by the mere power of speculation.” Therefore, he rejects the belief that God, Who is obviously transcendental to this phenomenal world, can be proved cosmologically, i.e. from the contingent existence of phenomenal reality, we cannot deduce the existence of a necessary and non-contingent being. The final result of Kant’s view is that human reason and knowledge are confined to the phenomenal world; there is no possibility of reasoning or obtaining knowledge about whatever is transcendental.
According to Kant, the limitations of reason were also demonstrated by the antinomies, that is, the equally possible but rationally contradictory results which show “discord and confusion produced by the conflict of the laws (antinomy) of pure reason.” In other words, on some subjects – the limitation of the universe in space and time; the concept of a whole cosmos made of indivisible atoms; the problem of freedom and causality; the existence of a necessarily existing being – reason can come to opposite but equally rational conclusions. There is simply no way to break the deadlock. Thus, “reason makes us both believers and doubters at once” leaving us with grounds to believe and disbelieve in God and in reason itself.
Kant’s third contribution to the development of the postmodern outlook is the theory of categories. In Kant’s view, our perceptions of the world did not arrive in the form in which we actually experience them. Rather they arrive as ‘raw data’ which the mind processes and shapes by means of the categories which are the conditions on which having an experience depends.
“These categories therefore are also fundamental concepts by which we think objects in general for the phenomena, and have therefore a priori objective validity” These categories, which include organizing raw data according to time, space, causality, necessity, contingency, subsistence and accidence among other things, constitute, that is, create our experience of the phenomenal world. Thus, our mind shapes the raw data of our perceptions into a coherent world which becomes the object of our experience. In Kant’s view, we have no way of knowing what the raw data was like before it was shaped into the phenomenal world by the categories of the mind; that noumenal realm must remain forever beyond our grasp and there is no point in speculating about this terra incognita. It is also follows clearly from Kant’s views, that to one extent or another, the perceiving subject cannot be taken as a mirror reflecting a pre-existing reality, which is to say, the subject cannot access reality and deliver accurate reports about it. Indeed, the subject is “an obstacle to cognition” and cannot be trusted.
Kant’s views laid the foundations for postmodern constructivism, which asserts that our knowledge of reality, be it natural, social or personal is constructed, not discovered. Discovery is really construction as Kant’s theory of the data organizing categories makes clear. We make the world or reality we experience. As we shall see later, in postmodern theory, the function of the categories is taken over by language and culture. This means that there can be no objective knowledge or representation of reality and that all we have are various constructions or stories none of which is privileged over others in terms of its truth value. (How, after all, could truth be determined if we only have constructions and nothing to compare our constructions against.?) Not only is external reality hidden beneath our constructions, so is our individual self or identity which becomes just another construction or story among the rest. This is a profoundly different way of experiencing oneself than the belief in an immortal soul forming our essence. Indeed, in this view, things such as cats, stars, species or individuals do not naturally have essences; rather these so-called essences are constructed for our convenience by selecting, more or less arbitrarily, a certain number and/or kind of traits. Postmodernism as we shall see drew the obvious lesson from Kant’s view: if reality, the world, and the self can be constructed in one way, they can also be constructed in another. The world and reality may be changed by reconstructing it along new lines.
Kant also influenced postmodern thought by providing an idea to react against, namely, the sharp division between the perceiving (and organizing) subject and the object, the data being organized. (Hegel, among others, already sought to overcome this division in his philosophy) The postmodernists want to see the subject and object as one di-polar complex, as a self-in-theworld, as irrevocably embedded in a specific life-situation with its unique perspective. Self and world are like two sides of a coin, distinct but not separable from one another.
Kant’s influence may also be felt in another area important to postmodern thinking, namely, its rejection of metaphysical investigation or speculation. According to Kant, it is impossible for us to gain knowledge about anything that is not part of the phenomenal world constituted by our mental categories. In other words, we cannot know anything that is not organised in accordance with the categories of time, space, causality, necessity, subsistence and accidence among other things. The nature of the raw data or reality – the noumenon – before it is perceived and shaped by the categories is forever unknowable. Human knowledge is limited to the phenomenal realm, i.e. that which is shaped by the categories. For this reason, cosmological proofs of God are impossible: they attempt to reason from the nature of phenomena to the nature of an entity – God – Who is beyond the phenomenal. We cannot apply reason – based on our understanding of the phenomenal world shaped by the categories – to that which has not been shaped by the categories. Consequently, all metaphysical speculation about non-phenomenal reality is pointless.
Finally, Allan Megill points out another are in which Kant’s philosophy, perhaps inadvertently, influenced postmodern thought, namely aesthetics. If nature, in Kant’s view, was the realm of law and our actions were the realm of the good (we always try and achieve what appears as a good to us) then aesthetics may be seen as a realm of freedom from these constraints, a realm in which beauty, pleasure and satisfaction are the goals. Kant, was read as asserting that there was “an autonomous realm of the aesthetic” In other words, there is a realm where man is free to construct however he chooses, where man is completely free. Moreover,
Kant’s insistence on the autonomy of aesthetic judgment leads him to deny that art has ‘truth value . . . At the same time, however, some of his statements in the Critique of Judgment can be read as contradicting this view. For he does hint that while art cannot supply us with knowledge in any logical sense, it can pout us into contact with something that cannot be fully presented in experience or grasped through concepts.
The lesson to be drawn from this is that only through art and through art-making or constructing can humankind ever attain its full measure of freedom and learn whatever ‘truth’ it is able to learn. Art, the aesthetic, has become the model and ideal of existence.
4. The Foundations of Postmodernism: Nietzsche.
Frederich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) had such an enormous influence on postmodern thought that one might well consider him to be the first postmodernist. According to Best and Kellner, Nietzsche’s “assault on Western rationalism profoundly influenced Heidegger, Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Lyotard and other postmodern theorists.” According to Clayton Koelb,
“Nietzsche initiated many of the basic concepts which stand behind the broad concept of postmodernism.”
Many, if not all, postmodern themes are taken up in his various works, from the early The Birth of Tragedy to his final, posthumously collected notes in The Will to Power. Of these, the distrust, indeed, dislike, for reason is clearly evident in one of his earliest and most widely read works, The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche relentlessly criticizes modern culture and its (for him) archetypal character, Socrates.
Our whole modern world is entangled in the net of Alexandrian culture. It proposes as its ideal the theoretical man equipped with the greatest forces of knowledge, and laboring in the service of science, whose archetype and progenitor is Socrates.
The “theoretical man” was Socrates, the champion of reason and thought as the best means of discovering the truth about ourselves and reality. In a similar vein, he writes in Twilight of the Idols:
Today, conversely, precisely insofar as the prejudice of reason forces us to posit unity, identity, permanence, substance, cause, thinghood, being, we see ourselves somehow caught in error, necessitated into error.
Socrates, the “theoretical man” has fallen prey to a profound illusion. . . [an] unshakable faith that thought, using the thread of logic, can penetrate the deepest abysses of being, and that thought is capable not only of knowing being but even of correcting it. This sublime metaphysical illusion accompanies science as an instinct and leads science again and again to its limits at which it must turn into art: which is really the aim of this mechanism.
Nietzsche calls Socrates a “mystagogue of science” with whom originated “the spirit of science. . . the faith in the explicability of nature and in knowledge as a panacea.” Despite claims to be seeking the truth, the mission of science is really to comfort humankind by making existence appear comprehensible and thus justified; and if reasons do not suffice, myth had to come to their aid in the end—myth which I have just called the necessary consequence, indeed the purpose, of science.
Therefore, the mission of science – and the quest for knowledge in general – is to provide comforting illusions such as the notion that the universe is an orderly place and/or a place we can understand. To do this, science has “first spread a common net of thought [“myth”] over the whole globe, actually holding out the prospect of the lawfulness of an entire solar system.” However, Nietzsche is not hopeful that this strategy will be successful: “But science, spurred by its powerful illusion, speeds irresistibly towards its limits where its optimism, concealed in the essence of logic, suffers shipwreck.”
These passages explicitly and implicitly point to other Nietzschean themes in addition to scepticism about knowledge and science, logic and reason. For example, Nietzsche’s scepticism about truth is plainly evident when he says, “Truth is the kind of error without which a certain species of life could not live. The value of life is ultimately decisive.” What is essential about truth is not that it is true but that it serves life: “[t]he criterion of truth resides in the enhancement of the feeling of power.” In other words, truth is not which is actually the case but that which meets our needs in the struggles of life – a view of truth that is highly subjective and which allows there to be as many truths as there are individuals with needs. When we think in existential terms, such might indeed be the case – we all have our own personal truths – but it is difficult to see how this could meaningfully apply to mathematics, medicine, science or history. Elsewhere he says that truth is “Inertia; that hypothesis which gives rise to contentment; smallest expenditure of spiritual force.” In a similar vein, he writes, “The biggest fable of all is the fable of knowledge,” thereby expressing his doubts about the existence of knowledge, something he had already done in The Birth of Tragedy by calling science a myth.
Nietzsche also strikes several postmodern notes when he writes:
Will to truth is a making firm, a making true and durable, an abolition of the fact character of things, a reinterpretation of it into beings. “Truth” is therefore not something there, that might be found or discovered – but something that must be created and that gives a name to a process, or rather to a will to overcome that has in itself no end – introducing truth as a processus in infinitum, and active determining – not a becoming conscious of something that is itself firm and determined. It is a word for the “will to power”.
Nietzsche tells us that the “will to truth” is seen in acts of will, in “making” things “true and durable;” it is an “active determining.” Thus he identifies the “will to truth” with the “will to power,” which implicitly rejects the notion that truth is simply our discovery of what is the case. Indeed, he it clear that truth is something we make, or create by an act of will, and that this willing process goes on forever. Final truth is, in the last analysis, unattainable. It is also a product of human creativity:
What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.
Truth, we might say, is an artistic human creation, a convenient fiction.
This position has at least six consequences that bore fruit among postmodern thinkers. First, if truth is man-made, then humankind has no access to reality, only its own fabrications – a theme we already saw in Kant’s division between the accessible phenomenal world and the inaccessible noumenal realm. This aesthetic theory of knowledge rules out any form of the correspondence theory of truth. Second, we observe the clear identification of the “will to truth” and the “will to power.” If these two are the same, then it is hard to avoid the conclusion that any claim to possessing truth is also a claim to power, i.e. those who claim to have truth are really advancing power claims over others. Third, truth is subjective insofar as it reflects what we need and desire, and what we project or impose on ‘reality.’ It is obvious, of course, that in this situation it is difficult to speak of reality at all, since there can be no one thing to which that term refers. Fourth, since truths are artistic creations – “are illusions” – there is no objective external standard by which to judge among truth claims and we can embrace them all as equally true or reject them all as equally false. In other words, this view exemplifies a thorough-going relativism (if we accept them all as somehow true) and scepticism (if we reject them all as doubtful.) Fifth, is the aesthetizing of reality, i.e. presenting it as a work of art, an idea that will later bear fruit with postmodern thinkers treating the world like a text or, as in Baudrillard’s case, quite literally as an artistic work. Sixth, the Nietzschean concept of truth as an artistic creation makes it clear that the concept of an ‘objective’, disinterested quest for or contemplation of the truth is “conceptual nonsense.” Because the quest for knowledge is a manifestation of the will to power, all truth is ‘interested’ truth, i.e. truth with an agenda. This is also true because all truth is perspectival: “The only seeing we have is seeing from a perspective; the only knowledge we have is knowledge from a perspective,” a position sometimes referred to as perspectivism.
According to Nietzsche’s perspectivism, all statements of any kind represent only one particular and limited perspective embedded in the concrete realities of a specific human existence which has no more legitimate claim to being true than any other. There is no neutral, ‘Archimedean point’ from which reality can be ‘objectively observed.’ Speaking of philosophers, Nietzsche writes:
Every one of them pretends that he has discovered and reached his opinions through the self-development of cold, pure, divinely untroubled dialectic . . . whereas at bottom a pre-conceived dogma, an “institution” or mostly a heart’s desire made abstract and refined is defended by them with arguments sought after the fact. They are all lawyers . . . and for the most part quite sly defenders of their prejudices which they christen “truths”. . .
The unbiased, objective quest for truth as such is a willow-the-wisp; every claim to know truth is an expression of personal interest, of the will-to-power. This claim has obvious logical problem with self-reference: since it applies to Nietzsche’s view as well, any universal truth value of his statement dissolves itself – and we find ourselves trapped in the midst of an infinite number of competing perspectives. Postmodernist philosophers, however, have simply brushed this problem aside and adopted Nietzsche’s perspectivism.
From this we can naturally draw the conclusion that what we call ‘truth’ is only an interpretation; indeed, Nietzsche says, “facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations. We cannot establish any fact "in itself": perhaps it is folly to want to do such a thing.” Nor do things have an essential nature apart from our constructions and interpretations. Perhaps the following quote may be used to sum up Nietzsche’s prevailing attitude and beliefs: “There exists neither "spirit," nor reason, nor thinking, nor consciousness, nor soul, nor will, nor truth: all are fictions that are of no use.”
To the suggestion that truth is more valuable than lies or fictions no matter how convenient they are, Nietzsche answers: “It is no more than a moral prejudice that truth is worth more than semblance” and then asks, “Why couldn’t the world which matters to us be a fiction?” Why not, indeed, since “the will to know [is based on] the foundation of a much more forceful will, namely the will to not-know, to uncertainty, to un-truth!” Humankind wants – needs – its deceptions, and therefore one should not struggle too much for truth since “it stupefies, bestializes and brutalizes you.” The ‘truth-game’ is not worth the candle:
The world with which you are concerned is false, i.e. it is not a fact but a fable and `approximation on the basis of a meagre sum of observations.; it is “in flux,” as something in a state of becoming, as a falsehood always changing but never getting near the truth: for – there is no “truth.”
Obviously, therefore, no eternal or absolute truths exist, and that being the case, no so-called truths can serve as the foundations of any system of metaphysics, ethics, philosophical systems or, what postmodernism refers to as “grand narratives.” Nietzsche’s rejection of truth is matched by his equally firm rejection of God. Zarathustra tells his listeners, “God is a conjecture; but I desire that your conjectures should not reach beyond your creative will. Could you create a god? Then do not speak to me of any gods.” In other words, Zarathustra-Nietzsche rejects transcendence, i.e. anything that is beyond the powers of the human will to create just as Kant rejects anything beyond the power of the human mind to know. Rather than wasting time with God, Zarathustra advises people to turn their energies into overcoming their humanity, and thus making way for the greater-than-man, the “overman” or superman” as he is sometimes called: “But you could well create the overman.” Later, Zarathustra says that “man is something that must be overcome – that man is a bridge and no end.” We should try to surpass our humanity and become something greater, or, if we cannot, at least help clear the way for something greater. In postmodernism this idea resurfaces as the theme of the ‘death of man,’ which plays an especially important role in the work of Michel Foucault.
5. The Foundations of Postmodernism: Heidegger
Though he is a highly controversial figure because of his one-time open support of the Nazi party, Martin Heidegger (1990 – 1976), perhaps the pre-eminent, most quoted philosopher of the 20th Century, is second only to Nietzsche in terms of influence on postmodern thought. Heidegger influenced postmodernism in six main ways. First, he rejects the metaphysics of the entire western philosophical tradition with the exception Anaximander, one of the pre-Socratics. The western tradition’s metaphysics and the resulting subject/object epistemology leads to a utilitarian-scientific-technological world view that impoverishes our lives. Second, he rejects calculative, utilitarian view of reason as the sole source of legitimate knowledge and the rejection of the correspondence theory of truth. Therefore, the concept of ‘truth’ cannot be limited to rationalized propositions about beings but must include knowledge of the Being of beings. Third, he sees truth as aletheia, the disclosure of the Being of beings; truth is not discovered by us but rather discloses or reveals itself. He also recognises the fundamental ambiguity of all knowledge. Fourth, he dismisses the notion of absolute final truth. Fifth, he doubts the ability of verbal propositions to mirror or reflect reality. Sixth, he sees the task of art and especially poetry as the disclosure of the Being of beings. Finally, in Heidegger’s view, language is not a transparent medium and helps constitute our being-in-the-world and our lifeworld.
For reasons uniquely his own, Heidegger, like Kant and Nietzsche seeks to avoid or rather, “overcome” metaphysics whereby he reinforces the anti-metaphysical trend already evident in 20th Century philosophy. Postmodern philosophy as we shall see is a part of this trend. Metaphysics – defined as “the philosophical investigation of the nature, constitution and structure of reality,” – has, according to Heidegger, gone askew since the time of Anaximander and continuously “misconstrues being” insofar as it forgets the “question of Being” and replaces it with concern for particular beings. Thus, Being, which is everywhere manifested in all things and which transcends all things, is falsely described as “the most universal and the emptiest of concepts” and is ignored; it ceases to be a subject of investigation in itself. No western philosopher since Plato has sought to describe the nature of Being as such. Instead, Being is replaced by interest in individual beings.
Metaphysics does indeed represent beings in their being, and so it also thinks the being of beings. But it does not think being as such, does not think the difference between being and beings .
Being and beings are confused with one another. Elsewhere, Heidegger says:
Metaphysics, insofar as it always represents only beings as beings, does not recall Being itself. Philosophy does not concentrate on its ground.
According to Heidegger, this failure to deal with the Being of beings, leads to metaphysics and science both of which depend on a diminished understanding of truth: “ To metaphysics the nature of truth always appears only in derivative form of the truth of propositions which formulate our knowledge.” In short, we know a lot about things and stuff but have forgotten Being itself.
To illustrate what he means, Heidegger compares Being to color and to the Earth in statements that recall Wordsworth’s passionate assertion:
Our meddling intellect
Mishapes the beauteous forms of things; - We murder to dissect. :
In a similar vein, Heidegger writes:
Color shines and wants only to shine. When we analyse it in rational terms by measuring its wavelengths, it is gone. It shows itself only when it remains undisclosed and unexplained. Earth thus shatters every attempt to penetrate into it, it causes every merely calculating importunity to turn to a destruction . . . The earth appears only cleared and as itself when it is perceived and preserved as that which is by nature undisclosable . . . .”
Our propositional knowledge and calculative or technological reason tell us nothing about color as it makes itself present (“presences” as a verb in Heidegger’s language) to us, just as our knowledge of earth-science and technology cannot makes us aware of the Being of the Earth. Technology concerns itself not with the Being of things but “the imposition of man’s will upon the world,” upon individual beings. It does not care if it really knows a thing with which it codwells in the world but only that it achieves mastery and dominion over it To know the Being of the thing, we must open ourselves to its Being just as we need to open ourselves to the experience of color. In effect, we need what Wordsworth calls “a heart/ That watches and receives.”
Heidegger’s analysis and the conclusions he draws from it have deeply influenced postmodern (and ecological) philosophy. Immediately noticeable is that rational and scientific knowledge (measurement) are limited in what they can tell us and do not exhaust what can be known about a particular being. They are merely one kind of knowledge from one particular perspective, one interpretation about a thing and not knowledge per se; it is quite possible for other thinkers or cultures with different perspectives to have developed different kinds of equally valid knowledge of specific beings. Therefore it is impossible to claim that any one kind of knowledge of beings is privileged or has priority over any other. No propositional knowledge is absolute; it is all relative. As Heidegger says, “There is no absolute truth across the incommensurable understandings of being or world-disclosures.”
This, inevitably, brings us to the question of the meaning of ‘truth’. According to Heidegger, the usual definition of truth involves the idea of something or a state of affairs being “actual,” of being “the correspondence of knowledge to the matter,” or the correspondence of something “with the “ ‘rational’ concept of its essence.” However, he disagrees with this view: “Thus truth has by no means the structure of an agreement between knowing and the object in the sense of a likening of one entity (the subject) to another (the Object).” In taking this position, Heidegger implicitly throws into question the subject/object distinction and relationship that has been the bedrock of western epistemology. If truth is not a correspondence between subject and object of perception, what could it be? In Heidegger’s view, the correspondence theory of truth is also inadequate because it ignores our relationship to Being, the interpretation or understanding of which influences our self-understanding as human and thus our relationship to the specific beings we encounter. Our usual propositions about specific beings are made as though they were products of an intellect that is independent of any relation to and interpretation of Being.
This, of course is false because conscious of it or not, all beings have a relationship to Being. For this reason, “the traditional assignment of truth exclusively to statements as the sole essential locus of truth falls away. Truth does not originally reside in the proposition.” It is important to note that truth does nor arise “originally” in propositions, i.e. that there is a deeper, more primordial original truth which manifests itself in specific beings. Thus Heidegger does not think propositional truth is fully adequate to reality.
Furthermore, he also has doubts about the possibility of a meaningful relation between propositions and things, which is to say, he doubts that mere verbal propositions lacking proper grounding in a relationship to Being can ever satisfactorily correspond to real specific beings. In Being and Time, he asks, “In what way is this relation [of correspondence] possible as a relation between intellectus [mind/intellect] and res [thing/object]?” From this question, it becomes plain that to clarify the structure of a truth it is not enough simply to presuppose this relational totality [of complete correspondence between mind and object] but we must go back and inquire into the context of Being which provides the support for this totality as such.
These passages also point out that our awareness of and attitude towards Being i.e. our “comportment” towards Being influences our self-understanding as human beings which in turn influences our relationship to specific beings. We, may for example, ignore Being, and ourselves as a place where Being reveals itself, and see ourselves strictly as things whose existence is limited to the superficial daily aspects being – purely utilitarian considerations, getting, spending, dominating and being dominated – and, as a consequence, develop a purely calculative rational approach towards ourselves and the things of this world. We may reduce things in our surroundings to mere objects for use or domination, a fate from which artists and especially poets must rescue them. Such objectifying leads to the dominance of technology in our lives and relationship to others and nature. Furthermore, Heidegger suggests that reason is not independent of other factors in our lives which is to say, is not transcendent i.e. objective or uninfluenced by our lives and therefore cannot provide a transcending and universal overview of reality that is uniform for all human viewpoints. “[A]ll truth is relative to Dasein’s [man’s] Being.”
According to Heidegger, truth is more than the mere propositions of calculative reason or a correspondence between a subject and object: truth, in the primary sense, is aletheia, unconcealing or “disclosedness” of Being and the Being of beings, of letting Being be, of having, as Wordsworth says, “a heart/ That watches and receives.” Thus, for Heidegger, existential truth is prior to propositional truth which implies that the disclosure of Being depends on our comportment or demeanour towards Being and the Being of beings including ourselves. The willingness to let Being be, to let the Being of things unconceal itself to us is man’s original way of knowing and only later does he ‘fall’ into forgetfulness of Being to satisfy himself with superficial, calculative, utilitarian reason and metaphysical propositions.
However, there is a fundamental ambiguity to aletheia for every unconcealing is also a concealing of Being and the Being of beings. “The disclosure of beings as such is simultaneously and intrinsically the concealing of being as a whole” because [i]n the simultaneity of disclosure and concealing errancy holds sway. Errancy and the concealing of what is concealed belong to the primordial essence of truth.
Thus, Being is always simultaneously disclosed and undisclosed, because these two conditions, like truth and untruth are not distinct absolutes but are correlates.
Precisely because letting be always lets beings be in a particular comportment [mood, stance, attitude] which relates to them and thus discloses them, it conceals beings as a whole.
Because truth is always the truth of a particular being with a particular comportment to Being as well as existing in a particular situation, the whole of Being can never disclose itself to us at any one time. Our availability to Being is always partial, and therefore, the unconcealing of Being is also a concealing. We are always faced with a ‘hidden dimension’ in our encounters with all beings. Because of this, our knowledge of the Being of things is unlimited; indeed, it is infinite, and for that reason there can be no limit to our knowledge of the Being of beings. This idea bore particular fruit in the work of Derrida, whose deconstructionism posited that no one approach to or reading of a text could possibly disclose the entirety of its meaning. There was undisclosed discord between what was revealed and what was concealed and this discord enable virtually an endless number of readings just as artists and poets could disclose endless aspects of the Being of beings. A final disclosure or reading is an impossibility.
In Heidegger’s view, the arts, above all poetry and painting disclose the Being of beings; the artist “speaks . . . in a nonsubjective, Being-attuned voice.” Art, has a deep epistemological function, it “puts us in touch . . . with a truth that we cannot attain otherwise than through art.”
The Greeks called the unconcealedness of beings aletheia. We say “truth” and think little enough in using this word. If there occurs in the work a disclosure of a particular being, disclosing what and how it is, then there is here an occurring , a happening of truth at work . . Some particular entity . . . comes in the work to stand in the light of its being. The being of the being comes into the steadiness of its shining.
Thus, the artist rather than the scientist is in a unique position to lead us to the truth of Being. S/he is the one who can “get men to think about the involvement of Being in human nature.”
However, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the poet has primary status for Heidegger because of the role that language plays in constituting man (Dasein): “discourse is constitutive for Dasein’s existence” Language is not just a clear medium for representing things or ideas. Rather, [l]anguage is a totality of words – a totality in which discourse has a ‘worldly’ Being of its own; and as an entity within-the-world, this totality thus becomes something which we may come across ready-to-hand.
Because language is encountered like other beings in the world, it has a “ ‘worldly’ Being of its own”, it can act on us and shape i.e. ‘constitute’ our existence in a variety of ways. Fulfilling this function makes it impossible that language is merely representational of things or ideas, which in turn means that language, as a medium with a character of its own, cannot point us to any transcendental, absolute truths somehow apart from this world. Here we can already observe the first rejection of what postmodernists call “representationalism.” Failure to appreciate this aspect of language leads to a “metaphysics of presence” i.e. the belief that through the clear medium of language we can attain and perceive the presence of thins as they really are.
6. Jean-Francois Lyotard
Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924 – 1998), one of the premier philosophers of the postmodern movement, is best known for his book The Postmodern Condition which first brought the term ‘postmodern’ into common usage. This book, containing in seminal form most of the later developments of his thought, provides on of the most frequently quoted definitions of postmodernism: “I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.” By
“metanarratives,” (also called “grand narrative[s]” ), Lyotard means those ‘stories’ or intellectual frameworks by which we interpret the world and our activities and thereby provide meaning for the whole and give certain data the status of being facts, truths or real knowledge. For example, Marxism supplied revolutionaries around the world with a metanarrative encompassing the behavior of matter i.e. dialectical materialism, as well as the nature, direction and future outcome of human history, i.e. historical materialism. The Enlightenment metanarrative concerned the gradual triumph of reason over irrationality and the progress of humankind not only in scientific knowledge but also in the progress towards rational freedom and a tolerant society. The Christian metanarrative tells the story of humankind’s fall from grace and its redemption by Christ Whose word must be spread throughout the world.
All of these metanarratives offer a complete or total vision by which all possible human action may be interpreted and/or judged and for this reason Lyotard describes them as a “project of totalization.” The connotation of ‘totalitarian’ is fully intended by Lyotard who even describes metanarratives as “terrorist” because they can be used to “eliminate or threaten to eliminate, a player [point of view, culture] from the language game one shares with them.” From another perspective we might say that one of the tasks of a metanarrative is the “legitimation of knowledge,” which is to say that the metanarrative provides the foundational principles by which to distinguish ‘real knowledge’ from error, folklore, myth or the babblings of the insane. Thus, the metanarrative becomes the gatekeeper of knowledge – and, by extension, the guardian of crucial binary oppositions necessary for a system of thought or social system to maintain itself. Examples of such binary oppositions are order/disorder; sane/insane; noumenal/phenomenal; true/untrue; competent/incompetent; knowledge/superstition; rational/irrational and primitive/civilized. By means of these oppositions, metanarratives take on a prescriptive function not only for individuals but for entire societies who must conduct themselves personally and/or collectively to its standards which are enforced not just by institutions but by all those who accept the metanarrative. Lyotard (like Foucault) of course believes this prescriptive function imprisons us and the “incredulity toward metanarratives” is a means of freeing ourselves from their rule. For Lyotard, this means freeing ourselves from modernity which “is identified with modern reason, Enlightenment, totalizing thought and philosophies of history.” Lyotard “rejects notions of universalist and foundational theory as well as claims that one method or set of concepts has privileged status.”
In The Post Modern Condition Lyotard also explains his views in terms of “language games” i.e. systems of discourse or utterance working on the basis of certain rules that “are the objects of a contract, explicit or not, between the players.” Without these rules (which may have been inherited) there is no game. In the language game every utterance is a “move.” Each metanarrative, each culture and subculture plays its own language game; indeed, “language games are the minimum relation required for society to exist” – a statement indicating that societies and language games are absolute correlatives. Concepts and statements only have meaning within the context of a particular game and each game must “privilege certain classes of statements . . . whose predominance characterizes the discourse of the particular institution.”
The postmodern “incredulity towards metanarrative” in favour of the “little narrative [petit recit]” i.e. the limited narrative without universal claims or implications, leads inevitably to the fragmentation of language games and the elimination of metanarratives. In the words of critic and philosopher Terry Eagleton, “Postmodernism, then, is wary of History but enthusiastic on the whole about history.”
Lyotard takes particular aim at the metanarrative of science which he portrays as one language game among others without any special or privileged status in the quest for knowledge: “[t]he game of science is . . . put on par with the others.” In his view, both science and “non-scientific (narrative) knowledge” i.e. rationality and narrative operate on the basis of different rules, and what is a good “move” in one game is not necessarily “good” in the other. Consequently [i]t is therefore impossible to judge the existence or validity of narrative knowledge On the basis of scientific knowledge and vice versa: the relevant criteria are different.
All we can do is gaze in wonderment at the diversity of discursive species . . .
Elsewhere he says, “science plays its own game; it is incapable of legitimating other language games” ; indeed, it cannot even legitimate itself since like any other language game it cannot demonstrate the truth of its own ground rules which are simply “the object of consensus.” The rules are accepted not because they are true but because we happen to agree on them. Very clearly, Lyotard does not privilege rationality in the quest for knowledge.
7. Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004) is the originator of deconstructionism, perhaps the most influential version of postmodernist philosophy developed so far. According to Jonathan Culler, one of deconstruction’s foremost expositors:
To deconstruct a discourse [text] is to show how it undermines the philosophy it asserts, or the hierarchical oppositions on which it relies by identifying in the text the rhetorical operations that produce the supposed ground of argument, the key, concept or premise.
In other words, in some way, every text undermines or subverts itself and thus destabilises any attempt to find in it a final, fixed, permanent meaning It is important to note that this subversion occurs from within. As Derrida says:
The movements of deconstruction do not destroy structures from the outside. They are not possible and effective nor can they take accurate aim except by inhabiting those structures . . . Operating necessarily from the inside, borrowing all the strategic and economic resources of subversion from the old structure . . .
The text subverts or works against itself through its choice of words and phrases, the ambiguity of some words and phrases, rhetorical devices and/or imagery. Perhaps the best known example of this procedure is “Plato’s Pharmacy,” in which Derrida explores Plato’s “”Phaedrus”:
The word pharmakon [remedy] is caught in a chain of significations. The play of that chain seems systematic. But the system here is not, simply, that of the intentions of an author who goes by the name of Plato.
However, as Derrida points out, pharmakon means not only ‘remedy’ but also ‘poison’ not to mention ‘spell’ or ‘drug’ (as in hallucinogen) and this “chain of significations” serves to destabilise any simplistic interpretation of the text. Writing, which Thoth had introduced as a remedy for humankind’s poor memory, is also a ‘poison’ that weakens memory, and may cast a ‘spell’ over us by making us think we have understood an idea when we have not.
If the pharmakon is “ambivalent,” it is because it constitutes the medium in which opposites are opposed, the movement and the play that links them among themselves, reverses them or makes one side cross over into the other (body/soul, good/evil, inside/outside, memory/forgetfulness, speech/writing, etc). . . The pharmakon is the movement, the locus and the play: (the production of) difference.
Each reading of ‘pharmacy’ evokes another, often contrary meaning; we recognize the difference between ‘remedy’ and ‘poison’ and in choosing one, even if only for a moment, we ‘defer’ the other meanings which, despite being deferred, help complete our understanding of the text. These other meanings are referred to as ‘supplements,’ (Derrida who is very inventive in coining new terms for his concepts and often has several terms for identical concepts.) This process of recognizing difference and deferring Derrida calls “difference” (note the spelling) and in his view every text is an endless play of ‘differance’ as we defer, or temporarily push into the background, the meanings of various words. Each of these deferred meanings helps complete the full meaning of a word and for that reason, “The play of the supplement is indefinite.” Derrida makes the same point by stating that “writing structurally carries within itself (counts-discounts) the process of its own erasure and annulation. . .” By “erasure” Derrida does not mean that one meaning of a word is absolutely excluded but rather that we read a word with awareness of all its other potential meanings instead of privileging one, usually conventional, meaning over all the others. We read the word with all of its meanings, aware of the ambiguity this causes in our understanding of the text itself.
To the objection that such supplementation is simply an arbitrary and extraneous addition to what is clearly the author’s intention, Derrida replies
Certain forces of association unite – at diverse distances, with different strengths and according to disparate paths – the words “actually present” in a discourse with all the other words in the lexical system whether or not they appears as “words . . .
This claim is based on Derrida’s belief – derived from Saussure – that meanings of words are not given by “transcendental”, i.e. extra-linguistic reference to the outside world but only by their relationship to other words. The signifier does not receive its meaning from the external or
‘transcendental’ signified; there is no longer a direct relationship between them and we can no longer claim that signifier = the signified. Instead of referring to an external, ‘transcendental’ signified, the signifier refers us – endlessly as it turns out – to other words in the linguistic system. Thus, language, statements, propositions are not reflections of an external or transcendental reality but only reflect the various “plays” of meaning within a linguistic system. After all, each word is, ultimately related to every other word and its meaning depends on the
“play of differences within that system.” The meaning of each word is “inter-textualized” with all the others so that each bears a “trace” of all other words. For that reason there is no inside our outside of a text: “We do not believe that there exists, in all rigor, a Platonic text closed upon itself complete with its inside and its outside.” Simply using words that are part of a language system ensures that the text is in some way influenced by all these other meanings and that these other meanings may play some role in the understanding of the text. This presence yet simultaneous absence of these other meanings is called the “trace”. The scope of these traces is endless, for which reason Derrida says, “There is nothing outside of the text”
beyond and behind what one believes can be circumscribed as [a] text, there has never been anything but writing; there have never been anything but supplements, substitutive significations, which could only come forth in a chain of differential references, the
“real” supervening, and being added only while taking on meaning from the trace and from an invocation of the supplement etc. And thus to infinity.”
Derrida also approaches the subject of endless supplementation from the perspective of “play” by which he means a word’s ‘give’ or tolerance for variation of meanings and suggestions: “Play is always the play of absence and presence” of all possible traces (of other meanings) which he also describes as a “field of infinite substitutions.” In addition, Derrida defines play as “the absence of the transcendental signified as limitlessness of play, that is to say, as the destruction of ontotheology and the metaphysics of presence.” This simply means that there is no preexisting essential meaning in a text i.e. no “transcendental signified”, that waits us to perceive and understand it, that exists before us and even without us, and that becomes ‘present’ to us when we think ‘correctly.’ This pre-existing, unconstructed “transcendental signified” can also be referred to as “an invariable presence – eidos, arche, telos, energia, ousia (essence, existence, substance, subject) aletheia [disclosure, revelation of truth], transcendentality, consciousness,
God, man and so forth.” The “metaphysics of presence” and “ontotheology” are the product of thinking in terms of such pre-existent, invariable and self-sufficient essences. Such thinking is deceptive because it fails to take into account the ambiguities of meaning revealed by the “play” of substitutions, supplements and traces which makes the existence of such independent and self-sufficient meanings (and entities) a chimera. It leads to the dangerous delusion that some of us actually know the complete and final truth about something, have privileged knowledge, are privileged knowers or have privileged methods of accessing certain knowledge. This, in turn, leads us to marginalise, disregard or even oppress other kinds of knowledge and other ways of knowing. Such is already the case with western philosophy vis-à-vis non-western philosophy. Finally, it should be noted that in this view, a text has no meaning before anyone has interpreted it. There is no truth outside of or transcendental to, the interpretation and telling.
Another important aspect of Derrida’s deconstructionism is what he calls “logocentrism,” a complex word rooted in the Greek ‘logos’ which means not only ‘word’ but also ‘truth’ or ‘reason.’ According to Derrida, all philosophy since the time of Plato has been the “epoch of the logos” and one project of deconstruction is to undermine the domination of logocentrism in western thought. In its simplest terms, logocentrism assumes that
at the centre of any concept is a meaning or essence that exists before the construction of its meaning and is undeconstructible in itself. This unconstructed and undeconstructible essence, is
‘transcendent’ to its embodiment in language, i.e. is not dependent on its linguistic embodiment for its meaning, i.e. is self-sufficient and complete in what it means. Our understanding of a concept is true insofar as it corresponds to this “transcendental signified” which “in and of itself, in its essence, would refer to no signifier [word in the linguistic system], would exceed the chain of signs and would no longer as itself function as a signifier.” This “transcendental signified” also serves as a guarantee for the fixed meanings of the words we employ. Derrida states that he has “identified logocentrism and the metaphysics of presence as the exigent, powerful, systematic, and irrepressible desire for such a signified.” The “metaphysics presence” is that philosophical thinking which is interested in defining the ultimate self-sufficient meanings of terms such as God, Reality, Truth, Matter, Mind, Consciousness, Time and Self and resists the conclusion that these, like all other words, are undecidable. These, like the Biblical “Logos” precede any human perception of their meaning, and the aim of the metaphysics of presence is to make their true meaning present to us through language. However, for deconstructionism this is a hopeless quest because the meaning of these words is undecidable: “meaning cannot be held in any individual sign since it is always deferred due to the fact that every sign is a signifier whose signified is another signifier.” As Derrida puts it, “The play of differences supposes, in effect, syntheses
and referrals which forbid at any moment or in any sense that a simple element [meaning] be present in and of itself, referring only to itself.”
Derrida also rejects logocentrism and the metaphysics of presence for their dependence on oppositional binaries which privilege one side over the other. Examples of such oppositional binaries are God/creation; Truth/untruth; Good/evil; Justice/injustice; rational/irrational; Being/nothingness; Mind/matter and Self/not-self. Since the meanings of these binaries are, in the last analysis, undecidable, there is no justification for privileging one of the pair and marginalising the other.
Derrida maintains that logocentrism and the metaphysics of presence have an enormously negative impact on culture and human behavior. Nowhere is this made more clear than in his essay “Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas.”
Although ostensibly about Levinas’ philososphy, the essay also serves to outline Derrida’s views about problems with phenomenology and ontology both of which are largely concerned with the essences of things, that is, those necessary qualities which a thing must have to be the kind of thing it is. Thus, they focus on kinds more than on individuals, for which reason Derrida says,
Incapable of respecting the Being and meaning of the other, phenomenology and ontology would be philosophies of violence. Through them, the entire philosophical tradition, in its meaning and at bottom, would make common cause with oppression and with the totalitarianism of the same.
In short, metaphysics does not respect the other as other but seeks to incorporate or appropriate it in some way, forgetting that “[t]he infinitely-other cannot be bound by a concept.” The other can never be reduced to common denominators or subsumed by a general concept of ‘essence’: “the other is the other only if his alterity is absolutely irreducible.” Reducing the other to a common essence is a form of violence that inevitably breeds a violent frame of mind and violent discourse and finally physical violence.
8. Michel Foucault
Like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault (1926-1984) has been enormously influential in fields outside of his specialities of philosophy and social history. His writings cover such diverse topics as the social construction of madness and sexuality , methods in historiography , penology , the nature of power and discourse. He has had an incalculable effect on cultural studies, political theory, feminism and sociology. It should be noted that there is a certain amount of debate over whether or not Foucault is a postmodernist but it is our view that he shares so many relevant fundamental characteristics with Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Lyotard and Derrida, that his own refusal of the label notwithstanding, he is a part of this movement.
Like Lyotard, Foucault rejects the concept of “grand narratives”, i.e. he does not believe that it is possible to write generalized histories that covers all aspects of a particular civilization. He spells this out clearly in The Archaeology of Knowledge:
the theme and possibility of a total history begins to disappear . . . The project of a total history is one that seeks to reconstitute the overall form of a civilization, the principle –
material or spiritual – of a society, the significance common to all the phenomena of a period, the law that accounts for their cohesion . . .
Rather, he proposes what he calls “the new history” which pays more attention to “discontinuity” , to the “series, divisions, limits, differences of level, shifts, chronological specificities, particular forms of rehandling, possible types of relation.” Just as Derrida proclaims the necessity of subverting any authoritative reading of a text, Foucault believes that “the tranquility with which they [the usual historical narratives driven by grand themes] are received must be disturbed” by renounc[ing] all those themes whose function is to ensure infinite continuity of discourse.” Historical discourse must be broken up into what Lyotard calls “little narratives” or petits recits because only when previously glossed over differences become apparent will new fields of research be visible and available for investigation. We will become aware of discrepancies and differences that have been covered up by large sweeping unifying concepts and no longer lose sight of subtle but important shifts in meaning and usage. Each concept, person and event must be understood in terms of its exact specificity in time, place and culture.
Thus, Foucault’s historiography not only stresses breaks and discontinuities rather than grand similarities, changes in ideas and practices rather than extended homogeneities, but also what he calls the “epistemes”
in which knowledge, envisaged apart from all criteria having reference to its rational value or to its objective forms grounds its positivity , and thereby manifests a history which is not that of its growing perfection, but rather that of its conditions of possibility . . . such an enterprise is not so much a history, in the traditional meaning of the word, as an ‘archaeology.’
In other words, the episteme is the ‘soil’ from which ‘vegetation’ of ideas, behaviors, experiences, customs and beliefs grows; it makes all these things possible and, at the same time, establishes their character and limitations. Epistemes are “the fundamental codes of a culture.” According to Foucault, an episteme
in a given period delimits in the totality of the experience a field of knowledge, defines the mode of being of the objects that appear in the field, provides man’s everyday perception with theoretical powers, and defines the conditions in which he can sustain a discourse about things that is recognised to be true.
Thus, an episteme determines truth, meaning, identity, value and reality at a specific time and place. People need not even be consciously aware of the episteme or its power in their lives even though it creates the environment or context in which individuals think, feel, evaluate, behave and speak; it controls what can be said and understood as meaningful. Great social, cultural and intellectual changes are the result of changes in the underlying episteme. Archaeologies study these epistemes strictly for themselves but cannot draw any universal conclusions about
‘humankind’ or other epistemes from such examinations. This limitation is necessary because there is a sharp break or caesura between epistemes, i.e. “caeseuralism.” That is why, according to Foucault, archaeologies are more accurate accounts of studying the past: they are not “not seduced by the mythology of a prevailing narrative” or “grand narrative” that purports to provide a single overview of developments across several epistemes. Nor do archaeologies assume there are bridges of influence between epistemes, which is why, according to Foucault,
“Archaeology does not seek to rediscover the continuous, insensible transition that relates discourses [epistemes].” This view also makes any notion of progress impossible because there is no universal standard by which to measure such ‘progress.’ If epistemes and their products are not comparable, we can only say that one episteme is different from another, but not more advanced. Foucault makes this rejection of progress clear when he writes, “The history of sciences is not the history of the true, of its slow epiphany; it cannot hope to recount the gradual discovery of a truth.”
Changes in an episteme or changes from one episteme to another result in a revolution in perception and understanding: “ ‘things simply cease, all of a sudden, to be ‘perceived, described, expressed, characterised, classified and known in the same way as before.’ ” It is as if we were transplanted into a wholly new world which bears no significant comparison to the old. This why there are no bridges between epistemes. To highlight the revolutionary and worldaltering changes between epistemes, Foucault often makes such startling statements as “man is only a recent invention” and
[b]efore the end of the eighteenth century, man did not exist . . . He is a quite recent creature, which the demiurge of knowledge fabricated with its own hands less than two hundred years ago: but he has grown so quickly that it has been only too easy to imagine
that he has been waiting for thousands of years in the darkness for that moment in which he would be known.
What he means is that the way ‘man’ or humankind is conceived of in the modern episteme is not the same as the conception of man in the ancient Greek or Renaissance or Classical
(Enlightenment) episteme. Each of these epistemes constituted ‘man’ in its own way. In Foucault’s view, ‘man’ appears only at the beginning of the nineteenth century (at the end of the Classical age) with the full realization of human finitude in its physical and contingent existence, as well as the realization that ‘man’ is part of an episteme in which the primary category is dynamic history and development rather than static order. Modernity discovers “man’ in his finitude,” which is to say,
Modernity begins when the human being begins to exist within his organism, inside the shell of his head, the armature of his limbs,, and the whole structure of his physiology; when he begins to exist at the centre of a labour by whose principles he is governed . . .
What is obvious here is that the transcendent dimension has been stripped from life in modernity and this throws an ominous light on man’s discovery of his “finitude.” He finds himself “dominated by life, history and language” instead of by transcendents like God, spirit, immortality and eternity, as was the case with Renaissance humanism and Classical rationalism. Enclosed in worldly existence, and more forcefully than ever before, man becomes aware of “the threatening rumble of his non-existence” and discovers both within and outside himself “an element of darkness,” as a kind of Other, the “unthought” that is an inescapable twin to his being.
To know man boiled down to grasping the determinations of concrete human existence in the facts of life, labour and language, all of which mould man even before his birth as an individual.
Furthermore, this immersion in the empirical and material had a problem, namely that it was impossible to have empirical knowledge without recognising that reason is, at least to a certain degree, transcendent to the empirical facts. If it were not, how could it serve as a standard to supply and apply criteria of judgment, distinguish truth from error and the rational from the irrational? Thus, modern man appears divided between the empirical and the transcendent i.e. is an “empirico-transcendent doublet.” This is why man in the modern episteme is subject to deep self-misunderstanding, always torn between two poles of his being.
In addition to the archaeology of knowledge which concerned itself with systems of discourse, Foucault also developed a method called “genealogy” whose purpose was to explain how changes occurred within an episteme and how one episteme changed into another. However, while archaeology focussed on the ruling or dominant episteme, the genealogy also looked to marginalised knowledge or knowledge about marginalised subjects that were often in conflict with the ruling episteme. Genealogies up-set (or as Derrida says, “subvert”) the established hierarchies and show how this marginalised or subjugated knowledge interacts with and influences the ruling episteme. It also pays special attention to the accidents, coincidences, tricks, mistakes, unforeseen “eruptions” and arbitrary actions that have effected the history of an idea or episteme in order to show that development is never simply a smooth, orderly development:
The forces operating in history do not obey destiny or regulative mechanism, but the luck of the battle. [Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, II, 12] They do not manifest the successive forms of a primordial intention and their attention is not always that of a conclusion, for they always appear through the singular randomness of events . . . the world of effective history knows only one kingdom, without providence or final cause where there is only “the iron hand of necessity shaking the dice-box of chance” . . . Effective history, on the other hand shortens its vision to those things nearest to it – the body, the nervous system, nutrition, digestion, and energies; it unearths decadence . . . [history] should become a differential knowledge of energies, failings, heights and degenerations, poisons and antidotes. . . . The final trait of effective history is its affirmation of perspectival knowledge .
This quotation makes four things clear. First, Foucault does not believe that there is any dominant pattern, intentionality (divine or otherwise), plan, “final cause,” order or logic to history. Second, chance and the “randomness of events” are the ‘reasons’ various historical developments take place. This makes the whole notion of progress problematical. Indeed, as already indicated, Foucault does not believe in progress from one episteme to another but only in their succession. Third, Foucault sees history as influenced by seemingly insignificant or even ‘shameful’ actions and events, by our physiological attributes which is to say by the ‘marginal’, shunted aside as unworthy. Fourth, our knowledge of history is perspectival, i.e. always based on our own position in our own native episteme; this means that an ‘objective’ view is unattainable.
A fundamental question about Foucault’s epistemes is whether or not they can admit the actual existence of ‘things’ prior to discourse in an episteme? In terms we have already used for Derrida, can things be external to or transcendental to the episteme in which they are constituted?
Is there a ‘God’, or a ‘soul’ that exists prior to and independently of a word/concept with a place in an episteme or are all these things human constructions? In Kantian terms, which readily spring to mind here, are there noumena which our epistemes (or transcendental egos) constitute as phenomenal reality? According to Darren Hynes, “For Foucault, any word-referent has no concreteness, nor is there a reality which precedes discourse and reveals itself to discursive perception.” Here, too, Foucault agrees with Derrida. Indeed, how could Foucault concern himself with anything which exists prior to its place in the discursive structure of an episteme? How would one be able to speak about it? Furthermore, if such transcendent entities existed, they would threaten one of the fundamental principles of archaeological and genealogical analysis, namely, that no episteme, no viewpoint is privileged over any other. If there is a transcendent reference – be it God, or an a-historical essence which is endures through successive epistemes – then it follows that the signifiers of some epistemes will correspond more accurately in some way than others to the original, transcendent signified. Not only would this violate his goal of providing a non-hierarchical view of different epistemes, but it would also violate the principle that comparisons across epistemes are not possible. As well, it means that there exists, even if only in principle, an ‘Archimedean standpoint’ – for example God’s viewpoint as revealed through His Manifestations - outside of the various epistemes from which we can obtain objective knowledge, i.e. knowledge free of all epistemes. In a word, the existence of things before their ‘naming’ in an episteme would be a revival of essentialism – a belief in independently existing (transcendental) entities with unchanging, historically unconditioned essences – a concept impossible for Foucault’s archaeologies and genealogies to accommodate.
Any attempt to write or speak about the nature [essence] of things is made from within a rule-governed linguistic framework, an ‘episteme’ that pre-determines what kinds of statements are true or meaningful . . . There is no absolute, unconditioned, transcendental stance from which to grasp what is good, right or true. Foucault refuses to specify what is true because there are no objective grounds for knowledge . . .
Foucault’s suspicion of the concept of an inherent nature or essence is also evident when he says history teaches us that “behind things [there is] not a timeless essential secret but the secret that they have no essence.” This is emphasised by his statement that he is “suspicious of the notion of liberation” because “it runs the risk of falling back on the idea that there exists a human nature” which somehow exists ‘apart’ from us and which we can rediscover and regain. He rejects the existence of any such essence or nature. For Foucault, it makes no sense to talk of anything outside of or ‘underneath’ or transcendent to an episteme, which is to say that until a thing is constituted by human beings, it makes no sense to talk of it as ‘existing.’ Indeed, his goal
[t]o define these objects without reference to the ground, the foundation of things, but by relating them to the body of rules that enable them to form objects of discourse and thus constitute the conditions of their historical appearance.”
Elsewhere he says that the object “does not pre-exist itself,” which is to say, it does not exist before discourse. This even applies to the human subject who does not transcend the episteme in which s/he dwells; s/he is a product of the episteme as much as anything else.
The radical nature of this rejection of natures or essences prior to being constituted becomes apparent when applied to gender, race, health, sanity or even human life. All essentialist definitions of these terms are pure historical constructs valid for a particular episteme but have no universal validity. In the field of gender this means that there is no universal definition of what constitutes a woman or man and all such definitions should be resisted as unjustly imprisoning us. This rejection of a ‘human nature’ or essence extends to the ‘self.’ According to Foucault’s philosophy, what we mean by ‘self’ or ‘subject’ varies from one episteme to another, which is to say that the ‘self’ is historically contingent product and no one analysis of the self can lead to universal conclusions. In other words, all concepts of self are context-bound and there simply is no stable, universal ‘core’ or essence constituting the self. Like everything else, the self is merely “a passing historical invention” and is no more stable than concepts of male and female, justice, race, rationality or beauty. In the words of Danaher, Schirato and Webb,
Rather than being the free and active organisers of society, we are the products of discourses and power relations, and take on different characteristics according to the range of subject positions that are possible in our socio-historical context.
We are products of the “games of truth” that constitute any given episteme also compose the self and from this it follows that the self cannot pre-exist the episteme or society of which it is a part.
For this reason, the self “is not a substance. It is a form and this form is not primarily or always identical to itself.” This statement makes two noteworthy points. First, that the self is not a substance means that there is no persisting essence to which the concept refers and which it can reflect. Second, even within itself, the self constantly changes in regards to itself as it engages in different activities and relationships. As a “political subject” at a meeting or in the voting booth we relate to ourselves in a different form than we do as a caring spouse or parent. One might well describe this self as ‘de-centered’ because there does not seem to be anything – no essence, no substance, no transcendent soul – to focus the various relationships and holding them together other than the contingencies of time and place. At most it is “a form” but what such a form that is not even “identical to itself” is supposed to be is not at all clear.
From this it is clear that Foucault’s concept of the self is not the single, unitary self that we find in the philosophy of Descartes or in Kant’s transcendental subject of unity of apperception which is the basis of our personal consciousness, that which allows us to say ‘I’. One might also say that Foucault rejects the “idea of the self-governing subject” since the self is constituted and controlled by the varying discourses and “games of truth” making up the episteme it inhabits. “We are the products of discourses and power relations, and take on different characteristics according to the range of subject positions that are possible in our sociohistorical context.” Obviously there is no special need for consistency in such a concept of self. Best and Kellner sum up this aspect of Foucault’s thought by saying that “Foucault rejects the active subject and welcomes the emerging postmodern era as a positive event where the denuding of agency occurs and new forms of thought can emerge.”
Another consequence of Foucault’s archaeology and genealogy is epistemological relativism which follows from his belief that epistemes are compartmentalized and that we cannot make evaluations and judgments across differing epistemes. Their discourse is too different; appearances of similarity notwithstanding, there are inevitably important breaks and dislocations of meaning that cannot simply be glossed over. We have no way of asserting the universal validity of any so-called truth because there is no universal standard by which to make any judgments about the truth or untruth of propositions found in various epistemes. How could such a standard exist when all such standards are themselves bound to some particular episteme? All we can do instead of making judgments is to note differences and changes, and express our own preferences or even try to enforce them. In this situation, there cannot, as already noted, be any notion of progress through a succession of epistemes. Nor can there be any question of a universally valid hierarchy of ethical actions with some being preferable to others since there can be no universal standard by which to make such decisions.
Foucault’s epistemological relativism is reinforced by his suspicion of the Enlightenment and reason. According to Foucault, his ethos “implies, first, the refusal of what I like to call the ‘blackmail’ of the Enlightenment.” As Best and Kellner inform us, “Foucault draws upon an anti-Enlightenment tradition that rejects the equation of reason, emancipation, and progress.”
Reason cannot be taken as a guide to universal knowledge because reason itself is simply one particular kind of discourse with a particular – western – episteme; it is an invention like all the others and no more or less reliable than any other.
I do not believe in a kind of founding act whereby reason, in its essence, was discovered or established . . . I think, in fact, that reason is self-created, which is why I have tried to analyse forms of rationality: different foundations, different creations, different modifications in which rationalities engender one another, oppose and pursue one another
In short, reason is thoroughly historical:
What reason perceives as its necessity or, rather, what different forms of rationality offer as necessary being can perfectly well be shown to have a history; and the network of contingencies from which it emerges can be traced.
That is why “no given form of rationality is actually reason.” From this view it follows that reason cannot provide universally valid knowledge. One might argue that it is difficult even to know what the words ‘reason’ or ‘knowledge’ can mean in Foucault’s philosophy since both refer only to what the episteme has constituted or constructed, and thus, could conceivably mean anything at all. Foucault mitigates this argument somewhat by stating that their meaning is based on human practice throughout history – but he does admit “that since these things have been made, they can be unmade as long as we know how it was they were made.” In other words, in the last analysis, there are few limits on the future development of the concept of reason showing that the original critique has some force.
For Foucault, the analysis of reason is closely tied to the subjects of truth or knowledge and power. Truth may differ from one episteme to another, but within each episteme each truth is part of a system of power:
[T]ruth isn’t outside power or lacking power . . . truth isn’t the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude . . . Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint . . . Each society has its regime of truth, its “general politics” of truth – that is, the types of discourse it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances that enable one to distinguish true and false statements; the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.
This quotation, which encapsulates much of Foucault’s thought on this subject, shows that truth is closely linked to the power to control the discourse of a particular episteme by distinguishing true from false, acceptable from unacceptable evidence, high status from low status and legitimate from illegitimate methods of gathering truth. This makes it clear that all concepts of truth are exclusionary and marginalising, and violent by nature because they can dominate other versions of truth under a particular “regime of truth.” In other words, truth is a matter of cultural and epistemological politics not merely a matter of objective discovery and rational evaluation. Moreover, because the social status of those who determine truth is high, truth tends to become the property of a particular class and can be manipulated to serve its interests.
Another important aspect of truth or knowledge is that they are linked to the will-to-power, i.e. and the will-to-truth and the will-to-power are closely correlated which is why Foucault says that we cannot liberate truth from systems of power: “truth is already power.” As J.G. Merquior writes, for Foucault, “all will to truth is already a will-to-power.” This is because for a claim to be recognised as ‘true’ means that it has already triumphed over its rivals and excluded them or marginalised them as ‘untrue’ or ‘mythology’ or ‘superstition’. Foucault himself states the matter even more sharply:
The historical analysis of this rancorous will to knowledge [vouleur-savior] reveals that all knowledge [connaissance] rests upon injustice (that there is no right, not even in the act of knowing truth, to truth or a foundation for truth.), and the instinct for knowledge malicious ( something murderous, opposed to the happiness of mankind).
Elsehwere he even claims that knowledge “creates a progressive enslavement to its instinctive violence.” Foucault’s beliefs lead to the conclusion that the claim to know the truth is also, in effect, a claim to power, i.e. a claim to domination over others and competing truth claims. Best and Kellner summarise Foucault’s beliefs by writing,
Against modern theories that see knowledge as neutral and objective (positivism) or emancipatory (Marxism), Foucault emphasizes that knowledge is indissociable from from regimes of power. His concept of ‘power/knowledge’ is symptomatic of the postmodern suspicion of reason and the emancipatory schemes advanced in its name.
Foucault believes that knowledge “has the power to make itself true” insofar as it constrains and regulates our thoughts, feelings, actions and even laws. What is certainly clear is that for Foucault the notion of a disinterested, objective, neutral and pure truth is at best a naïve fiction but more likely a ruse to trick one’s rivals into quitting the contest for power.
9 Richard Rorty (1931 - 2007)
Although he prefers to call himself a pragmatist, the American philosopher (or ‘antiphilosopher’ as he is sometimes called) Richard Rorty is generally regarded as having developed an American version of postmodernist philosophy. Reading his work leaves little doubt that he shares many of postmodernism’s principles and beliefs: the rejection of representationalism, of realism, of “grand narratives,” and of ‘truth, rationality, essentialism, objectivity, foundationalism and metaphysics. He would replace what is usually called ‘philosophy’ with an edifying conversation and an exchange of descriptions of the world among those whose only goal is to keep the conversation going. The purpose of the edifying conversation is certainly not to find truth or rational justification of truth since Rorty’s goal is to “radically undermine the very basis of the dominant rationalist approach.”
Rorty’s undermining of the rationalist tradition based on Socrates and Plato begins with his rejection of the principle that the human mind and language are mirrors whose task is to accurately reflect or represent a pre-existent reality. The goal of rational inquirers is to make their representations as objective as possible, i.e. to make them correspond to reality. In this way, we would find or discover the truth about the real world. Rorty unambiguously rejects this referential thinking as well as its consequences. For example, he writes,
My suggestion that the desire for objectivity is in part a disguised form of the fear of death echoes Nietzsche’s charge that the philosophical tradition which stems from
Plato is an attempt to avoid facing up to contingency, to escape from time and chance.
He sees no value in objectivity which he dismisses as wanting a “sky-hook provided by some contemporary yet-to-be-developed science” to free us from the biases of being culture-bound because he does not think we can ever escape being imprisoned in our cultures. Therefore,
[t]hose who wish to reduce objectivity to solidarity – call them “pragmatists” – do not require either a metaphysics or an epistemology. They view truths as, in William James’ phrase, what is good for us to believe. So they do not need an account of a relation between beliefs and objects called ‘correspondence’ nor an account of human cognitive abilities which ensures that our species is capable of entering into that relation . . .For pragmatists, the desire for objectivity is not the desire to escape the limitations of one’s community but simply the desire to for as much intersubjective agreement as possible
In other words, Rorty has given up the quest for scientific objectivity which he regards as an impossible effort to transcend our cultural boundaries and settles for a ‘political’ goal, i.e. solidarity, i.e. he lets epistemology go for the politics of knowledge. That is why he can say we do not “require either a metaphysics or an epistemology.” Elsewhere he claims that the positivists were right in seeking to “extirpate metaphysics when ‘metaphysics’ means the attempt to give knowledge of what science cannot know,” i.e. knowledge that transcends particular scientific facts – although these latter are also thrown into question by Rorty’s views about the incommensurability of different vocabularies or “truth games” and the need for solidarity. The latter is also why he gives up on the correspondence theory of knowledge which leads to arguments because it maintains that some knowledge is natural “and not merely local” and that some methods of justification are natural and not merely social or cultural. Thus, it is impossible for him to say that some knowledge is truer or reflects reality better than other. “We must get the visual and in particular the mirroring metaphors out of our speech altogether.” Making this rejection of correspondence even more clear, he insists that we admit that sentences are
only “connected with other sentences rather than with the world.” That being the case, it follows that his pragmatism “views knowledge not as a relation between mind and object but, roughly, as the ability to get agreement by using persuasion rather than force.” If we cannot appeal to the facts of reality for support, and if, as we shall see, reason is only another “platitude,” then, unless we wish to use force, we have only persuasion left.
Rorty describes himself as an “ironist” which is to say, he doubts that his own particular language or vocabulary can adequately attain truth and objectivity; he recognises that his current philosophical language cannot resolve these doubts. He does not think his language is closer to the truth or reality than anyone else’s. For this reason, ironists repudiate the whole concept of representationalism, i.e. the concept that our verbal or mathematical descriptions of reality really represent what is ‘out there.’ Furthermore, because they realise that their descriptions of reality are limited in descriptive capacity, contingent and subject to constant change and or more in touch with reality than others, ironists are “never quite able to take themselves seriously.” Ironists are also people who “do not hope to have their doubts about their final vocabularies settled by something larger than themselves.” They do not look to God or revelation nor to a supposedly universal reason or logic nor a grand narrative to resolve their doubts. Instead, they possess a great deal of what the poet John Keats called “negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” As well, ironists are nominalists, they think “nothing has an intrinsic nature, a real essence,” that is what it is independently of human observation and attribution. All alleged attributes are human constructions, the products of our cultural and historical positioning and the discourse we employ and for that reason there are no universal characteristics of anything including human nature. There is simply no way to transcend our language and culture and compare it with ‘reality’ from some ‘Archimedean point’ to obtain a ‘God’s eye view’ on the world. We should simply recognise that we cannot “come up with a single set of criteria which everybody in all times and places can accept, invent a single language game which can somehow take over all jobs previously done by all the language-games ever played.” Rather, our particular culture and language construct what we appear to perceive and we are locked into these constructions, a view which was already pre-figured by Kant. Hence any attempts to use socalled essential attributes as the basis of universal statements are doomed; knowing this, ironists do
not take the point of discursive thought to be knowing, in any sense that can be explicated by notions like “reality,” “real essence,” “objective point of view,” and the “correspondence of language of [sic] reality.” They do not think its point is to find a vocabulary which accurately represents something, a transparent meaning.
At this point it comes as no surprise that Rorty describes reason as a faculty that “can now be dispensed with – and should be dispensed with” because for ironists criteria of reason, like other criteria used for judging among descriptions of the world “are never more than platitudes which contextually define the terms of the final vocabulary in use.” These criteria are valid, if at all, only within the language or language game in which they are being used.
Indeed, philosophy is so language and culture dependent that according to Rorty there is no legitimate use of the distinction “between logic and rhetoric, or between philosophy and literature, or between rational and nonrational methods of changing other people’s minds.” In this vein, Rorty writes,
On a pragmatist view, rationality is not the exercise of a faculty called ‘reason’ – a faculty which stands in some determinate relationship to reality, Nor is the use of a method. It is simply a matter of being open and curious and relying on persuasion rather than force.
In short, ‘rational’ only means ‘persuasive.’ It is time to realize that the Enlightenment has been “discredited.” There are no necessary ‘logical’ or reasonable connections between sentences or propositions that can require us to admit anything we prefer not to.
On Rorty’s view, philosophy cannot be a quest for ‘truth’ or ‘true understanding’ since the most we can do is redescribe things to our individual and/or collective liking and discuss our various descriptions. In other words, the purpose of philosophy is to be edifying: “I shall is ‘edification’ to stand for this project of finding new, better, more interesting more fruitful ways of speaking.” Edifying philosophy “takes its point of departure from suspicion about the pretensions of epistemology,” which is to say that edifying philosophy is not longer interested in attaining truth. Thus, rather than take part in an inquiry for the ‘knowledge,’ “we just might be saying something” simply in order to “keep the conversation going rather than to find objective truth.” This, for Rorty is “a sufficient aim of philosophy.” At most we can strive for solidarity for in the post-Auschwitz age: “What can there be except human solidarity, our recognition of one another’s common humanity.”? (It is, of course highly ironic that Rorty appeals to our “common humanity” after having repudiated ‘essences’ and the possibility of cross-cultural universal statements.) Given Rorty’s views, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that philosophy is just pleasant talk, in itself of no great consequence and remember that we can always change the subject with no great harm done.
Rorty emphatically rejects the notion of a “core self,” i.e. the rejection of the claim that there is a human essence either for the individual or for the species. In his view, “there is no self distinct from this self-reweaving web” of muscles, movements, beliefs and states of mind. In reflecting on these weaving and reweaving patterns, we must
avoid taking common speech as committing one to the view that there is, after all, such a thing as a “True Self,” the inner core of one’s being which remains what it is independent of changes in one’s beliefs and desires. There is no more a center to the self than there is to the brain.
We must not let our ordinary usage of pronouns such as ‘I’ or ‘me’ fool us into thinking there is any substantive entity that actually corresponds to these words. All thoughts about a ‘True Self’ or soul are delusional. We should “avoid the self-deception of thinking that we possess a deep, hidden, metaphysically significant nature which makes us ‘irreducibly’ different from inkwells or atoms.”
10 Baudrillard (1929 – 2007)
Jean Baudrillard, who has attained “guru status throughout the English-speaking world “as a high priest of the new epoch,” is in some respects the most controversial of the five contemporary postmodernists we shall examine. Baudrillard embodied his postmodern philosophy in socio-cultural, economic and political analyses that were distinguished not only by his challenging insights but also by his flair for startling turns of phrase and outrageous assertions. For example, in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place he claims that the 2001 Gulf War was more a matter of events on TV and radar screens than a real war in the traditional sense, that it was more a virtual war than anything else. Elsewhere he writes, “Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the ‘real’ country, all of ‘real’ America, which is Disneyland.” When we look into or beneath Baudrillard’s multifarious analyses, we find that he shares many if not all of the same themes and views as the postmodernists we have examined previously.
The keys to Baudrillard’s thought are the twin concepts of simulations and simulacra. In Simulations, Baudrillard briefly retells a Borges story of a map that is so detailed in every respect that it covers the entire territory it is supposed to represent and is indistinguishable from it. The map and the territory have become one, the distinction between ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ has been blurred as has the distinction between original and copy, natural and artificial and signifier and signified. What, if anything, we may ask, does the map represent? And which is the map and which is the territory when “[s]imulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance.”? Obviously, the whole notion of representation is no longer tenable. We must also recognise that “simulation threatens the difference between ‘true’ and ‘false’, between ‘real’ and
‘imaginary’.” How could one distinguish between them? Other threatened binaries are cause/effect, active/passive, subject/object and ends/means. The essential natures of these categories no longer exist because they have all been melded into one another. They have, to use Derrida’s term, been deconstructed, i.e. it has been shown that the old notion of distinct and stable essences making up the binary oppositions of signifier/signified, map/territory, real/imaginary, true/false, original/copy, appearance/reality, the ideal/real and essential/nonessential are no longer functional with each part of the pair blending into the other. Furthermore, if all these essential differences no longer exist, it is impossible to be rational since rationality depends on clear and distinct oppositional binaries or categories of thought that allow us to attain clear and decisive answers.
Metaphysics is also impossible according to Baudrillard. In the first place, “truth, reference and objective causes have ceased to exist.” If these three are not clearly identifiable, metaphysics, which requires clearly identified causal relationships in its study of the structure and nature of reality, become impossible. Secondly, if our propositions are no longer referential and do not refer to reality, we cannot discuss reality at all let alone decide which propositions are
true; as Baudrillard puts it: “All the referentials intermingle their discourses in a circular Moebian compulsion and thus deprive reason of the “clear and distinct ideas” it needs.
Consequently, we can no longer distinguish real from unreal, or appearance from reality and with this situation
goes all of metaphysics. No more mirror of being and appearances, of the real and its concept . . . It [the real] no longer has to be rational, since it is no longer measured against some ideal or negative instance. It is nothing more than operational. In fact, since it is no longer enveloped by an imaginary [ideal], it is no longer real at all. It is hyperreal, the product of an irradiating synthesis of combinatory in a hyperspace without atmosphere.
Finally, without reason or logic metaphysics is also impossible because reason provides the rules by means of which our propositions about reality lead to conclusions. Eventually, Baudrillard replaced metaphysics with the satirical ‘pataphysics,’ a term borrowed from the surrealist movement, to illustrate what happens to thought when distinctions among categories disappear. This is why “for pataphysics all phenomena are absolutely gaseous.”
According to Baudrillard, the “blurring of distinctions between the real and the unreal” is the “hyperreal,” which is “a condition whereby the models replace the real, as exemplified in such phenomena as the ideal home in women’s or lifestyle magazines, ideal sex . . . ideal fashion.” In each of these, the model, the simulation determines what is regarded as real and thus, ultimately, the simulations constitute reality. For that reason, the power relationship between the real and unreal simulation has been reversed, with the unreal now so much in control that we can say that real understood in the traditional, i.e. pre-postmodern sense no longer exists: “there is no real.” Because we live in such a hyperreality where the simulation constitutes reality, Baudrillard is able to say that Disneyland is the real America and that the 2001 Gulf War never happened except as a television event. To our usual way of thinking this makes no sense because the original ‘real thing’ always has ontological priority over the any simulation but as Baudrillard tells us, “The contradictory process of true and false, of real and the imaginary is abolished in this hyperreal logic of montage.” By the “logic of montage” he means the ‘logic’ of concepts or realities which overlap and impinge on and melt into one another, losing thereby their distinct boundaries and with that loss, their usual rules of combination or exclusion. Oppositional binaries such as original/copy, prior/secondary and this/that no longer hold. “The hyperreal represents a much more advanced phase [than modernist realism] in the sense that even this contradiction between the real world and the imaginary is effaced.” Baudrillard calls this development “the collapse of reality into hyperrealism.” This development changes our relationship to reality because “it is reality itself that disappears utterly in the game of reality.” Reality disappears in its simulations because similitude is ultimately equivalent to the murder of the original, a nullification of original’s unique ontological status as prior in the order of time and logic.
The dominance of the hyperreal has the effect of collapsing the difference between art and reality and thus mingling the two so that reality itself becomes a work of art:
And so art is everywhere, since artifice is at the very heart of reality. And so art is dead, not only because its critical transcendence [difference from reality] is gone but because reality itself, entirely impregnated by an aesthetic which is inseparable from its own structure, has been confused with its own image.
From this it follows that the binary opposition of work/play has also been dissolved. Indeed, because of the collapse of all binary differences, the postmodern condition “is for Baudrillard a play with all forms of sexuality, art, and politics, combining and recombining forms and possibilities, moving into the ‘the time of transvestism.’ ” This “combining and recombining” of concepts, categories, styles and content liberates things from their former limits and hyperbolizes existence, for which reason he also refers to the “post-orgy state of things.”
In this portion of the paper, we shall compare the ideas presented by the forerunners of postmodernism and their most important successors and the Bahá'í Writings in order to demonstrate that surface similarities notwithstanding, the foundational ideas of postmodernism and the Writings are incompatible.
11 The Counter-Enlightenment and the Bahá'í Writings
In regards to reason, the Writings adopt a position that is neither in agreement with the Enlightenment’s unquestioning faith in reason nor with the scepticism and even rejection of reason by the Counter-Enlightenment and its postmodern protégés. To be precise, the Writings exemplify a position that may be described as “moderate rationalism”, according to which reason can give us some but not all knowledge; there are kinds of knowledge – such as the knowledge available to the heart - which are not obtainable by reason alone but are, so-to-speak, ‘transrational.’ (We say ‘trans-rational’ rather than ‘irrational’ because this knowledge is not opposed to reason per se but goes beyond it making use, for example, of revelation.) Therefore, we must remember that “the human spirit, unless assisted by the spirit of faith, does not become acquainted with the divine secrets and the heavenly realities.” In other words, there are truths which cannot be discovered by unassisted or natural reason and which must be attained by other means, i.e. revelation and the development of “spiritual susceptibilities.” `Abdu'l-Bahá states,
If he [man] attains rebirth while in the world of nature, he will become informed of the divine world. He will observe that another and a higher world exists.
Reason expands or transcends its limits if those employing it become spiritualized.
In a further note regarding the limits of reason and knowledge, `Abdu'l-Bahá says,
Know that there are two kinds of knowledge: the knowledge of the essence of a thing and the knowledge of its qualities. The essence of a thing is known through its qualities; otherwise, it is unknown and hidden.
Here `Abdu'l-Bahá makes it clear that rational knowledge is limited to qualities and that essences must be known by way of qualities; they cannot be known by direct insight or intuition but must be known indirectly through the mediation of qualities or attributes. This statement guides, i.e. limits our use of reason and our inquiry by saying not only that whatever we know about things and their essences, must come by way of qualities but also that whatever we know is limited to what qualities can tell us. The essences of things may have many other aspects which are not observable by us in our current state of being, and, therefore, must remain ‘mysterious.’ This has enormous ontological consequences not the least of which is that it safe-guards the ontological integrity of all created things and provides a rational foundation for a belief in ‘mysteries.’ (God, for example is a ‘mystery’ insofar as He is beyond the comprehension of human reason. ) . In short, reason can tell us a great deal but not everything we need to know and live well.
In addition to limitations of scope and applicability, reason has the limit of fallibility.
`Abdu'l-Bahá tells us that “the circle of this [rational] knowledge is very limited because it depends upon effort and attainment.” Anything depending on human action is subject to errors of all kinds; thus, by itself, it has limited reliability and therefore, does not always lead us to the truth. According to `Abdu'l-Bahá, the conflicting opinions among the philosophers clearly demonstrate that “the method of reason is not perfect.”
However, unlike the Counter-Enlightenment and its postmodern successors, the Bahá'í Writings do not reject reason altogether, but, quite to the contrary, encourage us to use it while keeping its limitations in mind. The Writings not only inform us of the limitations of reason but also, at the same time, endorse reason and its role in our lives. Such an endorsement of reason is clear when `Abdu'l-Bahá, says “in this age the peoples of the world need the arguments of reason.” and
[God] has bestowed upon [man] the power of intellect so that through the attribute of reason, when fortified by the Holy Spirit, he may penetrate and discover ideal realities and become informed of the mysteries of the world of significances. As this power to penetrate the ideal knowledges is superhuman, supernatural, man becomes the collective center of spiritual as well as material forces so that the divine spirit may manifest itself in his being . . .
Through reason “fortified by the Holy Spirit,” we may obtain knowledge of the “ideal realities”
i.e. the supernatural or spiritual realities of creation insofar as such knowledge is compatible with our human nature. Hence this knowledge is “superhuman.” This assurance that reason is able to attain genuine knowledge is important because that is precisely something denied by the Counter-
Enlightenment and its postmodern successors. Both reject the ‘privileged’ status that reason has over ‘other ways of knowing’ and in particular its ‘privileged’ connection to truth. The link between rationality and truth has been severed.
The enormous positive importance of reason in the Writings is also seen in that the essential feature that distinguishes humankind from animals, the differentia, is the “rational soul.”
The human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul, and these two names--the human spirit and the rational soul--designate one thing. This spirit, which in the terminology of the philosophers is the rational soul, embraces all beings, and as far as human ability permits discovers the realities of things and becomes cognizant of their peculiarities and effects, and of the qualities and properties of beings. But the human spirit, unless assisted by the spirit of faith, does not become acquainted with the divine secrets and the heavenly realities.
Here we observe not only identification of our essential identifying feature with the rational soul but also, again, emphasis on the rational soul’s ability to attain genuine knowledge in the world, and, with the assistance of the “spirit of faith” or “Holy Spirit”, knowledge of “heavenly realities.” Once more, `Abdu'l-Bahá draws our attention to the intimate connection between rationality and obtaining knowledge or discovering truth. Elsewhere `Abdu'l-Bahá says that the rational soul or “the human spirit consists of the rational, or logical, reasoning faculty, which apprehends general ideas and things intelligible and perceptible.” Through the power of reason we can discover the “realities of things.”
Furthermore, there is continuous emphasis in the Writings on the use of reason to reconcile science and religion and to ground faith: “if a question be found contrary to reason, faith and belief in it are impossible, and there is no outcome but wavering and vacillation.”
For God has endowed us with faculties by which we may comprehend the
realities of things, contemplate reality itself. If religion is opposed to reason and science, faith is impossible; and when faith and confidence in the divine religion are not manifest in the heart, there can be no spiritual attainment.
There are two matters of interest in these quotes. First, is the assurance that through the use of reason and other faculties, we are capable of discovering truths about the “realities of things,” i.e. the way things really are. Second, it is clear that reason and “spiritual attainment” are intimately connected i.e. reason is necessary to genuine spiritual life and faith. In addition, we are told that “religion must be in conformity with science and reason, so that it may influence the hearts of men.” Here, too, we observe that reason is not only necessary for genuine spirituality through its influence on the heart, and through it, faith.
Religion must be reasonable. If it does not square with reason, it is superstition and without foundation. It is like a mirage, which deceives man by leading him to think it is a body of water. God has endowed man with reason that he may perceive what is true. If we insist that such and such a subject is not to be reasoned out and tested according to the established logical modes of the intellect, what is the use of the reason which God has given man?
In a similar vein, `Abdu'l-Bahá informs us that “true science is reason and reality, and religion is essentially reality and pure reason; therefore, the two must correspond.” Yet again we observe that reason, religion, science and reality are all intimately, i.e. indissolubly connected and are not necessarily in conflict.
Finally, it should be noted that notwithstanding the possibility of error, reason can also provide us with knowledge of the truth, something that is denied by all postmodernists from Nietzsche on; indeed, as we have seen, Nietzsche and his postmodern successors deny that there is such a thing as ‘truth’ to be found. Rather truth is something we make or construct. `Abdu'lBahá states,
God has created man in order that he may perceive the verity of existence and endowed him with mind or reason to discover truth. Therefore, scientific knowledge and religious belief must be conformable to the analysis of this divine faculty in man.
Elsewhere he says, “God has created man and endowed him with the power of reason whereby he may arrive at valid conclusions.” In other words, in spite of the possibility of error, reason is one way of attaining truth.
From the foregoing discussion, we may conclude that unlike the Counter-Enlightenment,
Nietzsche and his postmodern protégés for whom there are no truths but only interpretation, the Writings maintain that reason does, indeed, provide us with genuine knowledge of the truth despite the fact that we may use it incorrectly. It must be used carefully, preferably under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we have seen in a number of previous quotations. In other words, one of the conditions for ensuring that reason works correctly is divine assistance. Another such condition is given in the following quote:
Consequently, it has become evident that the four criteria or standards of judgment by which the human mind reaches its conclusions are faulty and inaccurate. All of them are liable to mistake and error in conclusions. But a statement presented to the mind accompanied by proofs which the senses can perceive to be correct, which the faculty of reason can accept, which is in accord with traditional authority and sanctioned by the promptings of the heart, can be adjudged and relied upon as perfectly correct, for it has been proved and tested by all the standards of judgment and found to be complete When we apply but one test, there are possibilities of mistake. This is selfevident and manifest.”
When we view these quotations together, in addition to the warnings about the fallibility of human reason, we find it difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Writings exemplify not only
‘moderate rationalism’ but also a position known as “reliabilism.” According to the Oxford Companion to Philosophy, reliabilism is “the position that “a belief can be justified if formed as the result of a reliable process even if the believer is unaware of what makes it justified.” In other words, reliabilism demands that belief be “the result of some reliable process of beliefformation.” The Writings tells us that a “reliable process of belief formation” involves, ideally, the Holy Spirit, but
at the very least, the congruence of several tests among which `Abdu'l-Bahá lists empirical sense knowledge, reason, tradition and the “promptings of the heart” which we interpret as the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Of course, the Writings do not go into all the technical details of reliabilism, but they do, quite clearly adumbrate this position which is for us to work out within the guidelines provided.
The inescapable conclusion to which we are led is that while the Writings do not accept
the Enlightenment’s unquestioning trust in reason, neither do they accept the categorical rejection of reason exemplified by the Counter-Enlightenment and its postmodern successors. Indeed, in their emphasis on the importance of reason in science and religion, as well as in the identification of humankind’s essence as a “rational soul,” the Writings demonstrate strong leanings in favour of the Enlightenment. Philosophically, they may be seen as a continuation of the Enlightenment albeit it in an amended and corrected form.
12 The Bahá'í Writings and Kant
In regards to Kant, the Bahá'í Writings, cannot accept his rejection of metaphysics tout court since they do not accept the idea that under any and all circumstances, reason is necessarily confined to the phenomenal realm. According to Kant, we cannot correctly reason from the phenomenal to the noumenal or transcendent because the laws and conditions of reasoning do not apply to the noumenal world. These laws and conditions – for example time, space, causality, quantity, relation, quality and modality – are imposed by the human mind on the ‘raw’ data from the noumenal realm and, thereby, make thinking and reasoning possible. However, the categories are not inherently part of the transcendent noumenal realm, from which it follows that reason does not apply to this realm of which we have no experience as it is in itself, i.e. unshaped by us. Because God is transcendent to the phenomenal realm, we cannot devise proofs of His existence by way of the phenomenal world.
As we shall see below, the Bahá'í Writings do not agree that the existence of God cannot be proven from the phenomenal realm. This is made evident, for example, by `Abdu'l-Bahá’s proof of God as the First Cause.
Such process of causation goes on, and to maintain that this process goes on indefinitely is manifestly absurd. Thus such a chain of causation must of necessity lead eventually to Him who is the Ever-Living, the All-Powerful, who is Self-Dependent and the Ultimate Cause. This Universal Reality cannot be sensed, it cannot be seen. It must be so of necessity, for it is AllEmbracing, not circumscribed, and such attributes qualify the effect and not the cause.
In `Abdu'l-Bahá’s view, a First Cause is necessary because no actually real chain of causation can go on infinitely. He does not say why, nor is it important for us at this point, to know why he reached this conclusion. What is germane to our discussion is that he clearly accepts the possibility of reasoning our way to an “Ultimate Cause” and “Universal Reality [that] cannot be sensed” i.e. is beyond the phenomenal realm. Moreover, he does so on the basis of causality, which he regards as a real feature of the universe and not merely an imposition by the human mind on raw noumenal data. Since causality is ontologically real, and infinite causal chains are
“manifestly absurd,” we must eventually find a First Cause to set the chain of causes into motion.
For the reasons given above, Kant would not accept as legitimate `Abdu'l-Bahá’s statement that
“all beings and all existences are the centers from which the glory of God is reflected – that is to say, the signs of the Divinity of God are apparent in the realities of
things and of of creatures.” If this statement were accepted, then we would be able to use the signs of God to reason our way from the phenomenal to the noumenal and transcendent Source.
Similarly, Kant is bound to reject the claim that “the smallest created thing proves that there is a creator. For instance, this piece of bread proves that it has a maker.” Here, in this compressed version of Intelligent Design, we observe reasoning from the created to the Creator which is precisely what Kant forbids.
It might be argued that the Writings could agree with Kant as far as the limits of natural reason, i.e. reason unassisted by the Holy Spirit are concerned. Without such assistance, individuals will not develop their “spiritual susceptibilities,” and their thinking, therefore, remains confined to the phenomenal realm. However, the Writings do not take such a position. For example, the argument to the First Cause cited above needs nothing other than natural reason to make its point; indeed, the same argument was already used by Aristotle and other philosophers. No divine inspiration is needed to see why an initial Cause is necessary. Furthermore, `Abdu'l-Bahá’s other argument from the contingency and dependency of creation and humankind to the transcendent non-contingent Source is also available to natural reason without divine assistance, as is his argument from the imperfections of all created things to the existence of a perfect Being. In light of these arguments it is more accurate to say that according to the Writings, natural reason is sufficient for some kinds and levels of knowledge but not for others which require the assistance of the Holy Spirit.
Nor do the Writings endorse Kant’s belief that the phenomenal world in which we live is entirely a human construction, i.e. the way the categories of the mind organise data from the noumenal realm according to time, space and causality for example. Nature – which is what we must interpret and work with – is made by God Who provides its various inherent qualities, essences, potentialities and laws. This nature pre-exists us and therefore does not depend on us for its existence and/or attributes. It is given to us, with all things having their natural attributes and behaving according to pre-existing natural laws decreed by God from which no being except man may deviate. In other words, unlike the philosophy of Kant, the Bahá'í Writings do not teach that humankind has any part in the process of constituting natural reality, i.e. the phenomenal realm in which we live. One could argue that making such a claim is, in effect, setting oneself up as a kind of second god and co-creator, or ‘partner’.
And now concerning thy reference to the existence of two Gods. Beware, beware, lest thou be led to join partners with the Lord, thy God. He is, and hath from everlasting been, one and alone, without peer or equal . . . He hath assigned no associate unto Himself in His Kingdom, no counsellor to counsel Him . . . To this every atom of the universe beareth witness, and beyond it the inmates of the realms on high . . .
These words suggest that humankind has no part in this process of constituting natural reality,
i.e. no part in constituting the phenomenal realm in which we live. We may, of course, interpret the divinely constituted reality in various ways, and, of course, we may invent and construct all sorts of things – machines, laws, social codes, art and so on – using first nature, but these interpretations and constructions are not prior to and should not be confused with the divinely created reality itself. In other words, reality as created and constituted by God, i.e. ‘first nature,’ should not be confused with what humankind makes from ‘first nature’ i.e. an artificial ‘second nature’, a society and civilization which we create and constitute according to our wills guided by revelation. To some extent, our wills can constitute the second nature but only to the limits allowed by the attributes inherent in the things that God has created. Fire is inherently hot and will not serve as ice.
Thus, the Bahá'í Writings clearly recognise a distinction between first and second nature, something which is highly problematical with Kant. We might consider the noumenal to be the first nature and the phenomenal the second nature, but this is dubious at best since the phenomenal, for Kant, includes everything that is shaped by such categories as causality, quantity, existence and relation, i.e. the entire natural world. According to the Writings, however, this phenomenal realm is precisely the nature that is created by God and which humankind interprets and uses to build second nature, i.e. societies, laws, conventions, art and science within the limits defined by the divinely established first nature. The natural tendency of Kant’s philosophy is to deny the distinction between the two natures and, thereby, set the stage for the postmodernist rejection of this distinction.
12. The Bahá'í Writings and Nietzsche
Although one may find individual ideas wherein Nietzsche and the Bahá'í Writings agree, a survey of his work makes it abundantly clear that the disagreements are fundamental and widespread. Let us begin with their sharply divergent assessments of Socrates and the use of reason in scientific discovery. The Writings praise Socrates as one of the philosophers who recognised the reality of the spiritual
The philosophers of Greece--such as Aristotle, Socrates, Plato and others--were devoted to the investigation of both natural and spiritual phenomena. In their schools of teaching they discoursed upon the world of nature as well as the supernatural world . . . Because they were interested in both natural and divine philosophy, furthering the development of the physical world of mankind as well as the intellectual, they rendered praiseworthy service to humanity. This was the reason of the triumph and survival of their teachings and principles.
Nietzsche, as we have already seen, disparaged Socrates as the “theoretical man” and “mystagogue of science” who foolishly believed that reason could explain and tell us the truth about reality. Instead, Nietzsche wants to escape beyond “the eternal reason-spider and reason cobweb” so that we may be free to live with our fullest passionate capacity of our will-to-power.
Unlike Nietzsche, the Writings hold that recognising the supernatural, the transcendent or divine is an important contribution to our existence. Furthermore, as we have seen in the previous section on the Enlightenment, the Writings also disagree with Nietzsche’s decisively negative assessment of reason. After all, of course, they identify humankind’s distinguishing characteristic, its differentia, as the “rational soul.” They do not, of course, uncritically accept reason as the final authority on all issues, but, in their moderate rationalism and reliabilism they accept reason as a legitimate source of real knowledge. In other words, the Writings accept reason as a means of discovering truth about reality, and could not accept Nietzsche’s belief that
“ ‘Truth’ is therefore not something there, that might be found or discovered – but something that must be created.”
Nor can they accept his sweeping statement that truth is no more than
[a] mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are;
The Bahá'í Writings recognise that what Nietzsche describes may sometimes be the case – as in the gradual degeneration of religious teachings to the point when a new Manifestation is needed – but they do not hold that this is what truth-claims always and necessarily are. Some truthclaims such as ‘God exists’ are simply correct and others are plainly wrong: the earth is not a flat disk but a sphere. Distinguishing between real truth and man-made fictions is the very basis of progress i.e. addition and improvement of knowledge, both in the sciences and in progressive revelation. Both of these involve the overcoming of error and superstition which the Writings also recognise as real – but which are problematic for Nietzsche. If truth is invented fiction, then how can we tell a ‘true fiction’ from a ‘false one’? How can we ever progress from ‘false’ to
‘true’? Indeed, in a statement that exemplifies an extreme sceptical attitude towards truth,
Nietzsche writes, “Truth is the kind of error without which a certain species of life could not live.
The value of life is ultimately decisive.” What is essential about truth is not that it is true but that it serves life or our life purposes: “[t]he criterion of truth resides in the enhancement of the feeling of power.” In other words, truth is not which is actually the case but that which meets our needs in the struggles of life – a view of truth that is highly subjective and which allows there to be as many truths as there are individuals with needs.
The Writings, for their part, maintain that truths are discovered, not invented and show no sign of accepting Nietzsche’s extremely subjective characterization of truth.
God has created man in order that he may perceive the verity of existence and endowed him with mind or reason to discover truth. Therefore, scientific knowledge and religious belief must be conformable to the analysis of this divine faculty in man.
Elsewhere `Abdu'l-Bahá states,
Man is able to resist and to oppose Nature because he discovers the constitution of things, and through this he commands the forces of Nature; all the inventions he has made are due to his discovery of the constitution of things.
He also states,
The mind and the thought of man sometimes discover truths, and from this thought and discovery signs and results are produced. This thought has a foundation. But many things come to the mind of man which are like the waves of the sea of imaginations; they have no fruit, and no result comes from them.
Thus, we may conclude that although they the Writings recognise the inherent limitations of unaided reason, they do not share Nietzsche’s extreme scepticism about discovering knowledge. Therefore, they place a high value on science as a means of discovering truth and not as a provider of comforting illusions as does Nietzsche. Finally, there is no evidence that the Bahá'í Writings would accept Nietzsche’s reduction of ‘truth’ to the will-to-power without any genuine epistemological content or truth value; “It [truth] is a word for the ‘will-to-power.’” . This, and his claim that truth is created, i.e. an aesthetic theory of truth, is incompatible with Bahá'í epistemology which holds to a correspondence theory of truth in which truth is discovered. The correspondence theory of truth, i.e. the theory that we attain truth when our conceptions correspond with reality is illustrated in the following:
for the connection which exists between the reality of things, whether they be spiritual or material, requires that when the mirror is clear and faces the sun, the light of the sun must become apparent in it.
“The mirror of the reality of man” reflects realities “whether they be spiritual or material” and, through this process of reflection, learns about them and if its concepts adequately represent the various realities. If they do, then they correspond to one degree or another to reality; and if they do not, we shall (hopefully) discover we are in error. This theory is also an example of
‘representationalism’ insofar as our concepts represent reality in our minds. For Nietzsche (as for all postmodernist philosophers), this is problematical because this not only undermines the theory that truth is created or constructed but also implies that language is capable of putting us into touch with reality. This would limit human creativity and freedom in the construction of reality.
In regards to the “will-to-power”, it should also be noted that it should not be understood as simply the actualization of our inherent potentials. Even the most cursory survey of Nietzsche’s statements on the will-to-power make it clear that he thinks of it in terms of overcoming and dominating others, or being unrestrained by normal moral codes. That is why he mocks Christian and other religious moralities as “slave morality” because they have given up this goal. is emphasized by his use of the word “Macht” instead of “Kraft” or energy for power. “Macht” in German implies domination, overcoming and power over others and we must never lose sight of the fact that Nietzsche wrote of a “Wille-zur-Macht” not a “Wille-zur-Kraft.” This is important because the term “will-to-power” is central in Nietzsche’s philosophy and sets a tone that is fundamentally out of harmony with the Writings which emphasize love.
Nietzsche’s doctrine of the “eternal return.” is also profoundly out of harmony with the Writings for two main reasons. First, it denies the existence of a transcendent dimension to reality, pre-figuring thereby, postmodernism’s rejection of any form of transcendence whether it be an ontological denial of realms beyond the material or an epistemological denial of a ‘real’ world that transcends or is external to our constructions. The Bahá'í teachings about the reality of an absolutely transcendent God, the immortality of the soul and its advance into “spiritual heavenly worlds,” or the “spiritual worlds that can neither be expressed in words nor intimated by allusion,” or the Concourse of High, demonstrate that any rejection of ontological transcendence is not compatible with the Writings. Furthermore, in his startling and flamboyant claim that “God is dead” Nietzsche does not merely reject an outmoded vision of the Christian God, but also expresses his opposition to recognition of any transcendent being or realm of being because those would detract from valuing earth and life on earth. . Acceptance of the transcendent will make us ‘naysayers” to the value of earthly, phenomenal, material life. The epistemological denial of a real world that transcends or is outside our constructions is also problematical. The correspondence theory of truth to which the Writings adhere requires there be a real world to which we can refer our constructions, and if need be correct them.
The second reason Nietzsche’s “eternal return”clashes with the Writings is because this doctrine runs counter to nature. According to Nietzsche,
all things eternally return, and ourselves with them, and that we have already existed times without number, and all things with us . . . But the plexus of causes returneth in which I am intertwined,--it will again create me! I myself pertain to the causes of the eternal return. I come again with this sun, with this earth, with this eagle, with this serpent--NOT to a new life, or a better life, or a similar life: I come again eternally to this identical and selfsame life, in its greatest and its smallest, to teach again the eternal return of all things
Nietzsche sees the eternal return as a sign of hope and a call to live heroically, but the Writings clearly reject it for the same reasons they reject incarnation. First,
reincarnation, which is the repeated appearance of the same spirit with its former essence and condition in this same world of appearance, is impossible and unrealizable.
The repetition in the eternal return and reincarnation is of the same kind, a return of the same soul to the same conditions without end. According to `Abdu'l-Bahá this cannot take place because human existence is not confined to material creation:
The idea that existence is restricted to this perishable world, and the denial of the existence of divine worlds, originally proceeded from the imaginations of certain believers in reincarnation; but the divine worlds are infinite. If the divine worlds culminated in this material world, creation would be futile:
Nietzsche’s eternal return denies the transcendent, non-material, dimension of existence and requires that we live in only one world, the world of physical creation within which we shall be eternally re-cycled without undergoing any evolutionary process and progress in other realms. In this statement `Abdu'l-Bahá makes it clear that without such transcendent realms, creation itself would have no purpose or meaning if it were limited to material existence. Furthermore, he challenges Nietzsche’s idea that the eternal return is a glorious and inspiring vision by calling such a vision of life limited to the material plane “futile.”
The eternal return is also contrary to nature, for, as `Abdu'l-Bahá says,
The point of the compass in describing a circle makes no retrograde motion, for this would be contrary to the natural movement and the divine order . . . and a movement contrary to the system and law of nature is the cause of nonexistence. The return of the soul after death is contrary to the natural movement, and opposed to the divine system.
These statements make it clear that Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal return which is so central to his philosophy, is fundamentally incompatible with the Bahá'í Writings because such a return violates the naturally progressive essence of the soul. `Abdu'l-Bahá tells us that “with the human soul, there is no decline. Its only movement is towards perfection; growth and progress alone constitute the motion of the soul.” To return to this current material state is simply unnatural.
There are also serious difficulties in reconciling the Writings with Nietzsche’s perspectivism. A superficial examination of the Writings might lead us to conclude that they support Nietzsche’s perspectivism but this is a mirage. Nietzsche’s perspectivism (and the perspectivism adopted by the postmodernists) does not recognise that there does in fact exist a privileged point of view, an objective ‘Archimedean point,’ a transcendental vantage point from which to judge and evaluate our various individual perspectives and interpretations. This, of course, is the viewpoint of the Manifestation of God and His appointed interpreters. Whatever perspectives and interpretations we espouse must not reject or, at the very least, not contradict what the Manifestation teaches and what His specifically appointed successors decree. Nietzsche’s philosophy, is incapable of recognizing the existence of such a Being, Whose “Book itself is the "Unerring Balance" established amongst men” by which all other views and perspectives are to be judged. In reflecting on this we should not make the mistake of confusing Nietzsche’s ‘Super-man’ or ‘Ueber-mensch’ with a Manifestation. The ‘Super-man’ is a thoroughly human entity whereas the Manifestation occupies a unique ontological position in which He has “the station of essential unity . . . [and] the station of distinction” which is limited to the created world. Moreover, the Manifestation in one station has an ontological position transcendent to the material world – something that Nietzsche’s philosophy is bound to reject as an example of hostility to this life in this particular world. Nothing in Nietzsche’s doctrine of the ‘Super-man’ provides him with any remotely similar ontological attributes.
13. Commentary on the Bahá'í Writings and Heidegger
As we recall, Heidegger thought that metaphysics – “the philosophical investigation of the nature, constitution and structure of reality,” – had gone astray, and lost the “question of Being,” replacing it with concern for particular beings. In other words, metaphysics or, more precisely, western metaphysics, replaced a concern for Being with a concern for particular entities or instantiations of being. In his introduction to Being and Time, he says, “ ‘Being’ cannot indeed be conceived as an entity . . . nor can ‘Being’ be derived from higher concepts by definition, not can it be presented through lower ones.” It is also impossible to define Being in the manner of “traditional logic.” For Heidegger,
Metaphysics thinks about beings as beings. Wherever the question is asked what beings are, beings as such are in sight. Metaphysical representation owes this sight to the light of Being. The light itself, i.e., that which such thinking experiences as light, does not come within the range of metaphysical thinking; for- metaphysics always represents beings only as beings.
To continue Heidegger’s metaphor, we may say that metaphysics no longer looks at the light (of Being) by which we see all things but only at what the light reveals and, therefore, comes to forget Being. “Metaphysics, insofar as it always represents only beings as beings, does not recall Being itself. Philosophy does not concentrate on its ground.” In other words, metaphysics concentrates on the surface phenomena and forgets that which makes the surface phenomena possible, the condition of their being-there [Da-sein].
In our view, the Writings do not agree with Heidegger that the concern for “beings as beings,” i.e. for specific entities, necessarily leads to a forgetfulness of Being. It may do so, but such a result is not necessary. To understand how this can be so, we must come to grips with the fact that the Bahá'í Writings abound with metaphysical statements and analysis about the nature and structure of reality including that of all kinds of beings. The Writings make wide-spread and consistent use of the Aristotelian method, terminology and arguments in their analysis of reality. In the Aristotelian analysis of reality, there are substances which have essential and nonessential attributes; there are essences with necessary and accidental attributes; there are potentials in each entity; things are contingent or necessary, there are four causes (material, final, formal and efficient) and all materially existing things are composites of matter and form, and subject to corruption. There is also a First Mover or God Who is “the object of desire” for all things and towards Whom all things are attracted. All of these concepts are found and used in the Writings. In addition, metaphysical arguments of various kinds – for immortality, against reincarnation, against materialism, pantheism and the belief that the world is an illusion – are also employed.
This leads to an important question: given their wealth of metaphysical analysis, do the Bahá'í
Writings ‘forget’ Being? Does Heidegger’s statement that “It [metaphysics] refers to Being and means beings as beings ” also apply to the Writings? In our view, the answer is negative because the Bahá'í doctrine of the essential unknowability of God’s Essence:
Far be it from His glory that human tongue should adequately recount His praise, or that human heart comprehend His fathomless mystery. He is, and hath ever been, veiled in the ancient eternity of His Essence, and will remain in His Reality everlastingly hidden from the sight of men. "No vision taketh in Him, but He taketh in all vision; He is the Subtile, the AllPerceiving."
Precisely because God cannot be known in His Essence – a belief which is emphasized throughout the Bahá'í Writings – we cannot make God into another particular being subject to definitions and “traditional logic.” All the specific images of God as an entity are no more than products of our own individual and/or collective imaginations, or heuristic images provided by Manifestations for a particular time and place. These images are not real although they serve a heuristic purpose that both facilitates and limits our thoughts and feelings at the same time. If understood correctly, they draw attention to the utterly transcendent which does not exist as a being ‘like any other’ and prevent us from forgetting Being completely.
In other words, if we keep God’s unknowability foremost in mind, we shall not mistake a being for Being. Since God’s Essence is unknowable, we can only observe the “signs of God” (presence of God.) in all created things. To use Heidegger’s metaphor, since we cannot look at the sun, we can still become aware of the light and how that light is received by individual beings.
Through reflective prayer guided by the Manifestation, we can still be aware of the light by which we see and its Source: “No thing have I perceived, except that I perceived God within it, God before it, or God after it.” It is precisely Bahá'u'lláh’s revelation with its emphasis on the unknowability of God that ensures we do not forget That which is the very condition for our being and knowing.
Because the Bahá'í Writings avoid the metaphysical trap of mistaking Being for ‘a being’ and, forgetting Being, Bahá'ís can agree with Heidegger’s analogy between Being and colour.:
Color shines and wants only to shine. When we analyse it in rational terms by measuring its wavelengths, it is gone. It shows itself only when it remains undisclosed and unexplained. Earth thus shatters every attempt to penetrate into it. it causes every merely calculating importunity to turn to a destruction . . . The earth appears only cleared and as itself when it is perceived and preserved as that which is by nature undisclosable . . . .”
Here we see the ineluctability of God or Being, the “generous,” Who “wants only to shine” and on Whom all beings depend for their existence. However, as with colour, the moment we begin analysis we lose the very thing we seek to analyse; propositional knowledge and calculative and tehnological reasoning is of no use in understanding Being. Indeed, the truest thing we can say about God or Being is that it is utterly transcendent and “undisclosable.”
Our conclusion is that on the fundamental issue, the Bahá'í Writings both agree and disagree. They agree with Heidegger insofar as Being or God is absolutely beyond human conception and that all our concepts are deficient in this regard. However, the Writings also show that the doctrine of the unknowability of God’s Essence is the antidote needed to prevent metaphysics from diminishing God into a being ‘like the others.’ This disagreement is fundamental insofar as there is no way to bridge Heidegger’s rejection of metaphysics and the Writings’ use of them.
At this point an extremely thorny problem intrudes. Is there any correspondence between the
Bahá'í concept of God and Heidegger’s concept of Being? Heidegger’s views varied over his career. In his first major work, Being and Time, we observe “little interest in the idea that being [Being] is the ground of beings.” “Later, being [Being] is the ground of being . . . ‘being offers us no ground and basis on which we build and in which we dwell – as do the beings to which we turn. Being is the nay-saying [Ab-sage] to the role of such grounding. . .’ “ Not surprisingly, there has been considerable discussion of Heidegger’s alleged atheism – but this has not hindered theistic views of his work from appearing in large numbers. We are in no position to engage in this highly complex debate here. However, we must not overlook the fact that Heidegger’s lack of clarity on this issue contrasts sharply with the Writings which see the recognition of God has the first and most essential duty of humankind: “I bear witness O my God, that Thou has created me to know Thee and to worship Thee. . .” Any vacillation or lack of absolute clarity on this issue is in conflict with the Bahá'í Writings.
Another area of serious disagreement between Heidegger and the Writings is his unqualified rejection of the correspondence theory of truth: “truth has by no means the structure of an agreement between knowing and the object in the sense of a likening of one entity (the subject) to another (the Object).” He also writes, “In what way is this relation [of correspondence] possible as a relation between intellectus [mind/intellect] and res [thing/object]?” Heidegger has no confidence in the mind’s ability to form concepts that correspond to or are adequate to reality.
According to the Bahá'í Writings, the correspondence theory of truth is valid insofar as it can provide genuine and adequate knowledge in its appropriate sphere of action. It cannot, for example, apply to ‘knowledge’ of God Who is unknowable in his essence; not can it apply to the direct or immediate knowledge of the essence of things. The appropriate sphere of human knowledge is whatever can be known by the qualities or attributes of a thing. Thus, the Writings disagree with Heidegger’s complete rejection of the correspondence theory of truth. On this issue, `Abdu'l-Bahá writes,
Reflect that man's power of thought consists of two kinds. One kind is true, when it agrees with a determined truth. Such conceptions find realization in the exterior world; such are accurate opinions, correct theories, scientific discoveries and inventions.
The other kind of conceptions is made up of vain thoughts and useless ideas which yield neither fruit nor result, and which have no reality. No, they surge like the waves of the sea of imaginations, and they pass away like idle dreams.
He says a thought or concept is true “when it agrees with a determined truth,” and describes “conceptions [that] find their realization in the exterior world” as “accurate opinions, correct theories, scientific discoveries and inventions.” Clearly these are references to correspondence between our ideas and reality. On the other hand, “useless ideas” or concepts which “have no reality” and therefore produce no results obviously do not correspond to reality. Moreover, the action of overcoming and correcting mistakes and learning to which the Writings refer obviously require bringing our conceptions into correspondence with reality. Finally, the Writings clearly believe in scientific progress, and that, in turn, depends on ever-improving correspondence between our concepts and the things we study; our knowledge gains in accuracy, scope, explanatory and predictive power and opens hidden aspects of reality that allow us to make new discoveries and inventions. If our knowledge did not correspond to reality, this would not be possible. Conversely, the Writings assert the existence of error, ignorance and superstition. In other words, there are beliefs that do not correspond to reality, and these must be corrected.
Heidegger also doubts the ability of language, or propositions to convey the whole truth about things: “the traditional assignment of truth exclusively to statements as the sole essential locus of truth falls away. Truth does not originally reside in the proposition.” In other words, there are truths about things that cannot be adequately conveyed in language. Heidegger doubts that mere verbal propositions lacking proper grounding in a relationship to Being can ever satisfactorily correspond to real specific beings. The Bahá'í Writings agree with him on this point, albeit it with serious qualifications. We observe the boundaries of what words can say, for example when `Abdu'l-Bahá tells us that the full meaning of first chapter of John in the Bible
(“In the beginning . . . “) is “beyond the power of books or words to contain and express.” Obviously, there are limits to humankind’s powers of comprehension and explanation. However, while language and propositions have their limitations, they are not as incapable of reflecting reality as Heidegger seems to think. There is no absolute disconnect between language and all aspects of reality. If there were, the Writings would not be able to endorse the concept of progress i.e. improvements in accuracy, scope, explanatory and predictive power, in scientific understanding or in many other human endeavours. For progress to occur, true propositions about reality must reflect reality with some degree of accuracy.
Nonetheless, the Writings agree with Heidegger insofar as a proper relationship to and understanding of Being is necessary to acquire a fully adequate knowledge of particular beings. Heidegger writes,
it becomes plain that to clarify the structure of a truth it is not enough simply to presuppose this relational totality [of complete correspondence between mind and object]
but we must go back and inquire into the context of Being which provides the support for this totality as such.
In terms of the Bahá'í Writings, this means that to have the fullest possible understanding of specific beings, we also need to take Being or God into consideration, since God provides the ground for the very possibility of specific beings even coming into existence. Being or God is the condition for the existence of all things. Without a proper relationship to Being, we might, for example, degrade things to merely material objects without seeing the “signs of God” in them and think that their existence is entirely for our use. Such understanding of things would be unsatisfactory and easily leads to error. This situation is precisely why science and its propositional knowledge and religion, and its relationship to Being, must work together to attain appropriate knowledge of things.
For the Writings, the correspondence theory of truth is valid not just of material reality but also of spiritual realities, though to comprehend these higher realities requires assistance of the Holy Spirit to develop our “spiritual susceptibilities.” When these are developed, we can correct our ignorance of “divine religion” and think “beyond the range of the senses” and attain the “conscious pathway to the Kingdom of God.” `Abdu'l-Bahá tells us that a person who “possesses no spiritual susceptibilities  is uninformed of the heavenly world” ; this is another statement which implicitly posits a correspondence between our thoughts and reality. That the correspondence theory also applies to spiritual realities is seen by the close association between wisdom and the heart:
Sow the seeds of My divine wisdom in the pure soil of thy heart, and water them with the water of certitude, that the hyacinths of My knowledge and wisdom may spring up fresh and green in the sacred city of thy heart.
Not only does the heart attain knowledge of spiritual realities, but it is also capable of ‘thinking’ albeit it in its own way and attaining understanding: “Ponder this in thine heart, that thou mayest comprehend its meaning,” Such exhortations to ponder things in our hearts are frequent throughout Bahá'u'lláh’s Writings and indicate that the heart is capable of acquiring knowledge and understanding. However, this does not mean the knowledge attained by the heart is incompatible with the knowledge attained by reason and other ways:
If thou wishest the divine knowledge and recognition, purify thy heart from all beside God, be wholly attracted to the ideal, beloved One; search for and choose Him and apply thyself to rational and authoritative arguments. For arguments are a guide to the path and by this the heart will be turned unto the Sun of Truth. And when the heart is turned unto the Sun, then the eye will be opened and will recognize the Sun through the Sun itself. Then (man) will be in no need of arguments (or proofs), for the Sun is altogether independent, and absolute independence is in need of nothing, and proofs are one of the things (of which absolute independence has no need).
In other words, arguments can clear the way for the heart’s direct perception of the truth after which point, such arguments will no longer be needed. When the heart is turned to the sun, we will understand, but we will understand in a way not mediated by propositions.
Heidegger agrees with the Writings on the issue of truth simply making itself known, through “disclosedness” of Being and the Being of beings. Letting the Being of beings and Being itself or God unconceal itself is a higher, or more profound kind of knowledge than can be stated in propositions. This does not mean propositional knowledge is unimportant; as we see in `Abdu'l-Bahá’s words above, propositional knowledge plays an essential part in the development of the heart - but it is not the ultimate knowledge we have. However, there are limits to this agreement between the Writings and Heidegger. The Writings cannot agree that the knowledge revealed by the assistance of the Holy Spirit not only reveals but also, in its inherent nature, conceals and, thereby, leads us into error. This knowledge is “infallible and indubitable . . . and this is the condition in which certainty alone can be attained.” In contrast, Heidegger says, “The disclosure of beings as such is simultaneously and intrinsically the concealing of being as a whole” because “[i]n the simultaneity of disclosure and concealing errancy holds sway. Errancy and the concealing of what is concealed belong to the primordial essence of truth. The Bahá'í Writings nowhere suggest that error or “errancy” is an intrinsic part of truth itself. Our knowledge of the truth may be a mixture of truth and error but this fact does not extend to the truth in itself, i.e. “the primordial essence of truth.” Indeed, separating light “from darkness, , truth from falsehood, right from wrong, guidance from error” is one of the reasons for the Manifestation’s appearance.
14. Lyotard and the Bahá'í Writings
The Bahá'í Writings and Lyotard’s postmodernism are in conflict on all fundamental points. It is impossible to embrace them both without losing logical consistency and thereby becoming hamstrung both in thought and action. One cannot both reject metanarratives and accept only small, local narratives [petits recits], and at the same time accept progressive revelation as the paradigm for humankind’s spiritual history and global unity as the goal of earthly evolution without completely undermining one’s own position intellectually and thereby making consistent thought and action impossible. As a metanarrative of humankind’s religious and even non-religious history, progressive revelation is integral to the identity of the Bahá'í Faith. It is the foundation on which belief in the essential unity of all religions and of humankind is built. Any philosophy which rejects metanarratives is, for that reason alone, fundamentally at odds with the Bahá'í teachings. On the issue of metanarratives at least, the Bahá'í Writings are in the same company as Hegel, Marx, Toynbee and Sorokin to name only a few of the best-known examples of metanarratives of human history.
It is also clear that the Bahá'í Writings privilege the metanarrative revealed by the Manifestations over all other metanarratives. For our time, Bahá'u'lláh is described as the “true Physician” Whose Book is the “infallible remedy” that provides the vision for understanding our world as well as previous dispensations. Obviously, for the Writings, not all remedies - or metanarratives - are equally effective or true. Some are more true, or appropriate or effective than others and those presented by the Manifestations are supreme. From this it is also evident that the Bahá'í Writings reject the relativism inherent in Lyotard’s thought. If all metanarratives are on par, and there is no external ‘Archimedian standpoint’ from which to judge among them, it becomes impossible to distinguish knowledge from superstition, scientific fact from fiction, divine revelation from imagination and, of course, good from evil. All differences are justified as differences of viewpoint. If no viewpoint, or, metanarrative is privileged over any other, then they are all equally valid, and this leaves us with an epistemological and moral relativism according to which we can make no objective or universal judgments about any statements.
This relativism inherent in Lyotard’s philosophy is problematic for the Writings because they do not maintain that all moral positions are equal – they clearly privilege love and peace over hatred and war – nor do they assert that superstition is equal to true knowledge or that all putative physicians for mankind’s ills are of equal skill. They also uphold objective and universal truths such as progressive revelation, the inability to know essences directly, the “rational soul” as humankind’s distinguishing characteristic, and most importantly, the absolute existence of God. Nowhere do they suggest that contrary views on these and many other issues are equally valid as relativism is bound to maintain. The Writings are full of references to those who deny the teachings of the Manifestation as “ignorant”, in “‘error,” subject to “superstition,” “mistaken” and even “absurd.” By such means the Writings actively oppose the idea that all viewpoints are equally valid and that none is privileged over any other. However, we hasten to add that the recognition that the Manifestation’s teachings are privileged, does not justify a feeling or attitude of personal superiority to the other as a fellow human being. The other’s view may be mistaken but s/he is still a creation of God and must be treated as such:
Necessarily there will be some who are defective amongst men, but it is our duty to enable them by kind methods of guidance and teaching to become perfected. Some will be found who are morally sick; they should be treated in order that they may be healed. Others are immature and like children; they must be trained and educated so that they may become wise and mature. Those who are asleep must be awakened; the indifferent must become mindful and attentive. But all this must be accomplished in the spirit of kindness and love and not by strife, antagonism nor in a spirit of hostility and hatred, for this is contrary to the good pleasure of God.
Another serious conflict between Lyotard (and postmodernism in general) and the Writings is that the Writings accept various binary oppositions rejected by Lyotard as “terrorist,” because they can be used to “eliminate or threaten to eliminate, a player [point of view, culture] from the language game [or metanarrative] one shares with them.” As we have already seen in previous sections, the Writings accept the binary opposition of ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’, and privilege the rational by stating that humankind is distinguished from animals by the “rational soul.” Another such binary opposition is ‘civilized’ and ‘uncivilized’, with the former being clearly privileged as the desirable state for man. For example, in Paris Talks, ‘Abdu'l-Bahá makes it clear that Mohammed raised the Arabs who were “a people as savage and uncivilized as the wild beasts” to a higher, more civilized state. The Writings also make use of the oppositional binary ‘knowledge’ and ‘superstition’ and unhesitatingly privilege the former. ‘Superstition’ is always a term of opprobrium and condemnation as seen in the following statement: “It is, therefore, clear that in order to make any progress in the search after truth we must relinquish superstition.” This theme is constantly repeated in the numerous references to science and religion: “If religion does not agree with science, it is superstition and ignorance.” Quite patently, `Abdu'l-Bahá is condemning superstition, and, in the second quote, privileging science. He wants us to overcome error, i.e. to leave behind and marginalise erroneous beliefs instead of succumbing to them. This, of course, is not to say that the Writings accept any and all binary oppositions; oppositional binaries based on race, nationality and wealth for, example, are not acceptable and must be overcome. We may reject and marginalise ideas but we must not marginalise individual human beings. However, the fact that the Writings accept oppositional binaries in any situation puts them in profound conflict with Lyotard’s theories.
The Bahá'í Writings can only accept some aspects of Lyotard’s language game theory. Language game theory, as we recall, is a development of his theory of metanarrative. Very briefly, a language game is a particular use of language, according to particular rules, and these rules vary from game to game. Science is a language game; so are religion, philosophy, literature. Every society is/has a language game. For the Writings, there is no difficulty with the idea that various cultures and subcultures have different language games and that a language game is necessary for the existence of society. However, the Writings cannot accept the claim that a universal metalanguage cannot exist, since the revelation brought by the Manifestations may be seen as being exactly that, a universal language game or metanarrative applicable to all cultures and all human beings. The unification of humankind requires that we all agree to at least one, universal language game. This is possible because the Writings maintain that all human beings share the same human nature which is specifically characterized by the possession of a “rational soul.” The universal possession of a “rational soul” is the foundation of Bahá'í anthropology or theory of man as well as the foundation for all hopes for the unity of humankind; without a common, universal, essential human nature such unity would have nothing to build on.
According to Lyotard, language games are water-tight compartments that prohibit any critical inter-action since they use language according to different rules. There is really no possibility of sensible criticism and debate. How could the rules of tennis be used to critique the rules of soccer? Thus, unlike the Writings, Lyotard’s theory, resurrected by Stephen J Gould’s concept of “non-overlapping magisteria” sees no possibility or even need for a dialogue, consensus and harmony between science and religion since they are playing different language games. From this point of view, science and religion are confined in “two solitudes” and the goal of harmonizing them is a willow-the-wisp; they are not competitors and, therefore, do not need harmonizing. Of course, such a view is philosophically untenable. Whether or not science and religion are two disparate language games, the fact is that at least some scientific discoveries have implications for religion and some religious teachings have implications for science. The
“two solitudes” are not totally isolated and do, indeed, interact, and for that reason may be in conflict that requires harmonizing. This is further emphasised by the Bahá'í teaching that “truth is one, although its manifestations may be very different.” Since that is the case, it follows logically that we should “earnestly endeavour to be the means of uniting religion and science.”
`Abdu'l-Bahá advocates more than “two solitudes” that do not conflict by virtue of not communicating with each other, rather, he wants that “Religion and science walk hand in hand.”
Lyotard rejects the possibility or need for critical interaction among language games and metanarratives because he is concerned about preserving heterogeneity or diversity. This cannot be achieved if one metanarrative or language game becomes dominant and arrogantly identifies their views with reality itself and, thereby, turns “terrorist” by excluding or otherwise silencing conflicting views.
His ‘war on totality’ rejects totalizing theories which he describes as master narratives
[metanarratives] that are somehow reductionistic , simplistic and even ‘terroristic’ by providing legitimations for totalitarian terror and suppressing differences in unifying schemes.
Instead, Lyotard wants us to recognise “the heteromorphous nature of language games,” in order to preserve the diversity of games and metanarratives. Even freely arrived at consensus is rejected because that is simply another way for a majority to pressure and oppress a minority and requires the surrender of the very attributes that provide a unique identity and mode of existence. Instead Lyotard “champions dissensus over consensus, diversity and dissent over conformity and consensus and heterogeneity and the incommensurable over homogeneity and universality.” This position, held in some form by all postmodernist philosophers, makes them suspicious of anything that seems likely to diminish heterogeneity by attempting to subsume differences – even if this is presented as a freely arrived at consensus – within a single, allencompassing i.e. ‘totalizing’ metanarrative and language game. Because of this “irreducible pluralism” there can be at best temporary local arrangements (but no permanent institutions) “in the professional, emotional, sexual, cultural, family and international domains” that can be dissolved at any time at the behest of the ‘players.’ From this point of view, the Bahá'í teaching of “unity in diversity” could very easily be seen as operating to suppress diversity for the sake of unity, and thereby become a recipe for “terrorism.” The concept of a ‘totalizing’ metareligion trying to unify all other religions into one by concentrating on the essential “oneness of religion” is, from the postmodernist viewpoint, a threat to the independent existence of all other metanarratives and language games, as is the desire to establish world unity through some form of global commonwealth. Such a project inevitably requires the establishment of permanent global institutions and would thereby diminish heterogeneity in customs of governance. All would have to submit to and find their place in the metanarrative of the development of global unity. Furthermore, despite the fact that all Bahá'ís have the right and duty to investigate the truth for himself and to speak their minds freely, postmodernists like Lyotard see this principle as severely compromised and undermined by the enormous emphasis put on unity in Bahá'í community life and LSA decisions. At the personal level, the use of standardized prayer books as distinct from extemporaneous individual prayer, is a further example of control over the language game as is the existence of authorized and infallible interpreters of the Manifestation’s Word. Rather than embrace the unity provided by such limitations of the language game and metanarrative, Lyotard prefers to celebrate endless pluralities and heterogeneities for no other reason than their differences. According to him, most people have lost their interest in grand narratives. Finally, with his emphasis on “dissensus” Lyotard is bound to be highly suspicious of the entire consultation process because it can be seen as a way to minimize diversity in the quest for consensus.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Lyotard and the Bahá'í Writings are in deep conflict. As noted at the outset of this paper, there may be some areas of minor or superficial agreement between them, but on the essential and foundational issues there is none.
15 The Bahá'í Writings and Derrida
As with Lyotard, the Bahá'í Writings have a considerable number of foundational differences with the philosophy of Jacques Derrida. These would preclude harmony on anything but superficialities and incidentals. The first of these foundational differences concerns Derrida’s rejection of ‘privilege’ in regards to knowers and knowledge.
Unlike Derrida, the Bahá'í Writings recognise the existence of privileged knowers, the
Manifestations of God, Who possess “essential infallibility,” or the “Most Great Infallibility” which makes it impossible for them to err in Their teaching. They are “endowed with divine knowledge, not dependent upon learning acquired in schools” and are
distinguished above all others of mankind in every aspect and qualification in order that He may be able to train effectively the human body politic, eliminate the darkness enshrouding the human world, uplift humanity from a lower to a higher kingdom
The knowledge of these “infallible Physician[s]” is not just another point of view or interpretation in an endless series of such, but rather, is the standard by which all other knowledge must be assessed: “Weigh not the Book of God with such standards and sciences as are current amongst you, for the Book itself is the unerring Balance established amongst men.” Obviously, this Book which can only measured by its own standard is privileged above all other human knowledge, and, in effect, is a transcendental or Archimedean standpoint from which all other viewpoints may be evaluated. Furthermore, in the Bahá'í Dispensation there are `Abdu'lBahá, an infallible interpreter of Bahá'u'lláh’s Word, as well as the Guardian whose interpretations of Bahá'u'lláh’s teachings are also infallible. In addition, the Bahá'í Faith also recognises that the Universal House of Justice is “under the unerring guidance of God” in its appointed sphere of operations.
The existence of these privileged knowers and interpreters is fatal to the deconstructive project because they establish an outside, transcendental privileged Archimedean standpoint from which to judge human viewpoints and, thereby, impose limits on the endless “play,” selfsubversion and supplementation of texts that is crucial to deconstruction. They also place boundaries within which the Writings may be understood. The problem is that such parameters deprive the deconstructionist project of its very reason for being and its modus operandi. An instructive example of how the presence of privileged interpreters sets constraints on our understanding of the Writings is the issue of homosexuality. Bahá'u'lláh’s statements about “boys” has been interpreted by Shoghi Effendi to mean a prohibition of homosexual behavior and relationships. For Bahá'ís, the Guardian’s understanding ends the “play” of words, of selfsubversion and of supplementarities and imposes a final and authoritative meaning on what Bahá'u'lláh means. To emphasise its denial of any privileged interpreters of texts, deconstructionism rejects even the notion that the author has any privileged insight into his own creation.
In regards to the rejection of privilege, it should be noted that in distinction to Derrida, the Writings privilege one member of certain oppositional binaries such as good and evil, rational and irrational, truth and untruth, God and creation and, as we shall see, signifier and signified. In ontology they also accept such binary oppositions as substance and attribute, essential and incidental (accidental), contingent and necessary all of which deconstructionism rejects. For example, `Abdu'l-Bahá writes,
Some think that the body is the substance and exists by itself, and that the spirit is accidental and depends upon the substance of the body, although, on the contrary, the rational soul is the substance, and the body depends upon it. If the accident--that is to say, the body--be destroyed, the substance, the spirit, remains.
Very obviously, substance is completely different from attribute and is superior to it insofar as the
accident or attribute depends on the substance. In the case of the human soul, the substance does not need the accidental or contingent human body to exist. In this sense, the rational soul, as substance, is privileged over the accidental, or, to put it another way, the essence is privileged over the accident.
Without privileging the substance over the accident `Abdu'l-Bahá would not be able to establish his proof of the immortality of the soul – a key Bahá'í doctrine. And what would be the point of having a Manifestation’s guidance, if we were not willing to privilege good over evil, the rational over the irrational, truth over untruth? Who would we need any guidance at all? The Writings, however, clearly state that humankind needs this guidance for its material and spiritual evolution, and, therefore, privilege good over evil, love over hatred, knowledge over ignorance, truth over lies and, as we shall see below, the rational over the irrational. There is no question for them of reversing this order by invoking Derrida’s “aporias” i.e. by invoking explanations that lie outside the standard rules of reasoning and logic. For the Writings, there is simply no need to puzzle ourselves over the superiority of truth over ignorance and superstition and the need to overcome the latter. The same case holds for religion. If we are not willing to privilege God over creation, by recognising God’s ontological independence and primacy, then there is no possibility of having religion at all since religion requires the recognition of some original or foundational Source however it be envisioned.
Although we have already done so in our discussion of the Bahá'í Writings and the Counterenlightenment, it is necessary to draw attention again to the privileging of reason precisely because this is so contradictory to Derrida’s deconstructionism, its rejection of binary oppositions and its “aporias.” It may, of course, be argued that these “aporias” represent moments of higher insight beyond the merely rational and for that reason find some resonance in the Writing’s concepts of trans-rational, intuitive, ‘mystical’ insight gained with the aid of the Holy Spirit. The Bahá'í Faith certainly recognises these, but the situation with Derrida’s “aporias” is different. Derrida’s “aporias” overturn various binary oppositions in order to destabilise and un-privilege them whereas the moments of inspiration and transcendental insight confirm the Manifestation’s teachings and the binary oppositions He establishes, such as, for example, the precedence of knowledge over ignorance, and love over hatred and God over creation. That said, let us turn our attention to the privileging of reason by the Bahá'í Writings.
The Bahá'í Writings, of course, do not regard human reason as infallible but they clearly privilege reason and the rational even in religion. Reason is necessary for humankind’s spiritual evolution but it is not, by itself, sufficient for our spiritual development. It must be guided by the
Manifestations and “fortified by the Holy Spirit” in order to become informed of the mysteries of the world of significances” that constitute the world of creation. Reason is privileged in Bahá'í anthropology or theory of humankind. According to `Abdu'l-Bahá, “[t]he human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul, and these two names--the human spirit and the rational soul - designate one thing. The fact that reason is the essential, and universal feature distinguishing man from animal is significant because this means that all human beings share this capacity and have a common, inherent nature or essence regardless of historical period, place or culture. Reason already unifies humankind in essence and can, therefore, be the foundational capacity for manifesting the unity of humankind in the phenomenal world. It can also be the basis of recognizing the essential oneness of all religions and progressive revelation.
Reason is also necessary to faith and spiritual development, for as `Abdu'l-Bahá says, “If a question be found contrary to reason, faith and belief in it are impossible, and there is no outcome but wavering and vacillation” and “If religion is opposed to reason and science, faith is impossible; and when faith and confidence in the divine religion are not manifest in the heart, there can be no spiritual attainment.” This is an example of where the Manifestation and His appointed interpreter have dissolved a binary opposition – faith and reason – but this should not be interpreted as a blanket rejection of all such oppositions.
Privileging reason or the rational soul obviously limits our ability to fully engage in deconstructive “play” with relevant passages because we now have a privileged viewpoint or perspective from which to judge and possibly deny the validity of other ideas. We can now at least begin the process of distinguishing knowledge from superstition, rationality from irrationality, truth from error or deceptions. Once again we observe how the position adopted by the Writings undermines and effectively negates the entire deconstructive project.
The Bahá'í Writings also privilege through the agency of humankind insofar as man, whose unique identifying feature is “the rational soul” is “the highest creature of the phenomenal world.” Creation itself would have no purpose without man: “This world is also in the condition of a fruit tree, and man is like the fruit; without fruit the tree would be useless.” Thus we can see that reason is also privileged ontologically in regards to the make-up or nature of reality by characterizing it as the distinguishing feature of God’s highest creation.
Deconstruction programmatically rejects all privileging because it limits the “play” of words, subversions and supplementarities. We might say that deconstructionism rejects these binaries for ‘political’ reasons, insofar as privileging one term arbitrarily imposes it on the other, it imposes an order of value and importance, thereby marginalising one of them. To use Lyotard’s term, privileging is “terroristic” since this imposed, authoritarian order, limits our freedom to follow the “play” of concepts. The rejection of privilege accords with deconstruction’s refusal to subsume things under universal concepts such as ‘human,’ ‘human nature’ or ‘species,’ i.e. the refusal to recognise essences. Such universal concepts are a form of violence and totalitarianism against the heterogeneity of the individual. Deconstruction is supposed to free us from such conceptual oppression.
There are still other problems between Derrida and the Bahá'í Writings. To understand one of the most important, it is worth while recalling Jonathan Culler’s remark that “[t]o deconstruct a discourse [text] is to show how it undermines the philosophy it asserts, or the hierarchical oppositions on which it relies…” Given the infinite play of traces and infinite supplementarity, we can never know what a text of any kind really means. There can be no authoritative, final self-sufficient interpretation of a text because the concept of infinite supplementation means that
“meaning is always deferred.” Meaning is something that simultaneously is and is not, something that never is and is always to be. It cannot be definitively established for two reasons. First, any interpretation of a text is itself subject to the “play” of traces, supplements and substitutions and thus at least as ambiguous as the original text itself. Second, the self-sufficient, essential and privileged meaning cannot be established by logical or rational means because reason depends on the principle of identity and non-contradiction: “A = A” and “A thing cannot be A and not-A in the same respect at the same time.” The “play” of supplements prevents precisely that simple identification of “A” with itself; it is always “A and not-quite-A” because of the traces and supplements originating in links to the whole linguistic system. Christopher Norris’ comment about literary critics is apropos to anyone reading a text by Derrida’s deconstructionist method:
if interpretation is always caught up in a chain of proliferating sense which it can neither halt nor fully comprehend, then the critic [or any reader] is effectively absolved of all responsibility for limiting the play of his own imagination.
Indeed, if the traces and supplements can ultimately extend through the entire linguistic system there is no reason to arbitrarily call a halt to interpretation. Derrida’s position leads to the unavoidable conclusion no one can ever really know what a text is about since both the text and all its interpretations are constantly undermining themselves. In more general terms, there can be no knowledge at all because all knowledge is embodied in texts written or spoken and is, therefore, subject to the “play” of traces and supplements.
Derrida’s position is extremely problematical for all religious texts. Why would any religious revelation endorse an undertaking which is guaranteed to create additional and needless ambiguity to texts meant to provide guidance for human thought and action? Why would a Manifestation speak in such a way as to undermine or subvert His own meaning? Doing so would sow needless confusion and contention among people and thereby defeat the very purpose of religion which is “to establish unity and concord amongst the peoples of the world; make it not the cause of dissension and strife.” The prevention of such confusion and contention is the very reason for appointing `Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi as infallible interpreters. Indeed, if we take the deconstructionist project to its logical conclusion, we could never know, not even in principle, what any particular text (revealed or not) actually says since an infinite number of supplementations could lead to an infinite number of interpretations at least some of which would be in direct conflict. This may sound fine in theory but in practice it is unworkable for a religion trying to unify humankind, to explicate its teachings clearly and to engage in meaningful inter-faith dialogue.
It is difficult if not impossible to avoid concluding that Derrida’s position leads to a profound and corrosive scepticism about humankind’s ability to obtain and articulate knowledge. In fact, the whole concept of knowledge distinguishable from fiction, lies, pretence, error and mythology is thrown into question. Problems begin with Derrida’s refusal to recognise the signifier/signified distinction. If at least some propositions and statements, i.e. signifiers do not refer to some entity or state of affairs external or transcendental to the signifier but only to the play of differences in a language system, then how can these propositions provide knowledge of the world? Derrida’s theory leads to a profound disconnect between human discourse and reality, a disconnect so fundamental that it effectively denies our ability to get knowledge and communicate about the world. This position is known as scepticism. All we have, in the last analysis, are different stories, interpretations, perspectives or texts, each as valid as the next in its own way (see
Lyotard’s position on the validity of each language game), with none privileged over any other. Furthermore, there is no possible way to choose between accounts or texts, since there is no way for humans to attain a transcendental viewpoint, i.e. a viewpoint outside of all texts from which to make a judgment. Not only does this conflict with the Writings’ acceptance of privileged knowers, but also throws into question the whole concept of progress i.e. overcoming error in favour of more accurate views in science or any other area of study. psychology or history.
Progress in science and knowledge of reality in general is an integral part of progressive revelation. Such deep scepticism also conflicts with the Writings because it undermines the concept of reason as a means of achieving progress: reason itself becomes just another perspective or method of acquiring ‘knowledge’ without having any privileged status. In addition, Derrida’s view undermines ethics insofar as we can no longer distinguish the liar from the truthful person: if there is no independent, i.e. transcendental truth about any situation, all we have left is confused and conflicting welter of perspectives, interpretations, claims and counterclaims all of equal validity.
The Writings do not accept Derrida’s view that words do not refer to a “transcendental” of some kind, i.e. to an object, person, situation, process or phenomenon that is external to a particular language. Words, according to Derrida, refer only to other words in a language and not to something else; to put it another way, there is no external, transcendental signified beyond the signifier. In the Bahá'í view, this is untenable. What would become of the word “God”? If it did not refer to an ‘other’ outside of language, the whole purpose of religion would be negated, as would the concept of a Manifestation of God, not to mention God’s Will, or the Names of God. Religion would literally be reduced to a ‘word-game’ in which each word simply refers to another in an endless webs of cross-references. Prayer, especially petitionary prayer would lose their rationale and purpose, as, for example, the Noonday prayer with its daily rededication of ourselves to “know [God] and to worship [Him].” What be the point of testifying to “[our] powerless and Thy might” if there was nothing external and transcendental to us Whose power we are recognising? The same would be true of the Writings’ ontological statements such as the following: “The essence of a thing is known through its qualities; otherwise, it is unknown and hidden.” What could this mean if the word ‘essence’ were not a reference to something outside of language and did not direct us to something in the object we are studying?
Derrida’s belief that the signifiers do not refer to an external, transcendental signified undermines all concepts of knowledge since our statements do not ultimately refer to the world (of “transcendental” others) but to the linguistic system we inhabit. Inevitably, this concept undermines the concept of progress in scientific knowledge. How could we measure progress if all propositions are only about the language system? How could we know what is or is not true if there is a fundamental disconnect between our statements and reality? The Bahá'í Writings, of course cannot accept the existence of such a disconnect, as made clear by the transcendental references in the frequent allusions to the discovery of truths or realities in the world around us. If language cannot tell us anything about reality, i.e. reflect reality with some degree of accuracy, why would we bother with Bahá'u'lláh’s and `Abdu'l-Bahá ‘s statements about the current condition of the world, about the necessary remedies, about the nature of the soul, the structure of creation and so on? If these statements do not refer to reality but only to other words, they are pointless.
Because Derrida posits a disconnect between the signifier and the signified, between words and what they refer to, i.e. he rejects the belief that “properties, kinds, relations, propositions, sets and states of affairs are taken to be primitive [fundamental and real] and
irreducible.” In other words, Derrida is a nominalist, holding that humans construct the concepts referring to “properties, kinds, relations, propositions, sets and states of affairs” and that these constructions do not necessarily reflect reality. Our ideas represented by words do not exist outside our minds. General terms, or universals, such as ‘chair’ or ‘red’ refer to nothing that the objects of reference actually possess in common but are, rather, an arbitrary selection that ignores or marginalises some attributes by privileging others. Only individuals in their full heterogeneity are real. Hence,“[d]econstruction is opposed to anything that claims to gather up, to unite, to bring together as one,” i.e. any concept that ‘violates’ individuality by lumping many individuals under a single category or thought – or organization. There is, for example, no human nature or essence – something which, as we have seen, the Bahá'í Writings flatly assert just as they assert the existence of a plant and animal nature or essence. . It is precisely because essences are real that `Abdu'l-Bahá can tell us that we cannot know them directly but only by means of their qualities. In other words, the Writings do not think there is necessarily a disconnect between our statements and reality, though, of course, there might be in some specific instances of error.
Accepting that the signifier refers to an exterior, transcendental signified, means that in Derrida’s view, the Bahá'í Writings exemplify a metaphysics of presence. Such a metaphysics holds not only that our truth-claims are supported and guaranteed by an external, transcendental (or in Kantian terms, noumenal) object, situation, relationship or process but also that language can make such truth present to us. The desire to have language make the truth present to us he calls “logocentrism” which requires that language be an unsullied or neutral way of reflecting reality and truth. In Derrida’s view, no such language exists or can exist. On the basis of various discussions in different sections of the second part of this paper, it is virtually self-evident that the
Bahá'í Writings exemplify a metaphysics of presence and logocentrism. Here is an example of the metaphysics of presence and logocentrism at work:
Above all, we expressed our conviction that the time has come when religious leadership must face honestly and without further evasion the implications of the truth that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one.
Implicit in this statement is the idea that there is one external transcendental religion – which we can know through the words of Baha’u’llah – ‘behind’ the enormous “diversity of cultural expressions” that characterise world religion. To know more about this one religion, we must rely on words, the Writings’ to report accurately about this aspect of human affairs.
As shown above, there is no indication that the Bahá'í Writings accept Derrida’s arguments that metaphysics of any kind and logocentrism are forms of violence because they recognise that human beings, in addition to being unique individuals, also share a common essence, i.e. a “rational soul.” `Abdu'l-Bahá recognises that we are all members of a species, i.e. share certain heritable characteristics that distinguish us from other kinds of beings, i.e. an essence. The concept of an ‘species,’ ‘kind’ or “degree of existence” is also at work in the following statement by `Abdu'l-Bahá:
As the degrees of existence are different and various, some beings are higher in the scale than others . . . some creatures are chosen for the highest degree, as man, and some others are placed in the middle degree, as the vegetable, and some are left in the lowest degree, like the mineral.”
No doubt, deconstructionists would see such a hierarchy as an example of privileging and seek to apply their methods to destabilize and subvert an allegedly oppressive ontology. From a Bahá'í perspective, `Abdu'l-Bahá’s statement simply recognises the way God has created the phenomenal world which has been given to us and must be accepted as such. Furthermore, from the viewpoint of the Writings, Derrida’s doctrine about the supposedly oppressive nature of logocentrism and the metaphysics of presence goes too far in privileging difference, heterogeneity and the individual i.e. is excessively ‘antinomian’, i.e. too willing to allow each thing to be sui generis, a kind and law unto itself. This is not to say that the Writings downplay heterogeneity and difference:
As the proof of uniqueness exists in all things, and the Oneness and Unity of God is apparent in the reality of all things, the repetition of the same appearance is absolutely impossible.
Differences are real, but so are commonalities or essences: our goal is not to privilege one or the other but to apply them appropriately and in a balanced manner. In social/political terms we must maintain a middle course between a potentially anarchic antinomianism and an oppressive totalitarianism that fails to recognise individual difference.
16 Foucault and the Bahá'í Writings
Foucault’s rejection of “grand narratives” i.e. “the theme and possibility of a total history” puts him seriously at odds with the Bahá'í Writings in which the concept of progressive revelation is foundational. We have dealt with this before and need not discuss it again in detail. Let it suffice to point out that because revelation is progressive from one dispensation to the next, there is also some continuity between dispensations, or, to use Foucault’s term, between
‘epistemes.’ This is clear in Shoghi Effendi’s statement that in each new dispensation, the
Manifestation “restates the eternal verities they [the preceding dispensations] enshrine,” i.e.
“restates their fundamentals” in order to ensure continuity of between different dispensations. Elsewhere he says, the different dispensations are “identical in their aims . . .[and] continuous in their purpose,” thereby re-emphasising the theme of continuity between dispensations of epistemes. Such emphasis is wholly in conflict with Foucault’s “caesuralism,” his focus on “discontinuity,” between historical epistemes, on the “divisions, limits, differences of level, shifts” from one to the other. In Foucault’s view, we must “renounce all those themes whose function is to ensure infinite continuity of discourse.”
The Bahá'í Writings recognition of historical continuities between dispensations of epistemes undermines Foucault’s project of emphasising the ‘caesuras’ or breaks in order to ensure that each is treated as a completely unique and heterogeneous. Like Lyotard and Derrida, he sees grand universal themes and continuities (or grand all encompassing universal concepts) as threats to individuality and diversity.
The Bahá'í Writings reject this unbalanced, one-sided view of history and accept the presence of both continuities and discontinuities as humankind evolves. Re-iterating the fundamentals ensures continuity and the emphasis on progress ensures change, discontinuity and new developments. As Shoghi Effendi says,
in accordance with the principle of progressive revelation every Manifestation of God must needs vouchsafe to the peoples of His day a measure of divine guidance ampler than any which a preceding and less receptive age could have received or appreciated.
Thus, we have a gradual building process or progress as we evolve through various conditions and various dispensations or epistemes. Our progress and knowledge is accumulative across differing epistemes thereby improving our understanding of ourselves and the world. Foucault, of course, sees no progress from one episteme to another, but only succession. His one-sided view of history, his rejection of continuity and progress brings him into conflict with the Bahá'í belief that human history shows and erratic but persistent evolution towards the unification of humankind into a global commonwealth as seen in `Abdu'l-Bahá’s talk about unity in the
“political realm . . . unity of thought in world undertakings . . . unity in freedom . . . .unity in religion . . . unity of nations . . . .unity of races . . . .[and] unity of language.” This means that the Bahá'í Writings see history as teleological or goal-oriented, shaped by a final cause, whereas Foucault, by virtue of his emphasis on discontinuity and his denial of progress does not.
The Bahá'í Writings have other difficulties with Foucault’s views on history. First, it bears pointing out specifically that the progressive nature of science through various epistemes is regarded as highly problematical for Foucault’s theory. Second, while the Writings do not deny that chance and human failings play a role in history – which is what Foucault wants to stress – these factors are not able to derail material and spiritual progress that marks human evolution. Third, the Bahá'í Writings can agree that historical knowledge is perspectival, but must do so with serious qualifications. Most obvious is the fact that the perspective of the Manifestation, His appointed successors and interpreters and the Universal House of Justice have a privileged perspective on history and this provides us with an Archimedean point from which to evaluate and judge other perspectives by their degree of harmony with Bahá'u'lláh’s revelation. Thus, many viewpoints are possible but whatever one we choose, must harmonize with or at least not conflict with what the Writings state. Finally, the Writings disagree with Foucault’s tendency to explain cultural and historical events exclusively in terms of the lowest common denominator,
i.e. in terms of what the Writings call man’s “animal nature.” Recognising the importance of our animal propensities, as well as the importance of seemingly insignificant events is not, in itself at odds with the Bahá'í Writings. Indeed, the Báb’s prayer that “All are His servants and all abide by His Bidding” can be understood in this context to mean that insignificant, shameful or even hostile acts will ultimately work for the goal of history, the eventual unification of humankind. However, such explanations too easily become reductionistic insofar as they ignore or denigrate humankind’s higher motives and “spiritual susceptibilities” which also have their role in the unfolding of history. In other words, whereas the Writings do not deny that people sometimes act on the basis of their “animal nature,” they disagree that human beings can be accurately presented solely in that light.
This last issue is important because it sheds light on a significant difference between the philosophical anthropology or theory of man found in the Bahá'í Writings and in Foucault. In the Bahá'í view, humankind has a dual nature, being both animal and spiritual: “man is dual in aspect: as an animal he is subject to nature, but in his spiritual or conscious being he transcends the world of material existence.” Through this spiritual nature we are able to recognise the existence of transcendental realities like God and the soul and orient our lives towards them while our animal nature remains imprisoned in the material world. Furthermore, man’s true vocation, his destiny is to transcend the physical world, to seek more than material knowledge and pursue his evolution in the spiritual plane after his material demise. However, Foucault shows no awareness of man’s spiritual aspect; it plays no role in his archaeological and genealogical analyses and explanations of history or human nature other than as a man-made construct in a particular episteme. The reason for this is programmatic unwillingness to probe
‘beneath’ the images generated by our epistemes in order to identify their transcendental objects.
He writes, “We shall not return to the state anterior to discourse,” meaning that he will not look beyond the discourse of signifiers generated by an episteme to some external or transcendental signified..
By refusing to return to “state anterior to discourse,” i.e. to an external, transcendental object, Foucault, like Derrida, conflates epistemology and ontology; he refuses to recognize a transcendental signifier beyond the signifier. Things ontologically are as we know them, no more and no less; what we ‘see’ is what there is, and nothing more The Writings, of course, disagree:
There was a time when they [the realities of things] were unknown, preserved mysteries and hidden secrets; the rational soul gradually discovered them and brought them out from the plane of the invisible and the hidden into the realm of the visible.”
Admitting that things have “hidden secrets” and unknown natures means that the signified is not identical to the signifier, that what a thing is – its ontology – is not limited to what we know about it – our epistemology. In other words, there is an external, transcendental signified separate from the discourse we use about things. This also implies that the subjective knower is distinct from what is known, i.e. the object of knowledge and, thereby, reinforces the subject-object distinction. In addition, the object is not dependent on the subjective knower. For Foucault this is problematic. As James Williams says, “Foucault is critical of this ambiguous transcendence of subject and the system, where the subject is both outside the causality and totality of the system, yet capable of acting within it.” Given this transcendence, the knower is able to evaluate his or her own knowledge in regards to accuracy and adequacy to the object and refine and modify her ideas or even overthrow them completely. That is how progress occurs. For Foucault, however, this is not possible since the knower constitutes the object and, therefore, has nothing – no anterior nature or essence – to compare it against.
For the Bahá'í Writings, Foucault’s position is especially unacceptable that God, the “Self-
Subsistent” is in any whatsoever dependent on human perception and construction. Certainly, people and societies form images of God in their own minds, but these do not constitute God
Himself or God’s Essence in any way. These images or idols have absolutely no affect on God’s ontological nature. In contrast, Foucault’s position involves a strange reversal: if God’s nature is constituted by man, then, because of the conflation between epistemology and ontology, we could say that, in effect, man is the creator of God. This, of course, would reverse the relationship between the dependent and the independent, between the contingent and the necessary, between the immanent (us) and the transcendent (God) and the time-bound and the timeless. Finally, we note that the rejection of transcendence in all its forms, leads to a ‘onedimensional’ world picture, a ‘flatland’ in which only the immanent is real. This is unacceptable to the Writings because man’s essence is his spiritual not his immanent material nature.
It is self-evident that Foucault’s position on epistemes leads to relativism. Each episteme is completely independent of all others, and, whatever beliefs and values it has, cannot be judged by others. However, as we have already seen in previous discussions, the belief in the discovery of truth, in progressive accumulation and improvement of knowledge as well as belief in a universal human nature make such relativism unacceptable to the Writings. It might, of course, be argued that the Bahá'í Writings themselves adopt an epistemological relativism, as Shoghi Effendi seems to do when he says that “religious truth is not absolute but relative.” However, to understand what Shoghi Effendi means we must look at the entire context of this quote, namely the subject of progressive revelation in which the essential “eternal verities” remain while the man-made doctrines and errors are removed and/or changed.
He [Bahá'u'lláh] insists on the unqualified recognition of the unity of their purpose, restates the eternal verities they enshrine, coordinates their functions, distinguishes the essential and the authentic from the nonessential and spurious in their teachings, separates the God-given truths from the priest-prompted superstitions.
It is the man-made additions and doctrines that are relative and change not the “eternal verities” which are continuous through successive dispensations and universally valid for all human beings. Moreover, we must not forget that according to the Wrings, the Manifestation and His authorized interpreters provide the absolute standard, the Archimendean standpoint from which all other views may be evaluated and judged. Perspectives are to be judged by their degree of harmonization with what the Manifestation reveals. As we have seen before, the Manifestation provides us with the means to distinguish truth from error, science from superstition, moral from immoral and fact from fiction. From this it becomes clear that Foucault’s relativism is incompatible with the Bahá'í Writings on the issue of relativism.
The Bahá'í Writings contradict Foucault’s view of reason insofar as they believe that reason can actually provide objectively and universally true knowledge. Foucault, of course, does not trust reason to deliver true knowledge. According to Best and Kellner, “His concept of
‘power/knowledge’ is symptomatic of the postmodern suspicion of reason and the emancipatory schemes advanced in its name.” The following quote from `Abdu'l-Bahá makes clear the great difference between Foucault’s views and the Writings’: “God has created man in order that he may perceive the verity of existence and endowed him with mind or reason to discover truth.” This does, not, of course, mean that in the Bahá'í view reason as a perfect and flawless instrument for, as we have seen, it is not; however, it is good enough to be made a criterion for evaluating both religion and science as evident in the following quotation:
true science is reason and reality, and religion is essentially reality and pure reason; therefore, the two must correspond. Religious teaching which is at variance with science and reason is human invention and imagination unworthy of acceptance
At the very least, reason can bring us closer to the truth of things and, since truth is one, this truth is, at least potentially, universal, i.e. valid across all epistemes. For Foucault the idea of universal truths is untenable because each episteme has its own rules about reason and truth and, therefore, judgments across differing epistemes are not allowable.
In regards to the subject of truth and power, the difference between Foucault and the Writings is that Writings do not agree that any and all truth claims are necessarily expressions of the will-topower and part of a “regime of power” seeking to dominate its rivals merely for the sake of power. As Foucault says, knowledge “creates a progressive enslavement to its instinctive violence.” Like Derrida, Foucault thinks that knowledge is innately violent because it subordinates individual heterogeneity to generalizations and universal concepts, and because each truth-claim is actually a power-claim advanced against all other truth/power claims. This free-for-all struggle for domination among truth-claims is inevitable because there is no standard by which to evaluate and judge them. This inability to distinguish true from false or partially true is, of course, an unavoidable consequence of relativism which lacks a transcendental
Archimedean standpoint from which to judge competing truth-claims. Truth-claims thus become mere assertions of preference and/or will. In short, epistemology is reduced to power-politics. However, the Bahá'í Writings do not envisage such a reduction because the quest for truth and knowledge is not seen as being inherently political in nature but rather as quest to know and to understand God’s creation. This attitude is made clear by `Abdu'l-Bahá:
All blessings are divine in origin, but none can be compared with this power of intellectual investigation and research, which is an eternal gift producing fruits of unending delight . . . In fact, science may be likened to a mirror wherein the infinite forms and images of existing things are revealed and reflected. It is the very foundation of all individual and national development . . . Therefore, seek with diligent endeavor the knowledge and attainment of all that lies within the power of this wonderful bestowal.
It bears a passing note that this passage contains `Abdu'l-Bahá’s picture of science as a mirror, reflecting the world, which is to say, that knowledge is not or at least not entirely a man-made construction with no reference to anything beyond the language system. Knowledge, in the Bahá'í view is not simply immanent to the episteme; it has transcendental references, just as a mirror refers beyond itself. More immediate to our purpose is `Abdu'l-Bahá’s portrayal of knowledge as fulfilling humankind’s “divine purpose” in our “individual and national development.” In other words, knowledge and truth are not centered on the acquisition and/or maintenance of power but instead are centered on fulfilling our divinely mandated destiny, on personal and/or collective self-actualization. The Writings do not deny that knowledge is very useful, or that it can be mis-used for political/power purposes; however, they do not accept
Foucault’s contention that the quest for power is an inevitable and inherent part of seeking and conveying knowledge.
Another obvious difficulty with Foucault’s philosophy is that it leaves the self, the human subject, more or less passive, a helpless object of action the various “truth games” and discourses that constitute any given episteme. What room can there be for free action or ethical behavior under such circumstances? As Danaher, Schirato and Webb point out, Foucault himself became more sensitive to this problem towards the end of his career and tried to argue that the subject can, in fact, shape itself like a work of art or a novel. However, this change does not seem to be consistent with the philosophy he outlined in the majority of his important works in which he successfully undercut the whole notion of the self or subject as an agent in its own life.
The Bahá'í Writings, of course, do not agree that the self, or subject, or soul is not a substance as Foucault claims. `Abdu'l-Bahá’ says quite pointedly on this issue,
Some think that the body is the substance and exists by itself, and that the spirit is accidental and depends upon the substance of the body, although, on the contrary, the rational soul is the substance, and the body depends upon it. If the accident--that is to say, the body--be destroyed, the substance, the spirit, remains.
Here we have the clearest possible indication that according to the Writings, the self or subject or soul is a substance that persists through its accidental changes and is precisely the kind of single, unitary, independent and consistent entity posited by Descartes and Kant. Indeed, the soul is not only a substance, but it also possesses inherent personality from the outset, and, therefore is not simply a construction based on an episteme.
The personality of the rational soul is from its beginning; it is not due to the instrumentality of the body, but the state and the personality of the rational soul may be strengthened in this world; it will make progress and will attain to the degrees of perfection, or it will remain in the lowest abyss of ignorance, veiled and deprived from beholding the signs of God.
The personality is essentially transcendent to the episteme, although the episteme can influence its future development, strengthening some features, weakening others. Nevertheless, we must always bear in mind that despite these changes, the soul’s essential, universal attributes remain the same: it is, as we have already seen, rational, it has “spiritual susceptibilities,” it is immortal, it has free will in matters of morality, it is not bound by time and space, it has powers of infinite growth, it can discover the ‘realities’ of things, and it has powers that make it superior to phenomenal nature. Thus, the Bahá'í Writings do not deny that the self is influenced by its sociohistorical surroundings, but they preserve the free agency of the self by drawing attention to its power to choose the better way. Nor do they deny that the self can relate to itself in different ways while performing different actions, but the essential nature of the self underneath these changes remains constant. Such constancy is incompatible with Foucault’s concept of the self.
17 Richard Rorty and the Bahá'í Writings
When we examine Rorty’s postmodernism, we find that it has virtually nothing in common with the Bahá'í Writings on any major issues. In the first place, the Writings clearly accept representationalism whereas Rorty rejects it. Representationalism, as we recall, is the belief that language does not just refer to itself but also makes verifiable statements about an external reality. In other words, language involves a signifier referring to an external signified, or, is like a mirror reflecting a transcendental signified beyond itself. Adherence to representationalism is clearly evident in `Abdu'l-Bahá’s statements that “Science may be likened to a mirror wherein the images of the mysteries of outer phenomena are reflected,” and that “science may be likened to a mirror wherein the infinite forms and images of existing things are revealed and reflected.”
If language did not allow us to reflect reality adequately, we could not form theories or scientific propositions that inform us about reality with some degree of accuracy and, therefore, could not speak of the “progress science and knowledge have made.” We could not speak of such “progress” because our theories and/or propositions would not tell us anything about reality, and therefore, we could not know if we had made any progress by improving theories, i.e.
making theories more accurate reflections of reality. We could not even discard false theories, because knowing that a theory is false implies that we already have a better way of understanding reality. In addition, if we reject representationalism we also find ourselves perpetually trapped in a prison of language and linguistic constructs that makes reality – if it even exists – inaccessible. Just as in Kant’s philosophy, we are permanently enclosed in the phenomenal realm, so in Rorty’s rejection of representationalism, we are perpetually confined within conversations that refer to nothing other than themselves: sentences, he says, are only
“connected with other sentences rather than with the world.” He is satisfied with this situation.
An idea closely associated with representationalism is that, that reason can provide us genuine knowledge about reality. By means of reason we can develop theories and propositions that are capable of discovering truths, i.e. reflecting reality: “He [God] has endowed him [man] with mind, or the faculty of reasoning, by the exercise of which he is to investigate and discover the truth, and that which he finds real and true he must accept.” The very purpose
of reason is the discovery of truth: “God has created man in order that he may perceive the verity of existence and endowed him with mind or reason to discover truth.” Reason, if properly applied, can reflect the truth about reality, or put otherwise, can correspond to reality. For his part, Rorty thinks that reason is a faculty that “can now be dispensed with – and should be dispensed with” because it cannot tell us anything about the real world since sentences are only connected to other sentences. This is not something to which the Writings can agree. Nor can they agree to Rorty’s proposal that instead of pursing knowledge, “we just might be saying something” simply in order to “keep the conversation going rather than to find objective truth.” This, for Rorty is “a sufficient aim of philosophy.” In effect, for Rorty, philosophy and science are no longer interested in attaining truth. This is completely incompatible with `Abdu'l-Bahá’s statement that “It is, therefore, clear that in order to make any progress in the search after truth we must relinquish superstition.” From Rorty’s viewpoint, we might want to cling to the superstition simply because it keeps the conversation alive.
One additional consequence of representationalism is that the Writings, unlike Rorty, accept realism, the belief that reality is what it is independent of human observation. At this point a clarification is in order: the Writings espouse realism in regards to original or ‘first nature’, the universe as created by God, the universe which depends for its inherent essence and attributes on God, not humankind. Of course, the Writings recognise that human creations like societies, laws and customs traditionally known as ‘second nature,’ depend on us, at least to a certain extent. However, the arguments surrounding philosophical ‘realism’ are focussed on the issue of whether or not original nature depends on us in any way, as for example Kant says it does. The Bahá'í Writings clearly do not accept the Kantian notion – or postmodern variations of it – that humankind constitutes original nature and its laws. These natural laws are discovered and not constituted by us.
Since, for Rorty, sentences can only refer to other sentences and not to reality, it follows that he is incapable of recognising the existence of essences. On his premises, how could we possibly know about them since our sentences or propositions cannot mirror reality? Therefore, they must be linguistic constructs of some kind, products of conversation. The Writings, of course, assert the reality of essences of things, and even of God and even provide guidance in we can and cannot come to know essences:
“Know that there are two kinds of knowledge: the knowledge of the essence of a thing and the knowledge of its qualities. The essence of a thing is known through its qualities; otherwise, it is unknown and hidden.”
Just as Rorty denies the existence of essences, Rorty emphatically rejects the notion of a
“core self,” an essential self, a ‘true’ self that somehow endures which remains what it is
independent of changes in one’s beliefs and desires. This so-called ‘self’ is a fiction created by language. He tells us that ““there is no self distinct from this self-reweaving web” of muscles, movements, beliefs and states of mind, i.e. no core substantial independently existing entity. Rorty adds that we should “avoid the self-deception of thinking that we possess a deep, hidden, metaphysically significant nature which makes us ‘irreducibly’ different from inkwells or atoms,” meaning that the self is a natural product like anything else. The Writings, of course reject this view and assert that the “rational soul is the substance and the body depends on it” and, unlike all other things, can exist independently of the body after death. This idea of the soul’s existence as an independently existing substance is re-enforced when `Abdu'l-Bahá says that “the personality of the rational soul is from its beginning; it is not due to the instrumentality of the body.” If the personality is “from its beginning”, it is obviously not dependent on our physical self-construction or ‘reweaving’ to use Rorty’s term, and, therefore, exists as a real entity.
In contradiction to Rorty and the postmodernists, the Bahá'í Writings advocate foundationalism, i.e. the belief that there are certain propositions, principles and/or knowledge and truths which are non-inferential i.e. not dependent on other justifications and are selfevident, i.e. cannot be denied without falling into self-contradiction or into denying self-evident empirical experience. For example, `Abdu'l-Bahá recognises that God is “the self-evident
Reality” and expresses shock that educated academics cannot see this. Moreover, “[i]t is a selfevident truth that all humanity is the creation of God. All are His servants and under His protection. All are recipients of His bestowals, and “[I]t is a self-evident fact that phenomenal existence can never grasp nor comprehend the ancient and essential Reality.” A final example of truths that are foundational in the Writings:
It is self-evident that the human spirit is simple, single and not composed in order that it may come to immortality, and it is a philosophical axiom that the individual or indivisible atom is indestructible.
The Writings probably accept foundationalism because all thinking – including antifoundationalism – requires certain premises, assumptions and axioms to work. The notion that anyone’s thinking let alone a philosophical position can be genuinely anti-foundational is a self-contradictory willow-the-wisp. At the very least it would require the assumption that there exist foundational arguments since if no such arguments existed, anti-foundationalism would lose its reason for being. In addition to being foundational, the Writings also endorse metaphysics, i.e.
“the investigation of the nature, constitution, and structure of reality” and are replete with examples of metaphysical analysis:
Nature is that condition, that reality, which in appearance consists in life and death, or, in other words, in the composition and decomposition of all things.
This Nature is subjected to an absolute organization, to determined laws, to a complete order and a finished design from which it will never depart . . . But when you look at Nature itself, you see that it has no intelligence, no will.
These are patently assertions about how nature actually is, its mode of existing and its limitations
i.e. they deal with the nature and structure of reality. In Rorty’s view, such statements are impossible and, therefore, patent nonsense.
Another significant difference between Rorty and the Bahá'í Writings is Rorty’s adherence to relativism, as illustrated by his remark that ironists like himself “do not hope to have their doubts about their final vocabularies settled by something larger than themselves.” In other words, he does not look to a God – or a transcendental, Archimedean standpoint to resolve his philosophical issues and conflicts. Rejecting one or both of these makes Rorty – his strenuous denials notwithstanding – a relativist since that leaves no way of adjudicating among conflicting viewpoints. To prove that he does not think all views are equally good, he asserts that a pragmatist like himself “thinks his views are better than the ‘realists,’ but he does not think his views correspond to the nature of things.” Basically, he thinks his views are better because he is a “liberal” and, therefore, “more afraid of being cruel than anything else.” It is difficult to take his claim that he is not a relativist at face value. Given his belief that statements cannot correspond to reality (and, therefore cannot be tested by reality), that rationality is simply a local cultural bias without general validity and that truth itself is a chimera, on what ground other than sheer dogmatic assertion can he claim that his philosophy is better? (Unless of course he relies on revelation which he does not.) If language games are incommensurable, if there is no rational or empirical way of ‘proving’ one view or another, then the alleged superiority of one view comes down to a dogmatic assertion of preference, i.e. of Nietzsche’s will-to-power. In the last analysis Rorty’s liberalism has nothing more than his preference to recommend it. Ironically, it is precisely such dogmatic assertion that his much recommended edifying conversation is supposed to replace. Judged by his own standards, Rorty’s views exemplify a thorough-going, i.e. radical relativism both in epistemology and ethics. The Bahá'í Writings, will certainly agree about the value of avoiding cruelty, but they cannot agree that the desire to avoid cruelty is based on nothing more than personal whim and preference; instead, they see such a desire grounded in our common human nature and the essential one-ness of humankind and the commandments of God.
The foregoing discussion makes it clear that on virtually all substantive and fundamental issues, the Bahá'í Writings and Rorty’s philosophy differ. Even Rorty’s advocacy of “solidarity” and “edifying conversation” do not really bridge the gap between the two because the Bahá'í Dispensation wants to achieve solidarity through the recognition of certain foundational truths such as the existence of God or the essential one-ness of humankind. It does not think solidarity can be built on mere ‘political considerations’ in the politics of knowledge or by temporarily edifying conversations. Rorty’s goals cannot be relied upon to be the foundation for a social order because they are merely ‘political’ and not spiritual in nature and according to the Writings such unity does not last. Thus, here too, as with other postmodern philosophers, we are forced to conclude that despite superficial or accidental similarities, the differences between Rorty and the Bahá'í Writings are essential and substantial.
18 Baudrillard and the Bahá'í Writings
For the most part, the Bahá'í Writings have the same kind of difficulties with Baudrillard as they have with the other postmodernists. There may well be agreement on individual points, but the Writings cannot accept the fundamental ontological and epistemological premises of
Baudrillard’s work. Given such foundational disagreement, we can only conclude that whatever specific concurrences we may discover are accidental and, therefore, superficial, and not essential.
Even if we choose to read Baudrillard as a sociologist describing postmodern social phenomena and not, like the other postmodernists we have examined, as a philosopher promoting a certain philosophic programme we shall still have difficulty with his analysis from a Bahá'í perspective.
The difficulties between Baudrillard and the Bahá'í Writings begin with the conclusions he draws from the Borges short-story, “On Exactitude in Science.” According to Baudrillard, this story shows the implosion of intellectual categories so that the usually accepted and clearly defined terms of our thought cease to be distinct and meld into one another. (This is not unlike Derrida’s subversion in which a term – such as pharmakon or medicine – may turn into its opposite, poison.) If the map in the story is really as large as the territory, what does the map represent? The represented and that which represents have become one. What is the distinction between the signified and the signifier, between “a referential being or a substance”? Other threatened binaries are cause and effect, active and passive, subject and object and ends and means, as well as true and false, real and imaginary. Other untenable distinctions include real and ideal, original and copy, appearance and reality, and essential and nonessential.
The Bahá'í Writings do not agree that these terms are meaningless and/or outmoded in our analysis of reality and the human situation. Because we have touched on this subject before, only a brief review of some of the evidence will be necessary. They clearly distinguish between true and false as when Bahá'u'lláh says that “the divine Purpose hath decreed that the true should be known from the false, and the sun from the shadow.” Indeed, without these distinctions, there would no basis for an ethical teachings. As we have seen previously, the Writings clearly accept the distinction between cause and effect, real and imaginary, essential and accidental (nonessential), signified and signifier as in the word ‘God’ and the actual God, substance and accident, and subject and object as in the perceiver and what is perceived. In other words, the Writings accept as useful analytical tools precisely those binary concepts that Baudrillard no longer finds serviceable in his analysis of reality and postmodern society. Quite obviously, Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá find these concepts applicable and build on them a significant portions of their analysis of reality, the general condition of humankind and the condition of the contemporary world.
Furthermore, if all these essential differences simply meld, it is impossible to be rational since rationality depends on clear and distinct categories of thought that allow us to attain clear and decisive answers. According to Baudrillard, “All the referentials intermingle their discourses in a circular Moebian compulsion, i.e. go around endlessly from one opposite to another, and, thereby prevent reason from functioning. In other words, the efficacy of reason as a way of understanding reality is short-circuited, leaving us no further ahead than we were without it. The
Bahá'í Writings, as we have seen, do not share this pessimistic view of the ability of reason to discover truth about reality. According to Baudrillard, however, “truth, reference and objective causes have ceased to exist.”
Since “truth, reference and objective causes have ceased to exist,” it is clear that metaphysics (which he satirizes as “pataphysics” ) is impossible. After all, metaphysics untenable since metaphysics requires clearly identified causal relationships in its study of the structure and nature of reality. Furthermore, if our propositions are no longer referential and do not refer to reality, we cannot discuss reality at all let alone decide which propositions are true. This, too, makes metaphysics impossible as does the view that we can no longer distinguish real from unreal, or appearance from reality; with this situation “goes all of metaphysics. No more mirror of being and appearance, of the real and its concept . . .” However, the Writings do not accept this view, as is quite evident from the numerous passages of metaphysics in the Bahá'í Writings.
Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá obviously think that metaphysics is not only possible but also, that some metaphysical understanding is necessary for our well-being and spiritual evolution.
Without some understanding of metaphysics, how can we understand and appreciate our spiritual nature in this world and our super-natural destiny in the next?
Let us examine another example. The Writings do not agree with Baudrillard’s claim that in the postmodern world “there is no real,” that we live in a hyperreal world in which the simulation constitutes reality. This is why, in his view, Disneyland is America. While the Bahá'í Writings may accept that for some this might be true insofar as it describes a rather unfortunate state of mind, it is certainly not an accurate description of how things actually are. In other words, they question the melding of reality and simulation into a hyperreality, and the denial of any difference between them is simply inadequate metaphysical analysis of reality. The materially and spiritually poor are not simulations experiencing simulated poverty and hunger, for example, their deprivations are very real and cannot be cured with a simulated sandwich. The distinction between reality and the difference between it and “vain imaginings” is as operative in the postmodern world as much as it is at any other time in human history.
As we have already noted, it is difficult to escape the general conclusion that as far as the major exponents of post modernism are concerned, i.e. Nietzsche, Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, Rorty and Braudillard, the disagreements with the Bahá'í Writings are foundational. There are, of course, individual similarities and agreements, but in light of the foundational differences we have observed in epistemology, ontology, ethics, philosophical anthropology (theory of man) and cultural studies, such concurrences cannot reasonably be regarded as more than accidental and fortuitous. In our view, this means that we cannot adhere to both the postmodern philosophy articulated by these thinkers and to the philosophical positions explicitly and implicitly held by the Bahá'í Writings without losing consistency and coherence of viewpoint, and without falling into difficult logical contradictions.
Given this situation, can Bahá'í scholars make use of postmodern techniques and views in studying or creatively interpreting the Writings? In our view, the answer is generally negative because the foundational differences are too great to be bridged. How, for example, can we overcome the diametrically opposed positions on grand narratives, privileged authors, interpreters and viewpoints, or external, transcendental objects of signification and knowledge? The postmodern insistence on immanence, its ‘immanentism’ (inherited from Nietzsche) is also at odds with the Bahá'í insistence on transcendentalism, on the reality of God, the soul and the supernatural. These positions are logically reconcilable. How could a Bahá'í scholar use Derrida in a study of the Writings when, according to Derrida, any reading of any text can be endlessly shown to subvert its own meaning and thereby forestall any final reading or interpretation.
Insofar as there is no authoritative or final reading, all readings become equal. How far can deconstruction, subversion and destabilizing texts go? Can it go so far as to show that, Bahá'u'lláh’s statement, “Let your vision be world-embracing, rather than confined to your own self” also means its opposite, ‘Let your vision become narrow and focussed on your own country and your own self’? Can we apply such endless subversion to the messages from the Universal House of Justice? Little reflection is required to see what insurmountable difficulties this would raise for teaching the Bahá'í Faith, explicating its teachings and principles, defending it against critics and engaging in meaningful inter-faith dialogue. Who, if we applied such methods, would or could really know what the Bahá'í Faith stood for? Consequently, this paper suggests that Bahá'í scholars make very cautious use even of the accidental similarities with postmodernism and ensure they do not entangle themselves in philosophical positions that create difficulties with the Writings.
There are two possible partial exceptions to this, Heidegger and Baudrillard. Heidegger’s philosophy of Being has been given theological interpretations that in many respects are in harmony with the Writings. There is certainly no problem in regards to Heidegger’s refusal to confuse Being with beings, or, in Bahá'í terms, God with creations, either natural or our own man-made idols. Nor is there any inherent difficulty or insurmountable difficulty with Heidegger’s theory of truth as aletheia, the disclosure of the Being of individual beings, or the task of art and especially poetry as the disclosure of the Being of beings.
If we read Baudrillard’s work as a sociological diagnosis of the corrupt condition of society and culture, i.e. as a sociological description of a world in which entire societies have been “deluded by a mere phantom which the vain imaginations of its peoples have conceived,” then one might be favourably inclined towards his analyses of the postmodern condition. His assertion that boundaries have blurred between the real and artificial or imaginary, true and false, cause and effect, subject and object is not inherently opposed to the Bahá'í Writings if we read it as an analysis of individual and social pathology. However, if we read Baudrillard’s work as we read Lyotard’s, Derrida’s, Foucault’s or Rorty’s i.e. as a program that is being suggested for the analysis and exploration of the postmodern world, then we have the same problems we have with these other philosophers: the Bahá'í Writings accept and make use of the numerous metaphysical categories that Baudrillard rejects outright. In our view, the latter reading is more justified than the former because Baudrillard nowhere gives any sign of recognising that the postmodern view of reality he describes is a distortion and misrepresentation of reality as it really is, i.e. reality as described by the Bahá'í Writings. That is why he is included in this study.
20 Selected Bibliography
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Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Bahá., Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1957
Some Answered Questions. Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1981.
Tablets of `Abdu'l-Bahá, V2 and V 3 in Ocean.
Tablet to August Forel. Ocean.
The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Second Edition. Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982.
Robert Audi, ed. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Aviram, Ammittai F. “Asking the Question: Kant and Postmodernism?” http://www.amittai.com/prose/kant.php
Bahá'u'lláh Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh. Wilmette:
Bahá’í. Publishing Trust, 1976
The Kitab-i-Iqan. Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1974. `
The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys. Trans. by Marzieh Gail and Ali-Kuli Khan. Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1975.
Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1978.
The Hidden Words of Bahá'u'lláh (Arabic). Kuala Lumpur: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1985.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. Trans by P. Foss, P Patton, P. Beitchman. N.p. Semiotext(e), 1983.
“Pataphysics,” trans. by Drew Burk. www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=569
“Holograms,” trans. by Sheila Glaser. http://www.egs.edu/faculty/baudrillard/baudrillardsimulacra-and-simulation-11-holograms.html
Best, Steven and Kellner, Douglas. Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. New York: The Guilford Press, 1991.
“The Postmodern Turn in Philosophy: Theoretical
Provocations and Normative Deficits”
“Holograms,” trans. by Sheila Glaser. http://www.egs.edu/faculty/baudrillard/baudrillardsimulacra-and-simulation-11-holograms.html
Blackburn, Simon, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford
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Butler, Christopher. Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Caputo, John. D. ed. Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida. New York: Fordham University Press,
Culler, Jonathon. On Deconstruction. Ithaca: Cornell University press, 1983.
Derrida, Jaques. Disseminations. Trans. by Barbara Johnson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
Margins of Philosophy. Trans. by Alan Bass. Chicago:
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Of Grammatology. Trans by Gayatri Spivak. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University press, 1977.
Positions. Trans. by Alan Bass. New York: Continuum Books, 2004.
Writing and Difference. Trans. by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
Danaher, Schirato, Webb. Understanding Foucault. St Leonards, NSW: Allen and Unwin, 2000.
Effendi, Shoghi. Directives from the Guardian. Immerse, The Electronic Bahá'í Library © 1998 by Bernal Schooley.
The Promised Day is Come. Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust
The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh .Wilmetter: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1980.
Eagleton, Terry. The Illusions of Postmodernism. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.
Ellis, John. M. Against Deconstruction. Princeton: Princeton
Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization. New York. Random House,
Discipline and Punish. Trans. by Alana Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.
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The Essential Foucault. Ed by Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose. New York: The New Press, 2003.
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The Order of Things. Trans. not named. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.
Gutting, Gary ed. The Cambridge Companion to Foucault. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Heidegger, Martin An Introduction to Metaphysics. Trans by Ralph Mannheim. New York: Anchor Books, 1961.
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Poetry, Language Thought. Trans. by Albert Hofstadter, New York: Harper and Row, 1971.
Hicks, Stephen. Explaining Postmodernism. Milwaukee: Scholargy Publishing, 2004.
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Megill, Allan. Prophets of Extremity: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
Merquuior, J.G. Foucault. Hammersmith: Fontana Press, 1991.
Miller, James. The Passion of Michel Foucault. New York: Anchor Books, 1993.
Lucy, Niall. A Derrida Dictionary. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.
Nietzsche, Frederich. Beyond Good and Evil. Chicago: Henry Regnery Books, 1969; also, trans by Ian Johnston. http://www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/Nietzsche/beyondgoodandevil_tofc.htm The Birth of Tragedy. Trans by Francis Golffing. New York: Anchor Books, 1956; also
The Genealogy of Morals. Trans. by Francis Golffing. New York: Anchor Books, 1956; also trans by Ian Johnston, http://www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/Nietzsche/genealogytofc.htm
Thus Spake Zarathustra. Trans. by R.J. Hollingdale,. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968; also trans. by Thomas Common. http://www.geocities.com/thenietzschechannel/zara.htm
The Will to Power. Trans. by Walter Kaufmann and R.J Hollingdale. New York: Vintage Books, 1967.
“Of Truth and Lie in the Extra-Moral Sense.” Compiled
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Robinson, Dave. Nietzsche and Postmodernism. Cambridge: Icon Books, 1999.
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Williams, James. Understanding Poststructuralism. Chesham: Acumen, 2005.
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