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Self-Reflection and the Other

If we ask whether reflection is necessarily ^//-reflection, we discover a crucial nuance of difference between the two. On the one hand, reflection is leveraged from the self or from self-conscious reflection as the foundation of knowledge and consciousness in the Cartesian cogito. On the other hand, reflection can destabilize the self and place it radically into question. Self-reflection is not necessarily contained by the self’s returning to its point of departure and by its controlling reflection on itself as a stable and self-possessed pole of activity. Reflection can also be an operation encompassing the self from outside and first bringing it to itself from a departure point already beyond it. The self is then constituted as always already beholden to an Other.

Much of what follows is aimed at reconfiguring self-reflection not as the autonomous act of a presumably self-sufficient, sovereign subject but as a revelation of the subject to itself in the frame of a higher instance of reflection that transcends it. This higher instance is one of which the self is itself only a reflection and repetition. Such is the theory of selfreflection elaborated in Trinitarian theology from Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine through medieval tradition all the way to contemporary Trinitarian theologians. To attain to this critical perspective, we have to consider recent developments of thought that recoil from the dominant tendencies of modern self-reflexive philosophy to exalt the sovereign, free, self-reflective subject. Trenchantly critical of modern thought, they are often styled “postmodern.” Most evident in these countermovements is the backlash against modernity’s attempt to establish the autonomy and self-contained integrity of the individual self.

Modernity has typically represented itself as an emphatically post-medieval age of thought in its quest for new foundations of knowledge in the immanent, self-reflective, self-grounding awareness of reason itself. Emblematic here is Descartes’s cogito or “I think” as the Archimedean

Refoundation of Consciousness 111 point serving for a refoundation of the entire edifice of knowledge from the ground up. It is a piquant irony of intellectual history that this quest for self-reflective foundations is itself a relique of the Middle Ages. The task of a self-reflective founding of knowledge was actually bequeathed by the Middle Ages, as Dante makes perspicuous. Modernity took this task over, but deprived itself of the means of fulfilling it. The Trinitarian God provided the Middle Ages with the grounding instance of self-reflection that human, rational self-reflection could model itself on and repeat. In this sense, David Burrell, in introducing the work of Olivier-Thomas Venard, suggests that posimodernity is, after all, “post-post-medieval.”[1] After the failure of modern thought to find or establish its foundation in rational reflection itself, a certain postmodernity, as represented by Venard, returns to the language of faith as the most deep-seated form of philosophical reflection. The existential depth of being, which is beyond the purely rational grasp of the subject and can only be believed, must also be reflected in the act of consciousness if consciousness is to be complete, since this completeness requires it to be connected with its own hidden grounds.

There have been numerous attempts to recuperate in purely secular terms self-reflection or self-referentiality as the crucial question for contemporary philosophy, a question of its life or death. Even theologically sensitive thinkers like Paul Ricoeur often attempt to bracket theological considerations in their philosophical reflections on self-reflection. However, others have foregrounded theology as holding indispensable keys to rethinking the metaphysical bases of self-reflection as the central issue in modern thought and culture. Theology posits, or at least allows for, a Subject metaphysically transcending the individual human subject that becomes central and foundational in the most typically modern outlooks. In premodern times, however, this divine Subject could only be analogically evoked by divine names. God was not any definable object and could not be comprehended under any univocal attributes of divinity.

Reactivating this vision, David Bentley Hart plies an analogical metaphysics reaching beyond the limits of reflection on univocal terms in investigating the theological dimension of the divine names. He finds inspiration in Dionysius the Areopagite (writing before 532), who recognizes this dialectic of naming by analogy as thrusting beyond

merely philosophical analysis of the supposedly transcendent attributes of deity to a deeper dimension of relational transcendence. Hart charges Heidegger with forgetting the ontological difference made by Christianity with the Christian distinction between Creator and creature.[2] He cogently maintains that Heidegger “never succeeded in understanding being as truly ontologically different from beings” (15). All of the German philosopher’s meditations on the Ereignis (the event) “serve only to confirm the event of the world in its own immanence, its ontic process, and all the while the real question of being fails to be posed” (15). We can find in Dante and in his analogical theological tradition a more radical questioning of being, one leveraged from the revelation of being’s absolute, “theological” transcendence, which Dante figures as a divinity that is no object but rather makes him an object and subjects him to seemingly impossible imperatives.

In an analogous critique, William Platcher argues that many selfproclaimed postmodern theologies, such as the process theology of Ray Griffin or the a/theology of Mark C. Taylor, actually continue to be premised on a subject-centered theism formulated in the seventeenth century. They thus participate in (rather than overcome) the ongoing enterprise of modern theology in its attempt to substitute clear and transparent conceptualizations of divinity for the unfathomable mystery of God that had dominated earlier theology by epoch-making theologians from Aquinas through Luther and Calvin. The demand for transparent clarity and rational mastery regarding the concept of God was out of place in this premodern culture. It could not be expected that everything should be defined in humanly controlled terms, as if it could be digitalized and made to fit into a rational, analytic system. That pretension has once again come to appear unsustainable now with the advent of postmodern thought. One of the most incisive and consequential of these critiques of modernity is that formulated by Jacques Derrida.

  • [1] Olivier-Thomas Venard, Thomas d’Aquin poète théologien II. La langue de l’ineffable: Essai sur le fondement théologique de la métaphysique (Genève: Ad Soient, 2004), Préface, 10. 2 Isabelle Thomas-Fogiel, Référence et autoréférence: Etude sur le thème de la fin de la philosophie dans la pensée contemporaine (Paris: Vrin, 2006), trans. Richard A. Lynch as The Death of Philosophy: Reference and Self-Reference in Contemporary Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011). 3 David Bentley Hart, The Hidden and the Manifest: Essays in Theology and Metaphysics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), Chapter 1, “The Offering of Names: Metaphysics, Nihilism, and Analogy,” 1-44.
  • [2] Hart takes cues here from Janet Soskice, “Naming God: A Study in Faith and Reason,” in Reason and the Reasons of Faith, ed. Reinhard Hutter and Paul J. Griffiths (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2005), for whom creatio ex nihilo points up the Christian distance from rational theologies that comprehend divinity in terms of general attributes—and miss God’s transcendence. 2 William C. Platcher, The Domestication of Transcendence: Hotu Modern Thinking about God Went Wrong (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996).
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