Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Enlightenment Ground

One begins, as always, in the middle of things:

In immediate response to Kannan's post:

Sunthar posed the question: "If moral philosophy is but a 'secularization' of Christian theology, on what alternative ground does our critique of 'normative ethics' stand?"

Although couched as a question, Sunthar has in fact touched upon a contradiction inherent in a critique that itself is beholden to the frame from which it seeks to stand apart. Nor is this only an issue that arises when one offers a critique of 'normative ethics', but it is also relevant to the question of colonialism (more accurately to a critique of colonialism). In our times, it is all too apparent that the critics of colonialism-- Marxists, Hindu nationalists, pan-Islamists-- are themselves all too beholden to colonialism and to the categories and politics legitimated by the same. Yet even pointing this out, or I should say by "merely" pointing this out itself one runs the risk of falling prey precisely to the Enlightenment fallacy (depressingly alive and well even a century after Freud, one had hoped, had killed it, ungrateful and yet all too dutiful child of the Enlightenment that he was).

The fallacy in question is that of the Enlightenment subject, unitary and rational. A critique that purports to, if not stand apart from the frame it wishes to test (which is well nigh impossible), at least to undermine the frame's stability, one might go so far as to say its complacency, will need to undermine the very ground that is the Enlightenment subject.

It might seem odd that I seem to be conjuring up the Enlightenment subject as a trope, as if there were no 'normative ethics' other than the post-Christian ones globalized over the last few centuries. Of course there are; or one might say "were", for that which preceded is inaccessible to most of us now-- except through a range of post-Enlightenment disciplines and courses of study. Nor may we simply divide the world into "traditionalists" who do have such access, and the rest. For the former are not free to merely be in a post-Enlightenment world, but are themselves displaced: from that which merely was itself to that which purports to turn its back on history, on the political realities that enframe even those who would deny them. To put it another way, inasmuch as the "traditionalists" of today merely deny that which has incontrovertibly befallen them, they may do so only from the stagnancy of the ghetto, and themselves are denied the access that I had earlier asserted was denied to their "non-traditionalist" brethren.

The question remains, what is to be done about the (troublesome) Enlightenment. One approach is suggested by that which does not appear in Sunthar's question. That is, instead of asking what alternative ground one might have for a critique of 'normative ethics' if moral philosophy is a secularization of Christian theology (one could add "if secularization itself presupposes Christianity"), one might ask what a critique might "look" like if it did not rely on "ground" (as any "ground" would be so irredeemably beholden to the 'normative ethics' sought to be critiqued as to fatally compromise the attempted critique), if it did not rely on an alternative project that it wished to substitute for an existing one. It goes without saying that I have no "answer" to the problem, but do feel that if the quest is for stable ground, we might be, like the Lord, taking away with one hand what we give with the other. That is, the substitution of one hegemony for another reveals the "critique" to be merely a twin that wishes to slay its brother, not to imagine a world where fratricide would not be deemed necessary. Or as Baudelaire puts the matter: —Hypocrite lecteur, —mon semblable, —mon frère!

1 comment:

Satyam said...

Western moral philosophy could justifiably be dubbed as a "secularization of Christian theology." At the same time Christian theology (beginning with the Pauline letters) could also be considered a 'sacralization' of Greek thought. Even in pragmatic terms I think one does far better to locate the 'in the beginning' with Plato and Aristotle (and later on Plotinus and others) as opposed to 'with God'. The Christian West then becomes a moment (no matter how powerful) in this history as opposed to being its Ur-source. However it is also crucial to remember the Roman difference here. Inasmuch as Rome 'latinized' the Greek experience it helped to 'beget' the Christian West in the institutional sense and this is a legacy we live with even today. That the political contours of this history should shade many of our contemporary philosophical inquiries is understandable and also appropriate. The 'political' cannot of course be divorced from the 'philosophical' for a whole host of reasons. One is too coded by the other, the 'Greek' is too marked by the 'Roman'. Yet such a division might always have to be provisionally (perhaps efficaciously) accepted to critique Western institutions more cogently. Then again this might be the ultimate Roman-Western gesture. Heidegger would not approve!