Book Profile: Dissing Postmodernism

James P. Mackey, The Critique of Theological Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 333 pages. ISBN: 0521772931.

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David Hale
University of Denver

    The Critique of Theological Reason is an ambitious work - partly critical, partly constructive. Likewise, it is divided into two parts.

  1. Part one deals with the loss of the subject in modernist thought and postmodernist thought. Part two attempts to reconstruct a union of subject and object (or world). I shall critique these in order.

  2. Part one is a rather long and tendentious review, starting with Descartes and ending with Derrida. It describes how the subject was first split apart from the object (Descartes) and eventually dropped (Derrida). This amounts to a major summary and criticism of a long concatenation of thinkers along the familiar dualisms of subject/object, mind/body, knower/known, noesis/noema, and appearance/reality. Included in this historical review and critique are Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Sartre, Levinas and Derrida. Some of the criticisms are interesting. For example Mackey asks how much emphasis Descartes gave to his own now (in)famous mind/body duality, and just how much philosophers have read back into it. Mackey also offers an interesting criticism of Heidegger, inquiring if there is even a place for the "other self." He also criticizes Sartre for maintaining a subtle Cartesian-like contradiction concerning the body with his distinction between the en soir and the pour soi.

  3. But it is Mackey's analysis of Levinas and Derrida that is most disappointing. To dismiss Levinas, as Mackey does, simply as a "personalist" philosopher who creates"instability," leaving "us teetering between a questionable kind of subject, on the one hand, and on the other hand, a world process from which the subject had all but vanished" (p.80) is rather bizarre. Levinas' concept of "the same and the other" constitutes the very ground of all ontology and epistemology. Yes, Levinas attacks the "thematization" of consciousness in Husseralian phenomenology, but this in no way ever implies a doing away with the subject. For Levinas to create "a world process" where the subject "vanishes," as Mackey maintains, would be contrary to his entire life's work. To further state that the title Otherwise Than Being "surely suggests that otherness consists in some kind of entity that is transcendental with respect to Being" (p.89) makes one wonder how closely Mackey read the book.

  4. Derrida receives an equally poor rendering. Mackey writes: "The result of Derrida's radical move... was a stranding in an eternally self-deconstructing set of signifiers, full of sound and scribbles and signifying nothing, by and to no one" (p.110). The best way to respond to such a bombastic remark is probably to cite Richard Rorty where he says: "Nobody wants to be called a Platonist, just as nobody wants to be called a relativist or an irrationalist" [1] One of the most common, and gratuitous, attacks on Derrida, as well as deconstructionism and postmodernism, involves the charge that it all adds up to "relativistism". Such a cavil fails to come to grasp with the subtlety that these arguments pose. Derrida never denies that meaning or intelligibility exist. It is just the sense, or manner, in which we might think meaning or intelligibility exists that Derrida throws into question. Rorty goes on: "What we call dogmas are exactly what our opponents call common sense. Adherence to these dogmas is what they call being rational… Our opponents say that the correspondence theory of truth is so obvious, so self-evident, that it is merely perverse to question it".

  5. This attitude of Mackey's toward Derrida (and here I mean "attitude" in the very powerful sense that Wittgenstein used it) looks very much like what Rorty is writing about. Thus Mackey exemplifies Rorty's very point. What we call "onto-theology" is never just going to go away, nor is the clash between "dogmatists "and "skeptics" (as they like to call each other). This clash is as old as philosophy itself, and its battles are fought as ardently now as they ever have been.

  6. Part one concludes with a panegyric of the physicist David Deutsch and his book The Fabric of Reality (1997) that Mackey states unabashedly "is metaphysics." As Mackey describes Deutsch's book, it is a "theory of everything," much like what Stephen Hawkings does, but different inasmuch as it combines not just quantum theory, but evolutionary theory, computation theory and epistemology. It is big think. What Mackey wants to do is combine Deutsch's notion of the "fabric of reality" with Colwyn Trevarthen's "Intersubjective First" theory as found in Intersubjective Communication and Emotion in Early Ontogeny (1998). The results, which comprise Part Two of Mackey's book, follow.

  7. In part two Mackey continues his arguments against dichotomies, dualisms and categories in general. Like Deutsch, he wants "a seamless fabric of all entities" (p. 237). Mackey sees everyone participating in this "constantly creating creation." He envisions a category-less, dichotomy-less, universe that "forms, reforms and informs" us continually. This cosmic vision of Mackey's is manifested "in the sun that warms" and "rain that falls" on everyone. In a telling remark he says: "The truly creative occasion occurs through some change in the individual or individuals" which is generalized through "the intrinsic interconnection of the individuals concerned in the fabric of reality" (p.305, italics mine).

  8. This refrain sounds familiar because it is. The "occasion" is a major concept in Whitehead's process thought, and operates in a similar manner for Mackey. God is found in the "process", which is an "eternally self-transcending" process because it (i.e., God-as-entity) is always "emerging," "evolving" and "creating-being-created." God-as-entity cum "fabric of reality" is the energy and process of the cosmos. Thus when Mackey states, "This account of creator and creation is rendered all the more intelligible when the act of creation is understood as forming, giving rise to forms and coincidentally to the whole space-time continuum; and endowing the forms, with its own creative energy (Eros), so that the evolving universe of forms that we know comes into being, a moral enterprise through and through" (p.328), italics mine), he sounds a lot like Whitehead.

  9. Mackey's - and Whitehead's - appeal to Eros remain unconvincing. It is not the love of Agape but the love of the creative act, the love of passion and fertility. It is love-as-frenzy as found in the Eleusinian Mysteries and the cult of Dionysus. It is Eliade's "myth of eternal return," the archetype of which is Osiris eternally dying and being reborn only to die again. Mackey protests against Derrida's difference, the sign always under erasure, always annihilating itself. Mackey gives a version of Eros that is similar, an Eros forever dying to its own passion to be reborn anew, and to die again. Is there ever a "creating" where the original constructive elements were not absorbed, changed, subsumed and thus "deconstructed" in the creation?

  10. The appeal to Eros as "morality" is as equally unconvincing. Although Mackey continually insists that the creative process is "moral", he is also confused by the very term, equivocating terribly throughout the book. On page 263 he asks of the creative process and occasion: "Is it Good?" and "Is it God, then?" He never seems to answer his own question. But he asks us to take this for a kind of transcendence, which oddly enough ends up sounding just like Whitehead' definition of immanence as "the doctrine of the unity of nature and the unity of each human life."

  11. Mackey's transcendence does not sound transcendent at all. Neither does his morality sound particularly moral. Mackey himself asks why any "creative process" should be intrinsically moral when it can just as easily result in "destruction or failure" (p. 305). He never answers the question. Why? Because he wants the fabric of reality and the creative process to contain some kind of fundamental goodness and morality in its operation. He no longer believes in the Watchmaker, so he has supplanted it with the Watch. And that is why he accuses Derrida's project as offering no "intelligible structures…something that cannot be either real or mindful" (p.113). Mackey does not want to admit to a fabric of reality that is simply a "weave of resemblances" with no "red thread" (Wittgenstein). He does not want to accede to a world where "signifiers eternally negate each other" and where reality refuses to neatly correspond to truth (Rorty). To grant such a world would be, "merely perverse," as if acknowledging a creation that is fallen and under the reign of sin.

  12. What we end up with is neither morality nor transcendence except in the most mundane and trivial senses. It stretches the very boundaries of language to see either the Good, or Divinity, in such a coldly mechanistic view of the universe. What becomes very easy to see is a kind of amoral "totalitizing" of ontology (as one "personalist" philosopher called it), a totalitizing that reduces persons to mere ideas, and thus inadvertently allows evil to flourish.

  13. In the end Mackey's 'God' and 'morality' active in the "fabric of reality" come off sounding like nothing other than New Age cosmic meanderings forced through that worn out old sieve of Whiteheadian and process thought.


[1] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), p. xvii.

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