Friday 5 February 2016

The End

This is just a brief note to say that I'm no longer writing new posts here, though I'm planning to leaving the blog up for the foreseeable future. I still blog occasionally over at An und für sich, and you can read all of my academic publications on

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Guest blogging

I have a new blogpost up over at Homebrewed Christianity, in which I talk about some recent fuss over whether the emerging church/radical theology is racist and sexist. Go check it out.

Friday 6 July 2012

Art, pyschoanalysis and humour

More Milbank eventually, I promise! But in the meantime, Becky Hunter and I are doing an online residency for the Philadelphia arts blog concept plus object. We're talking about art, psychoanalysis and humour, and why some of the people who first saw the artist Agnes Martin's abstract piece Desert responded to it with laughter. Check it out.

Image credit: pop pervert

Friday 22 June 2012

Kant doesn't care if you're happy

We've talked before about Kant's categorical imperative and his idea of duty. One of the reasons that he was so radical is that he disagreed with one of the central principles of classical philosophy: that there's a link between happiness and ethics: that the way of life which will make us really happy is also the way of life that's really ethical. It wasn't just that ethics won't make you happy, but that happiness actually got in the way of ethics: sure, you helped some old guy across the road, but if you did it even slightly to make yourself feel good, it's worthless as an ethical action. Did you play with your children? Fine, but if you did it because you like them, or, heaven help us, you enjoy playing games, you might as well not have bothered. The converse is that, however terrible the effects of your actions, as long as your motivations are right, you're good. Morality becomes radically interior: all about what's going on inside me, with very little interest in how what I do affects the world around me. On the plus side, Kant recognised that we were never going to become ethically perfect in his sense of the word: we'll never reach a point where all our actions are perfectly disinterested and entirely without selfish motivations. There are down sides, though: can you guess what they might be?

According to Matthew Sharpe, one of the less obvious problems with Kant's ethical system was pointed out by Max Horkheimer, a German philosopher and sociologist. He argued that the way Kant opposed duty and pleasure went along with the ideology of capitalism. By making morality all about our internal motivations, Kant shifts the focus away from questions of economics and sociology and makes it difficult to challenge existing systems. His internalisation of morality is a depoliticisation of ethics: I don't care what impact buying a banana has on people on the other side of the world, because I only care about why I bought the banana. I don't care about banker's bonuses, sweatshops, the class system, poverty or injustice because all I care about is me and my inner life. I think that I'm not interested in politics, but actually my moral code is deeply political because it actively discourages me from getting involved in politics.

Roland Boer wrote a great post recently about why ethics is always political. You should go read it.

Friday 1 June 2012

Which came first, the individual or the social?

We're settling into a rhythm now: Milbank talks about the next historical movement of 'secular' thought, we think, ah, now we're really getting to the birth of secularism, and he says haha, no, actually they're totally dependent on theology still. So that's the essence of this chapter, which deals with sociological thinkers from Malebranche to Durkheim. Honestly, I struggled a little here, both in terms of caring and understanding, as half the people Milbank talks about I've never heard of and the other half I've never read: apologies in advance if that makes this post less sensical than its predecessors.

So, 'sociology' emerged as a discipline which, unlike the political economists or the liberal thinker who thought that the basic constituent of human society was the independent individual, saw 'society' as a basic fact to be reckoned with and accounted for. One of the basic problems of political and social thought is the question of the relationship between the individual and society: do individuals construct society or does society construct individuals? Sociology was an attempt to answer this and, surprise surprise, Milbank thinks they basically nicked their fundamental assumptions from theology. The really sneaky thing, on Milbank's account, is that the early sociologists didn't just steal their ideas from theology, they then pretended that those same ideas were not theological, and used them to explain theology. The cheek!

Milbank locates the origins of sociology in the thought of Joseph de Maistre and Louis Jacques Marie de Bonald. Both of them draw in turn on the thought of Malebranche, who basically thinks that human beings can't possibly create anything new, and so all new ideas have to come directly from God. In de Bonald and de Maistre, this becomes the idea that it's God who holds the collection of individuals together by directly creating social institutions like language, writing, the family and political sovereignty. 'The social' isn't something that humans have made, it's entirely dependent on God.

Next up is Comte, who basically thinks he's doing away with God, although actually he leaves the basic theological structure of de Maistre and de Bonald's metaphysics intact. Comte thinks that it's not God but religion which holds the random collection of individuals together into a society. But the essence of religion is basically the celebration of humanity: what we worship isn't actually God but a mythologised version of 'humanity'. Eventually, Comte thinks, this will evolve into a more explicitly humanistic, secularised sort of religion; but it will still, essentially, be religion.

Then comes Durkheim, whose version of the 'God' figure holding the social world together draws on Kant, whose categorical imperative means that freedom paradoxically means that we should be obedient to a general ethical law. But even though Durkheim talks about the way that all our knowledge and laws and so on are socially constructed, he still basically assumes that there is an Absolute Transcendental Truth out there, keeping everything in place. He still (sort of) believes in God.

So, basically, the problem with sociology is that it assumes that things like society, law, politics, are just given, universal, basic facts of society as if they'd been magicked into being by God rather than constructed in complicated, messy and historically variable ways by human beings. Sociology relies on some (dodgy) theological assumptions that have been dressed up as if they're Science. And worst of all, for Milbank, is that sociology looks at human society throughout the ages, and sees that all human societies involve sacrifice. Because it can't conceive of such a 'basic' social fact being changed, it can't understand the way in which Jesus radically transforms the notion of sacrifice, making a peaceful society possible, and so one of the basic assumptions of sociological discourse in general is that humans are basically violent towards one another and unable to play together like good children. Sacrifice, violence, war and crime are just there, inescapable facts.

The real problem, Milbank thinks, lies in the attempt to try to resolve the chicken-and-egg question of the individual and society. But it's a problem that just can't be resolved: every individual action is formed by society and forms society in return, and so any 'science' which takes the social whole rather than the individual (or vice versa) as the basic fact is screwed from the outset. The only way to deal with the question is to tell stories about it: historiography is necessary but social science isn't. Did Milbank really just argue that the entire discipline of sociology is pointless? I think he did.

Thursday 17 May 2012

He's got the whole world in his (invisible) hands

Chapter 2 of Theology and Social Theory is titled 'Political Economy as Theodicy and Agonistics'. Having dealt with some of the earliest 'political' thinkers – people like Hobbes, Locke, and Machiavelli – Milbank moves on to the thinkers of 'political economy', by which he seems (correct me if I'm wrong) to be primarily referring to 18th century political thinkers, primarily from Scotland or Great Britain more generally: Adam Smith, David Hume, James Stewart. These are the people who start to grapple with one of the fundamental problems of political philosophy: how it is that lots of individual people, acting apparently independently, give rise to a system which is ordered and regular: 'the market'. Faced with this problem, political economists drew on the theological notion of providence – the idea that God is at work in the world, making sure that everything that happens fits into the big Divine Plan for history.

Unlike Hobbes, the Scottish political theorists didn't assume that everyone acted purely selfishly; they included an account of virtue in their discussion of politics. But they didn't ground it in the traditional 'virtue ethics' idea that all human action should be directed towards some clearly defined notion of the human good. Hume argues that morality arises from our innate emotional responses to things like justice and injustice and our ability to empathise with other people. There's no agreed standard of goodness that we agree to work towards; instead, over time, political institutions emerge and slowly train us, like Pavlov's dogs, into having a conscience, a sense of right and wrong. Adam Smith doesn't think we rationally figure out that we'll be better off in a society where law and order is enforced; we get sucked into it because we're naturally inclined to be cross about injustice (and to not really care when people fail to be kind to one another as long as they don't break the law). There's a moral aspect to political life, but it's nothing to do with any absolute standards of good and bad, right and wrong, it's just that nature happens to have equipped us with certain 'moral emotions'. When these ideas about virtue are translated into politics, they tend to go in one of two directions:

Machiavellian Political Economy: Once upon a time, Milbank thinks, the aristocracy operated according to a strict code of aristocratic ethics: things like courage and magnanimity (ah, the good old days). But at some point there was a shift, and aristocratic honour was no longer about their adherence to a code of gentlemanly behaviour but became a sort of social capital that you could use to gain influence, wealth or property; that was all about reputation, appearances, and changing fashions. Machiavelli had a conundrum: he wanted to make sure that war was about countries rationally fighting with one another for sensible reasons, rather than internal conflicts for silly reasons like religion. But because Machiavelli also valued a particular sort of heroism, it was important for there to be some way for people to prove their heroism within their own country. The market was the perfect opportunity for people (well, men) to prove how noble and heroic they were without all the wastefulness of war. But war wasn't going to end: in fact, for many of the Scottish thinkers, the best thing about a market economy was the way it generated a surplus which could be used to build up the nation's military power. James Stewart talked about ancient Sparta as a model for the ideal society: a society divided between a slave class generating a surplus and another class of politician-warriors. And in the absence of slaves, the next best thing was wage-labourers, who could be progressively impoverished and disempowered until they were completely under the thumb of the state. This political philosophy laid the groundwork for the emergence of capitalism, but Milbank stresses that it didn't have to be this way. This Machiavellian version of political economy is, Milbank argues, neo-pagan: it basically celebrates the will to power that Christian theology rejected. Fair enough; but then, weirdly, he suggests that this somehow undermines secular reason's claims to autonomy. I mean, surely if you want to get away from Christian theology, it makes perfect sense to draw on pre-Christian political philosophy? Anyway, there was an alternative to this Machiavellian vision:

Providential political economy: This is was more explicitly theological, and, Milbank argues, basically a heretical theodicy (theodicy being the attempt to answer the question, 'How can there be a good God when there is so much evil in the world?'). Once you assume that people are basically acting independently and selfishly, unless you're an anarchist you have to identify some principle which means that society won't just descend into chaos. Welcome, Adam Smith's 'invisible hand of the market' theory. The providential political economists appeal to some figure of God or providence or nature, working away behind the scenes of history, making sure that everyone's selfish short term decisions are somehow worked into an effective society. Various people made various arguments about why things that look either selfish or actively bad – market behaviour, crime – all work together for the good of the whole. God/Nature has wisely made individuals self-interested in such a way that, by acting for themselves, they benefit everybody. And this idea of underlying omnipotent forces holding heterogeneous individuals together should, Milbank argues, make us question the whole idea of heterogeneous individuals: the idea that people make decisions without reference to the social whole is, he says, nonsensical. Individuals are inevitably shaped by the society in which they live; choice isn't a feature of isolated individuals but is deeply embedded in society. Next up, Milbank says, comes post-Malthusian political economy. Once providence gets into the game, ethics becomes less important: if everything fits together in a harmonious whole, then there's no need to worry about right and wrong because even the bad things are valuable. Malthus, who thinks that eventually humanity will run out of resources, says that if we didn't fear for our survival, there would be no incentive to virtue. Thomas Chalmers says that the distinctively Christian virtues aren't charity or forgiveness but the virtues associated with self-interest: sexual continence, sobriety, punctiliousness, discipline and Sabbath observance. He says that the market economy is great because it encourages us to nurture those virtues; which in turn providentially are precisely the virtues we need to sustain the market economy. Everyone wins!

Milbank, understandably, thinks that all of this – the Protestant work ethic, the market economy, the death of charity, the redefinition of virtue – is Very Bad. Unsurprisingly, thought, he wants to argue that the problem isn't secularism but bad theology. Sure, theology has screwed things up before, but Milbank's theology will save us.

Photo by prayerfriends.

Thursday 10 May 2012

Once, there was no secular

Say what you like about Milbank, that's a killer opening line (and possibly an allusion to John 1, so make of that what you will). Chapter 1 of Theology and Social Theory argues that the idea of a 'secular' political space, where everyone lays aside their religious affiliations to meet on some sort of neutral territory is a recent invention, the sad consequence of bad theology (by which Milbank means either any theology that came after Aquinas and/or Protestant theology. One of the enduring puzzles of Milbank's work, for me, is that he keeps saying how awesome Catholicism is and how much Protestantism sucks BUT HE ISN'T A EVEN A CATHOLIC HE'S A PROTESTANT). Theology made 'the secular' possible by going wrong in three ways: in the way it thought about God, in its reading of the Bible, and in its understanding of time.

Bad God
First, then, theology screwed up by forgetting to think about God in trinitarian terms. If you remember that God is a trinity, you think of God in terms of relationships, mutuality, giving and receiving, of action as essentially love ordered to the good of others. And that translates into a particular way of thinking about people and about property: people are complicated, trying to get a handle on the different aspects of their personhood so that they can direct their whole selves towards God; and people own property, but the whole point of owning property is so that they can use it for the good of others: if you don't look after your stuff in a way that acknowledges it's really meant as a way of helping you and others towards God, you don't have the right to keep owning it any more. But if you start to forget about God as three and only think about God as one, then personhood becomes about being completely self-contained, about having complete control over one's own self and also over one's property. Not only does this mean that there's no ethical obligation on me to direct myself and my possessions towards God and the good of the community I belong to, there's also no way of thinking what it means to think and act as a community: society is just a collection of disconnected individuals, who relate to each other only insofar as they can exercise power over one another, and can only agree to act together if they are forced to by contracts they have signed with one another. What's gone wrong, says Milbank, is that we've lost sight of God as Trinity in favour of God as self-contained One. Instead of the world as a complicated networks of interconnected, mutual relationships of give and take, the secular is a world of isolated points, all fighting with each other for power and control.

Bad Bible
All of this required a new way of reading the Bible. Again, before It All Went Wrong, the Bible was seen in the context of a complicated set of relationships: to read the Bible, you needed to belong in the community of the Church, to draw on the traditions of reading that had been passed down, to assume it was still related to the world in all sorts of ways, and to listen to the monks: a special category of people whose whole lives were dedicated to living in a community which got its authority not from money or power, but from being the place where people spent time reading. What could possibly do away with such a delightful arrangement of things? Hello, Protestantism. Luther's sola scriptura (only the Bible is authoritative, so you don't need to read theology or even talk to other Christians to understand what it's saying) meant that the Bible lost its place in community and became a thing read by individuals on their own. Revelation came to be understood as something which was private; and getting rid of allegorical readings of the Bible meant that all that Old Testament stuff, which had traditionally been read as spiritually significant (God wants us to fight spiritual enemies rather than killing actual people) became straightforwardly political: God is on the side of the nation state – go national sovereignty!

Bad Times
In a trinitarian account of the world, time itself is complexly related to God. God is at work in and through time, for all that sin means that bad things happen. Time is ordered towards God and so towards good. Theology loses this sense of time in two ways: first, when it reverts to the pagan idea that reality is basically a chaos out of which we briefly emerge, struggle, and then return to in death: this is Machiavellianism, which values heroes, Real Men, and war (Victorian Christianity?) Second, theological time goes off the rails when when it descends into a fatalistic or stoical hopelessness about the possibility of really transforming the world: we can't make things better, so we just need to cling on tight and wait for the Rapture/Second Coming etc. God isn't present in time, except in moments of dramatic and slightly random intervention (hello, Calvinism). This, for reasons I don't quite understand, is the 'natural rights legacy of liberalism'. Both are bad, because both envision time as existing pretty much independently of God, and as involving not gradual transformation towards goodness, but power, conflict, and violence.

All of this means that Christianity should not acknowledge the existence of any sort of 'secular' space. Secularism has little or nothing to teach Christianity because it's either a reversion to pre-Christian paganism or a degeneration into Christian heresy.

At this point, there are two things that seem particularly obviously problematic. First is this idea that society has degenerated, that secularisation is terrible from a Christian perspective, that it all went wrong with Aquinas. You don't need to believe in uncomplicated historical progress or a cheerleader for capitalism to see lots of reasons to be glad about modernity, the Enlightenment, etc., especially as compared to what went before. And second, surely (surely!) if Milbank's right, and God interpenetrates the whole of human history, and the kingdom of God is growing, then how does it make sense to adopt a narrative of progressive degeneration from Aquinas onwards? Shouldn't things be getting, well, better? Shouldn't God be at work even (the horror!) in Protestantism?