In this series I am analyzing three approaches to the existential problem of being human, i.e. the human condition. Those approaches are: Scientism, Semanticism, and Supernaturalism. In this post I will examine a view I am calling “Semanticism” and see if it has the resources to fully address the existential condition of man. However, before asking whether this approach can do the work of allaying our deepest concerns or answering our most profound questions, let’s revisit the idea of the human condition itself.
Taylor’s Immanent Frame and One Bad Answer to The Human Condition
Invoking a concept introduced by the philosopher Charles Taylor know as the “Immanent Frame,” I want to look at one attempt to answer the deep questions of life provided by Taylor’s philosophical predecessor, Martin Heidegger, who was already mentioned in a previous post. First, we must get a gist of what Taylor’s immanent frame refers to, then we can look at Heidegger’s tragic attempt to answer the problem.
The Immanent Frame is best summarized by one of Taylor’s foremost commentators, James K.A. Smith, who writes:
[The Immanent Frame] is a constructed social space that frames our lives entirely within a natural (rather than a supernatural) order. It is the circumscribed space of the modern social imaginary that precludes transcendence.James K.A. Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular, 141.
In short, Taylor argues that the social and cultural conditions that formed in the wake of the Enlightenment, and which were carried to fruition through the natural sciences have lead to a contemporary social background, a cultural milieu, against which all of our thinking is first and foremost immanent, anthropocentric, and humanistic thinking. We live in a world that seems and feels entirely naturalistic. One major ramification of this development in human thought, is that we (meaning the average Westerner) no longer believe that meaning is “out there” in the things of the world themselves. Instead, meaning is in the mind, and it is the human agent who gives or confers meaning upon the world.1 Those who know the history of philosophy will recognize this in part as the shift from realism or essentialism in metaphysics to nominalism, except that current theories of meaning are far more radical than anything Ockham or Abelard would have suggested This will come up again when the issue of language (semantics) is discussed below.
While there are people, many people even, who still believe in the supernatural and transcendent, and who even consider themselves religious, nevertheless our default mode of thinking, acting, and behaving takes place within an exclusively humanistic realm. Our public lives are predominantly secular ones and even if we are religious we know many people who live exclusively secular lives, and they seem to be pretty happy within that secular framework. As such, corporately we live and move and have our being as if there is only the mundane; what it has to offer and how it can explain things. It is hard, implausible even, to think supernaturally, even if we sometimes feel “haunted” by the numinous or mystical: there is a vague sense of longing for the transcendent that is often mediated to us through movies (especially horror movies) or music.2Smith considers bands like Death Cab for Cutie or The Postal Service as good examples) Yet, our modern world in the West (this does not apply to many Eastern or Middle-Eastern cultures per se) sees with almost purely immanent eyes. Thus, ideas of goods that exist beyond human flourishing “down here,” for example: heaven, saintly rewards, or an eternal glory with God, may exert some pressure on us, but the fact is that they do not feel real enough in this pluralistic and “post-metaphysical” society, at least not enough to engender radical spiritual and religious action. There are very few who would take the route of St. Francis of Assisi today, even if there are some rare exceptions (Anjeze Bojaxhiu, for example).
Heidegger’s Immanent Frame and Immanently Bad Answer
Returning now to Heidegger, a brilliant thinker but, at the same time, a rather disappointing moral figure, we look at his suggestion to answering the existential crisis of human life. Working within a framework of the immanent, Heidegger suggests that we must try and re-imagine something that while knowing it to be purely secular, we treat it as if it was sacred. The idea being to immanentize objects of knowledge which in pre-modern times could only have been understood as transcendent. This move attempts to place everything religious belief once held to be eternal, unchanging, and immaterial into the world of the finite, fluid, and physical.
For Heidegger this new, immanent sacred object had to be something that could fulfill the role of God.3 For a detailed analysis of Heidegger’s “replacement” for religious belief, see the entry “Martin Heidegger” in Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Michael Wheeler, 2011 (Section 3.5) But, what thing could do that? According to Michael Wheeler, “Heidegger sometimes seems to use the term ‘god’ or ‘divinity’ to refer to a heroic figure (a cultural template) who may initiate (or help to initiate) a transformational event in the history of Being by opening up an alternative clearing.”4 Wheeler, “Martin Heidegger” 3.5 Wheeler goes on to say, however, that it need not be just an individual persona that could fulfill this role of redivinizing history, acting as a “grounder of the abyss” and a “restorer of sacredness,” rather it could even be an event or a series of events:
It might even be consistent with Heidegger’s view to relax the requirement that the divine catalyst must be an individual being, and thus to conceive of certain transformational cultural events or forces themselves as divinities (Dreyfus 2003). In any case, Heidegger argues that, in the present crisis, we are waiting for a god who will reawaken us to the poetic, and thereby enable us to dwell in the fourfold.Wheeler, “Martin Heidegger” in Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 3.5
For anyone familiar with the Nazi cult and the mythos that is constructed around not just the Aryan identity, but also around Hitler himself, it seems that Heidegger’s existential views willingly opened the door for National Socialism to step in–a door that until today no one thinks Heidegger ever really closed. For this reason, as Wheeler points out, Heidegger’s legacy, to include aspects of his philosophy, remain tainted with a very dark taint indeed:
There is no doubt that Heidegger’s Nazi sympathies, however long they lasted, have a more intimate relationship with his philosophical thought than might be suggested by apologist claims that he was a victim of his time (in 1933, lots of intelligent people backed Hitler without thereby supporting the Holocaust that was to come) or that what we have here is ‘merely’ a case of bad political judgment, deserving of censure but with no implications for the essentially independent philosophical programme. Why does the explanation run deeper? The answer is that Heidegger believed (indeed continued to believe until he died) that the German people were destined to carry out a monumental spiritual mission. That mission was nothing less than to be at the helm of the aforementioned transformation of Being in the West, from one of instrumental technology to one of poetic dwelling.Wheeler, “Martin Heidegger”
Heidegger’s longing to see the finite and immanent “made” transcendent, yet without deference to any actual supernatural principle or power, any religious or theological truth, any revelation, should serve as a warning for us today. For clearly the Nazis were on some kind of spiritual mission, and Hitler certainly had a goal for a total transformation of the world.
But, why is Heidegger’s tainted legacy so important to what I am calling the “Semantic” approach to the human condition? As we will see, the Semantic approach, like the Scientistic approach on the one hand, has to remain in the realm of the physical and the immanent. However, unlike the scientistic approach, Semanticism sees something like transcendent power in the narratival and poetic use of language and in the application of concepts, symbols, and metaphors that arouse in us the desires for the eternal and transcendent. These, however, are notions that the pure adherent to Scientism, people like W.V.O. Quine or A.J. Ayer, would have rejected and avoided at all costs.
The Semantic Approach: Can Language Save?
Although I am calling this approach “Semanticism” it could be called various other names. I use this term, however, based on my reading of some philosophers in the Continental tradition who could be called “Critical Theorists.” These are men like Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno, and later Jürgen Habermas, all of whom were with regard to metaphysics, and especially the metaphysics that underlie any religious truth claim, minimally agnostic. In other words, they were materialists and “postmetaphysical” philosophers, even if they were not “anti-metaphysical” like their scientistic counterparts.
Moreover, unlike their British empiricist contemporaries, these continental thinkers felt that religion and religious statements, religious sentiments and theological concepts could not be so easily, or should not be, reduced to mere scientistic explanations. There was something about religion and traditional theology that mattered at a fundamental level to human beings, and, as such, some of religion had to be retained if human beings were to flourish. So, there was a rejection on the one hand of science as a purely instrumental tool to analyze dispassionately the phenomena of human existence, while on the other accepting sciences conclusions on most things about the physical world.
What this left for later critical theorists like Habermas, and his Swiss predecessor Karl Jaspers, as a means to addressing the human condition was to posit something that would operate as a secular theology, a sort of theology without the theos. What was important to retain then from traditional religion was not the validity of its actual truth claims about God, or gods, or angels or demons, or immortal souls and eternal kingdoms, but rather the meaning, the semantic content, of those concepts translated into a non-metaphysical language. So regarding anything transcendent, Jürgen Habermas can say on the one hand, “Enlightened thought sees through the illusion of this embodiment of transcendence,” which basically suggests that pre-modern notions of the transcendent were not statements about what is real, but merely a pre-scientific way of talking about immanent human experiences. This is what both Habermas and others like Charles Taylor have called the “disenchantment” of the cosmos.
Because religious language cannot be seen as a referring language any more, e.g. when I say “God is Father, Son and Spirit” I am not talking about an extra-mental, uncreated, eternal, powerful and personal Being: GOD; rather I am talking about a concept of the transcendent as understood within a particular human tradition, namely Christianity. The Trinity in this sense is not an actual mind-independent reality, but a symbol, or cipher of something that is deeply human, but ultimately also only a product of human agency and imagination. Critiquing his predecessor, Karl Jaspers, Habermas continues to talk about the “semantic potential” contained in traditional religions:
It [postmetaphysical philosophy] must disclose and preserve the truth-content concealed in the semantic potentials of traditions shattered by enlightenment. By contrast with the sciences, philosophy moves in the space of the essential–in other words: existential–experiences, a space which is occupied and structured by faith.Jürgen Habermas, “The Conflict of Beliefs” in The Liberating Power of Symbols, 37.
Philosophy, unlike the natural sciences, must now provide the medium through which people’s existential longings and desires for the transcendent can be addressed and answered. However, it is a philosophy that cannot be adulterated with metaphysical thinking or any kind of acquiescence to a transcendent authority:
But, in contrast to tradition, it [philosophy] retrieves these experiences with the argumentative tools of postmetaphysical thinking. In opposition to Kierkegaard, [Karl] Jasper’s aim is to thematize the experiences which find expression in the Bible, without slipping into the mode of a belief in revelation…Just as [Kierkegaard] strove to retain the dialectical self-movement of Spirit without accepting the notion of absolute Spirit, so Jaspers would like to complete the transition from the ethical to the religious stage, without arriving at Jesus Christ.Habermas, The Conflict of Belief, 38.
To sum up this view of the power of language as professed by philosophers like Habermas or Jaspers, the potential to address the experiential and existential aspects of human life lies not in the natural sciences, but in philosophy. But, this is not the classical philosophy of Plato or Aristotle or of Augustine, Anselm or Aquinas. This is a philosophy that seeks to address humanity purely through the medium of symbol and language in the hope of alleviating the crisis of faith we now have in a postmetaphysical and post-Christian culture.
While this “third way” between strong Scientism and Supernaturalism may seem obscure and convoluted, it is actually the most attractive and most influential approach in Western society today. The advantages of Semanticism are easily identified: first, it holds on to the language and symbolism of religious practice without the dogma (especially those annoying truth claims about sexual ethics that most philosophers find so terribly inhibiting); second, it can engender in us a sense of purpose and meaning, especially if, as some post-modernists believe, language actually creates or generates new worlds as opposed to simply describing or referencing the actual one; and finally third, it does not require us to abandon any firm deliverances of the natural sciences about the physical world. The semantic approach does not invalidate or come into conflict with the conclusions of physics, chemistry or evolutionary biology, it only says they cannot properly weigh in on the existential conditions of the “lifeworld” we all inhabit.5 For a sketch of what Habermas means by the term “lifeworld” see Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity, (2002) 15-17.
Finally, Semanticism as an approach offers a way to live in a pluralistic society without tearing ourselves apart in violent conflict motivated by fundamentalistic attitudes about dogmatic religious claims, claims like Jesus Christ is Lord, a statement which has provided the occasion for many a bloody conflict, for example, between traditional Islamic and Christian cultures. Or even statements like Justification by faith alone through Jesus Christ alone which, again, has not been benign in the history of Latin Christendom. However, this also does not mean that those who practice traditional religions must practice them together, in some syncretistic fashion, as Jaspers points out, “This philosophical faith, which appears in many forms…cannot [become] an authority or a dogma, [it] remains dependent on communication between human beings, who are obliged to talk to each other, but not necessarily to pray with each other.”6 quoted in Habermas “The Conflict of Beliefs” in The Liberating Power of Symbols, 40.
Conclusion: Semanticism Cannot Really Save
There is only one problem with the Semantic approach, but it is a rather large one: Semanticism is simply false. More accurately, and even more problematically, the Semantic approach simply skirts the issue of truth completely, attempting to wiggle its way out of what are ultimately the first principles of philosophy, namely “What is real?” and “How can we know it?” To give up on these questions is almost worse than the adherent of Scientism, who at least makes attempts to describe the real, and thinks she can actually know it. In a 2004 dialogue with Habermas, then Kardinal Josef Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, put it this way, “To cease asking questions about the origin and goal of the whole of reality [of being as such] is to leave out the characteristic element of philosophical questioning itself.” In other words, a philosophical system that precludes metaphysics, questions of causality, and the grounds and justification of knowledge from the onset is hardly worth calling a philosophy.7 This may also be why most classes on “critical theories” today, e.g. Critical Race Theory, are not found in the philosophy departments, but in the social ‘sciences’ departments or, more saliently, in English departments.
Further, because Semanticism is false it is also open to all kinds of other problems, moral and political. For, at the end of the day, Semanticism refers to nothing other than the words of human beings and the imaginative worlds constructed out of those words. It is a view as fluid and transient as the desires of those who avow it. As such, everything on the Semantic approach is subject to change, everything is contingent. So while today their may be human rights for most people in the West (the unborn being the gross exception), if some party or political faction were to come into power and change the language game on us, altering its current rules and manipulating our Christian and religious symbols, then there really would be no fixed point, no natural law or transcendent principle, upon which the minority could rest its arguments, or seek existential refuge from the coming tyranny. This is, after all, what happened in Heidegger’s Germany, and it was what Heidegger ultimately failed to denounce.
In conclusion then, it seems that a better approach is needed than Semanticism. If for any reason, simply because to believe that language itself creates worlds in which we can inhabit is not only on the face of it a war against common sense, but because language does have a power to change things and change them in a radical way. But, it is not the real world that language can actually change, and as such we still remain in it, it is merely human minds that can be fooled or manipulated by language. This use of language to alter common sense realism not only played out in 1930’s Germany, but plays out before our eyes today as we confront a culture that has been so indoctrinated through language and symbol that many, if not most, American actually believe that a boy can choose to be a girl, and vice-versa. Finally, there still remains the ultimate “calling card” of the human condition: death. And this, as we have seen recently with the rise of COVID, cannot in any way really be addressed by mere words.
- 1Those who know the history of philosophy will recognize this in part as the shift from realism or essentialism in metaphysics to nominalism, except that current theories of meaning are far more radical than anything Ockham or Abelard would have suggested
- 2Smith considers bands like Death Cab for Cutie or The Postal Service as good examples)
- 3For a detailed analysis of Heidegger’s “replacement” for religious belief, see the entry “Martin Heidegger” in Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Michael Wheeler, 2011 (Section 3.5)
- 4Wheeler, “Martin Heidegger” 3.5
- 5For a sketch of what Habermas means by the term “lifeworld” see Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity, (2002) 15-17.
- 6quoted in Habermas “The Conflict of Beliefs” in The Liberating Power of Symbols, 40.
- 7This may also be why most classes on “critical theories” today, e.g. Critical Race Theory, are not found in the philosophy departments, but in the social ‘sciences’ departments or, more saliently, in English departments.