Speaking of the Unspeakable

Leszek Kolakowski’s book is occasionally concerned with describing religious behavior, drawing upon the observations of such writers of Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade, but it is for the most part critical and philosophical. Religion is spoken of as “the socially established worship of the eternal reality.” The term “eternal reality” seems to be chosen because it is neutral as between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam on the one hand, and Buddhism and Hinduism on the other. In fact, Kolakowski’s chief interest seems to be in Judeo-Christian theism and his book is mainly an essay in the philosophy of religion. This is not the post-kantian subject explored by such philosophers as Karl Jaspers and Paul Ricoeur, that is, the study of the categories shown in the activities of the religious consciousness. It is rather what used to be called natural theology, that is, rational inquiry into the grounds for saying things about God and his relation to the world and to human affairs. The former inquiry answers the questions, what is it to be religious, and what things are presupposed by religious activities? The latter tries to list and elucidate the reasons we have for believing, or entertaining, a number of propositions, metaphysical and other, about God, and about God and the world.

Interest in old-style natural theology is now so rare that we are inclined to fidget a bit when we come across someone with this interest and to ask why he wants to pursue again paths that so often seem to have turned out to be dizzyingly circuitous or to run into the sand. Kolakowski’s interest comes from his having been haunted by the Dostoevsky fragment: “If there is no God, everything is permissible.” He tells us that he proposes to argue for the position that this saying “is valid not only as a moral rule—but also as an epistemological principle. This means that the legitimate use of the concept ‘truth’ or the belief that ‘truth’ may even be justifiably predicted of our knowledge is possible only on the assumption of an absolute Mind.” (This is hard to understand. Is “predicted” a mistake, the intention being to speak of “predicated”? If there is a claim to knowledge, isn’t this also a claim to truth? Can one even ask if what is said to be a case of knowledge is also a case of something being true? We await the argument with some eagerness, or would do so had we not noted at the beginning of the book the following passage, one that puts a large query against whatever arguments are to be found later on.

I rather tend to accept the law of the infinite cornucopia which applies not only to philosophy but to all general theories in the human and social sciences: it states that there is never a shortage of arguments to support any doctrine you want to believe in for whatever reasons. These arguments, however, are not entirely barren. They have helped in elucidating the status quaestionis and in explaining why these questions matter, and this is what I am concerned with here.

To bring out the implications of this, we can imagine that there are doctrines A, B, and C that I “want” to believe in—say, that God created the universe, that there is a providential ordering of human affairs, that how one ought to live is not a matter of whim. Of course, I might want to believe quite other and different things with, say, Lucretius. There is an infinite supply of arguments bearing on these matters. As each argument is broken down by criticism or simply falls from favor, another is drawn from the cornucopia; and another, and another. It won’t simply be a matter of what men want to believe; presumably the cornucopia contains arguments of all kinds, for what some will want to believe, others will want to think not believable. Since, given the theory, no argument or counter-argument or counter-argument is likely to stand up indefinitely, it is hard to know why we should bother about the seeming logical force or the soundness of the premises of any given argument, for each argument resembles the priest of Nemi in that it is fated to be slain by its successor; and it is equally hard to suppose that the status quaestionis at any given moment matters, or that “these questions” matter.

Though Kolakowski’s entire book stands in the shadow of the infinite-cornucopia argument, I will consider it apart from the argument.

It falls into five sections. Kolakowski begins with the question of evil in the world, and examines Christian and Buddhist strategies for handling the question. The next section covers arguments about God’s existence and about the application of the concept of truth to discourse about God and the world. Then there is a section on the mystical tradition in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, with a few side glances at mysticism in the Eastern religions. Next, there is a very short section entitled “The Sacred and Death.” Then there is a discussion of language in religion, in part an evaluation of the traditional view that there is a necessary failure in our attempts to speak about God in human language. This generates a special kind of religious pathos, for there is after all no other language to be had. In the concluding section some very strong things are said, e.g.:

Human dignity is not to be validated within a naturalistic conception of man. And so, the same either/or recurs time and again: the absence of God, when consistently upheld and thoroughly examined, spells the ruin of man in the sense that it demolishes or robs of meaning everything we have been used to think of as the essence of being human: the quest for truth, the distinction of good and evil, the claim to dignity, the claim to create something that withstands the indifferent destructiveness of time.

This is Dostoevsky’s “If there is no God, everything is permissible” expanded. But while Kolakowski thinks this to be as defensible a position as any other, he thinks of it as an option, over against the naturalistic option, which denies there are phenomena that are in principle outside the scope of scientific explanation. There are arguments once an option is chosen, the choice furnishing us with a set of premises to argue from; but for Kolakowski there are no arguments for preferring one option over another. What each option furnishes is an internally consistent as any complex set of propositions can be. But there is no intellectual scheme in the light of which one of the options has an advantage over the other. How we choose is determined by our culture and by what we want to believe. This is not the same argument as the infinite-cornucopia argument, though it has the same skeptical implications.

Kolakowski interpolates (in bold type and between rules) in his text, not for direct comment but as illustrating the topics he discusses, many passages, more or less aphoristic, from a variety of writings from Plato and the Upanishads to Philip Rieff, and including among others Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Leibniz, the Zohar, Hegel, and Tillich. I have counted seventy-five such fragments. The most frequently cited thinker is Eckhart, and after him Jaspers. There is nothing—I only name those absentees who seem to go with the general spirit of selection—by Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, perhaps the father of natural theology in the Greek tradition, by Aristotle, by William Blake, nothing by Barth—if we are to have Tillich, it seems extraordinary that we shouldn’t be given the greatest theologian of the age (this was Pius XII’s view—a strong commendation indeed)—and nothing by those remarkable theologians Paul of Tarsus and the author of the Fourth Gospel. No references are given for the fragments cited; this seems a pity, for such references would have been useful to students.

That there is evil in the world seems a natural difficulty in the way of affirming God’s existence and benevolence, so there is something to be said for raising this difficulty, in all its roughness, before going in for more formal, more metaphysical, discussions. It is in any case the difficulty most often cited by skeptics and agnostics. Here are war, private murder, cruelty, hideous diseases of mind and body, the sufferings of the other animals—the whole creation groans and cries out for deliverance, as the Apostle Paul puts it, and at first—even at second—glance this looks like a serious difficulty in the way of accepting a creator who cares for his creatures. As kolakowski puts it, “within Christian anthropology any suffering which can be neither redeemed nor explained in terms of punishment poses a distressing problem.” All the same, for those “within” such an anthropology the problem doesn’t arise unless there is a Creator God and unless those things can be predicated of him that do in fact make evil a central question. I propose, therefore, to discuss what Kolakowski has to say about the divine existence and attributes. This is the center of the philosophy of religion as he understands it; only in so far as he has some success here do arguments about evil, mysticism, and death have and death have any bite.

The second section, “God of Reasoners,” covers a great many topics: Aquinas’s arguments for God’s existence; epistemological questions—here some remarkably confident statements are made, such as the “universe as we know it is the way we react to our environment, and our reactions are determined both biologically and culturally”; the Cartesian and Anselmian “ontological” arguments for God’s existence; the question that has seemed important to many philosophers from Leibniz to Wittgenstein, namely, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”; theories of truth (these to elucidate the meaning of the Dostoevsky fragment); Kantian and Humean criticisms of natural theology. All this takes up fewer than forty pages. The task is impossible. Most of what is said is so compressed that it would be unintelligible to a reader not already familiar with the literature referred to; and since there are no references to the primary texts or to commentaries on them, the student for whom the book is—presumably—intended is bound to be lost in a fog. The pages on “proofs” of God’s existence, mostly devoted to Aquinas’s five ways, are perfunctory; and there are some deep misunderstandings, especially about Aquinas’s view of causality.1

What kolakowski says about truth is puzzling. He begins with what he claims to be “the everyday semantic conception of truth” and this is said to be “transcendental in the early-Husserlian…sense.” Two things seem to be meant by this:first, “‘The cat is on the mat’ is true if and only if the cat is on the mat”—this is indeed our everyday conception; secondly, that “what is true is so irrespective whether we know or will ever know that it is true—whether or not any cognitive acts occur now or ever.” A few pages later there is a compressed argument that doesn’t bear further compressing which concludes in a way that seems to contradict what has gone before: “that the predicate ‘true’ has no meaning unless referred to the all-encompassing truth, which is equivalent to an absolute mind.” I can’t bring this discussion of truth together, and I can’t see that it has any bearing on what Dostoevsky was asserting.

The most perspicacious part of this section is on the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” This is a distinctly Judeo-Christian question, for it is linked with the concept of creation, and seems not to occur in antiquity. Pursued with some rigor, it seems to lead to the conclusion that God is not an individual, cannot be a member of a class—not even the sole member. This is why some philosophers and mystics have wanted to say that God is “beyond being” or “beyond existence.” This is not the God of the deists, the Supreme Being or Governor of the Universe. He is not an explanatory hypothesis (a Demiurge or a pagan god would be this). As Wittgenstein put it, “Not how the world is, is das Mystische [perhaps “what is radically mysterious”—the usual translation, “the mystical” seems not quite right], but that it is”;2 and “das Mystische” is later elucidated: “there are indeed those things which cannot be put into words; they show themselves and this is das Mystische.”3 Again, as Aquinas argues, we do not know what God is, though we know the proposition “God is” is true.4 Here are the central questions in the philosophy of religion, and kolakowski says just enough about them to make us sorry he didn’t concentrate his fire here, instead of scattering shot all over the place, hitting targets, when he does, more by luck than by design.

If God is not a member of a class and if we can’t say what he is, only that he can be said to be whatever follows from his having created the world out of nothing, the resources of human language, which draws its concepts from our sensuous and practical life, are not adequate to the task of theology. This is why Kolakowski entitles his penultimate section “To Speak of the Unspeakable,” though he runs together the logical problem of discourse about God with a different though perhaps though perhaps connected problem about the inadequacy of language to express or address the Holy, that is, the experience or presence of what is felt to be sacred.

He argues against the position that it follows from what is often supposed about religious beliefs—i.e., that they are empirically vacuous (God doesn’t make a difference to how the world is)—that they are therefore without meaning. This isn’t pressed very hard. He writes: “There is nothing wrong and nothing illogical in granting a meaning to anything that people say with a feeling of understanding and which other people receive with a similar feeling.” Well, don’t we have a feeling of understanding—yet hardly a sense of meaning—when we read “‘I was brillig, and the slithy toves,” and isn’t this the problem? Kolakowski leaves it alone.

He also discusses the language of worship; he rebukes rationalists and empiricists for wanting to understand the language of worship from standpoints outside the worshiping community. To demand that religious concepts should first establish their rationality before one engages in religious practices is, he suggests, just a big misunderstanding, rather like (this isn’t the author’s example) a faithful Muslim demanding an account of the taste of wine in the language appropriate to the tasting of lemonade and sherbet. Kolakowski also dismisses the view expounded by R.B. Braithwalte that religious propositions are reducible to prescriptive or normative statements.

His own position seems to be: “There is a special kind of perception characteristic of the realm of the Sacred” and “the moral and cognitive aspects of the act of perception are so blended that they are indistinguishable from each other.” The believer knows that God is both creator and moral ruler in one indivisible act of perception. This suggests we are to be given an account of this sense of “perception,” but talk about it is desultory and careless; we are told that everyday speech “teems with words which…refer to unverifiable facts, in particular to our ‘inner’ states.” This after all the discussion that has gone on since the appearance of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations in 1953, seems superficial. There is much else about guilt and taboo, and we are said to perceive the qualities of good and evil “directly in everyday experience.” Once again the notion of perception seems to call out for a discussion it doesn’t get.

We are left in the end with “options”; and kolakowski isn’t going to nudge us in one direction rather than another.

…the admissible options are: a meaningful world guided by God, spoilt by man, healed by the Redeemer; or an absurd world, going Nowhere, ending in Nothing, the futile toy of an impersonal Fate which does not distribute punishments and rewards and does not care about good and evil. Promethean atheism might appear, on this assumption [which?], a puerile delusion, an image of a godless world which rushes on to the Ultimate Hilarity. This solution being set aside, we are left with the two options just mentioned but with no further intellectually reliable guidance in making a choice between them.

All Kolakowski’s references to religion are warm, all his references to atheism and skepticism are chilly. Perhaps he is trying to cheer us up. After all, who wants to go Nowhere and end in Nothing? But the idea of an option needs a steadier examination than we are given. Either we can ask these strange questions about everything and nothing, questions that lie beneath any intellectual examination of theism, or they are not real questions. Certainly they are not questions in the sense that questions about the evolution of the planets or the causes of collapsing stars are questions. But ruling that they are, or are not, questions cannot surely be a matter of choosing as Kolakowski seems to suggest. If the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” isn’t a question at all, we can’t make it one just by choosing. If, on the contrary, it is a question, then we are faced with supremely difficult problems that we cannot choose to ignore. Whether or not religious people are committed to considering such problems is a hard question. It could be argued that idolatry—the worship of something that is within the universe and a part of it—is a mistake in philosophical grammar.

  1. 1

    See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, vol.3 (McGraw-Hill, 1964), Appendix 2, “Causes,” by Herbert Mc-Cabe.

  2. 2

    Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.44.

  3. 3

    Ibid., 6.522.

  4. 4

    S.Th.I.Q.3.art 4.