For A (Im)Possible Future of Philosophy of Religion – Louis Komjathy 康思奇, Ph.D., The Underground University

I hope there’s an animal somewhere that nobody has ever seen. And I hope nobody ever sees it.” –Wendell Berry’s daughter

In recent years, the question of the “viability” and “possible future” of the Philosophy of Religion (POR) has become increasingly raised and occasionally answered, at least within this subfield. Here I try to do the same, although from a different vantage point.

I will not address institutional viability given the corporatization of so-called “higher education” and the increasing adjunctification of the professoriate. (It appears that the [in]viability of the field, at least from a careerist perspective, has already been answered by institutional priorities and departmental hiring practices.) Nor will I address the ethics of the ever-greater production of Ph.D.s without the prospect of gainful employment and livable salaries as a tenure-track or (even less likely) tenured professor, even if this rests on turning other individuals (“students”) into debt-slaves and wage-slaves. That is, I assume professors of ethics might eventually consider the ethics of the profession. Perhaps the more radical ones will even address the ethical dimensions of Ethics itself, especially (as avoided) within the contours of mainstream academia and institutional locatedness. Are a given institution’s administrators, board-members, and faculty ethical?

I also will assume that others will make stronger arguments for a global-critical and decolonial approach, one in which there is greater attention to equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI, or whichever order you prefer). This includes exploration of the “advantages and disadvantages of ‘philosophy’ for life”; meta-reflection on the political function of “philosophization” (cf. “scientization”) (“Please recognize us as real human beings because we are rational”); as well as the potential contributions of indigenous and “non-Western” religious adherents and communities. From my perspective, this would probably be the end of departments of Philosophy and possibly even (Western) Philosophy itself.

Strictly speaking, I am not a formal member and participant in the subfield of the Philosophy of Religion. My primary disciplinary locations are Daoist Studies and Religious Studies, including theory and method derived from and applicable to the comparative and cross-cultural study of “religion” in general and Daoism (Taoism) in particular. One subtext of these inquiries is the Orientalist construction of classical Daoism as so-called “philosophy” and organized Daoism as so-called “religion,” either without requisite critical reflection on either category or through simplistic social constructivist dismissals. It also involves deep skepticism and in fact criticism of the appropriative agendas and domesticating tendencies (and capitalist motivations), including internalized colonialism, of “Asian philosophy” and “Chinese philosophy,” and now even so-called “Daoist philosophy.” Simply stated, Daoism was a religious community from the beginning (ca. 300 BCE), emphasizing specific forms of contemplative practice (e.g., apophatic/quietistic meditation) aimed at mystical union with the Dào 道 (Tao/Way), the sacred and ultimate concern of Daoists. That is, what is referred to in Western discourse as “philosophy” involved a specific soteriology (ultimate purpose) and theology (sacred). Perhaps most challenging for conventional constructions of “philosophy,” there was a specific form of praxis, centering on what members of the inner cultivation lineages of classical Daoism referred to as “techniques of the Dao” (dàoshù 道術), which also is translated as “Arts of the Way.” (Interested readers may consult Harold Roth’s Original Tao [1999] and my own The Daoist Tradition [2013].)

With this in mind, I want to reimagine received Philosophy of Religion as having at least one branch focusing on what might be referred to as the “philosophy of praxis,” and perhaps an accompanying critical “praxis of philosophy.” Here we might begin by recalling that, classically speaking, philosophy involves philosophia (“love of wisdom”), and “wisdom” might in turn be investigated as a key comparative and cross-cultural category and concern. Like any comparative exercise, this of course requires investigating indigenous correlates (e.g., shèng 聖, zhì 智) and associated defining characteristics. Such an approach reveals different ways of perceiving, knowing, and being, ones that often challenge the assumptions, questions, and methods of conventional Philosophy of Religion. Simply consider the classical Daoist emphasis on (not)attaining the state/trait of “non-knowing” (wúzhī 無知). In the words of chapter twenty-six, not coincidentally titled “Wàiwù” 外物 (External Things [or Externalizing Things]), of the anonymous, fourth-second century BCE Zhuāngzi 莊子 (Book of Master Zhuāng), “Where can I find someone who has forgotten words (wàngyán 忘言) so that I can have a word with him?” This, in turn, parallels the emphasis on Daoism as the “teaching without/beyond words” (bùyán zhī jiào 不言之教) in the anonymous, fourth-second century BCE Dàodé jīng 道德經 (Scripture on the Dao and Inner Power).

Drawing upon Pierre Hadot (1922-2010) and the later Michel Foucault (1926-1984), with the latter indebted to the former, we might begin to develop a Philosophy of Religion that frames the field in terms of the investigation of “praxis,” specifically “spiritual exercises” (via Hadot) and “techniques of self” (via Foucault). Here philosophy is understood as a “way of life” (again via Hadot), as embodied, lived, and enacted. In place of excessive emphasis on disembodied thought and ideas, with the resultant insular rumination, this is philosophy on the ground and in the world. As expressed in Hadot’s revisionist reading of ancient Hellenistic philosophy, one researches the specific methods employed to transform character. This might include the concurrent practice of such reconstructions or parallel, living methods in our own socio-historical moment. Following Foucault, we may recognize and explore the ways in which personhood becomes embodied and transformed through particular cognitive modes. This is a more conscious way of being. As developed in my own work (see, e.g., Introducing Contemplative Studies [2018]), we may, in turn, engage “praxis” as a technical term encompassing specific views, methods, experiences, and goals, with each informing and expressing the others. Philosophy itself (or any discipline or undertaking for that matter) may be understood along these lines, and meta-reflection is required for determining if this is the form of praxis which interests us, to which we are committed, and which we aspire to enact.

Taking a specific example, we may consider classical Daoism, which is referred to as so-called “philosophical Daoism” in outdated and inaccurate Orientalist constructions of the tradition. This earliest Daoist religious community (ca. 350-ca. 150 BCE) consisted of a series of loosely-related inner cultivation lineages. Engaging in a radical (re)reading of the associated texts, in concert with applying Hadot and Foucault, we discover the central importance of apophatic and quietistic meditation, variously referred to as bàoyī 抱一 (“embracing the One”), shǒujìng 守靜 (“guarding stillness”), shǒuyī 守一 (“guarding the One”), shǒuzhōng 守中 (“guarding the Center”), xīnzhāi 心齋 (“fasting of the heart-mind”), and zuòwàng 坐忘 (“sitting-in-forgetfulness”). This type of meditation practice, which is primarily contentless, non-conceptual, and non-dualistic, is the root of the associated views. It informs and is informed by such well-known Daoist approaches, principles, values, qualities, and states/traits as wúwéi 無為 (“non-action”). In fact, it is possible, and perhaps necessary, to understand the latter as a form of contemplative deconditioning. Such an alternative and revisionist reading challenges and rectifies various conventional (and confused/confusing) “philosophical” readings that emphasize “relativism,” “skepticism,” and the like. In fact, the texts rather document and express contemplative and mystical views and modes. Here we find at least one glimpse into the future possibility of Philosophy of Religion, the (im)possibility of philosophy as a way of being and living in the world. This is, perhaps, a Lazarus taxon of the unseen animal that Wendell Berry’s daughter imagined.

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