Friday, December 9, 2011

who's afraid of realism? (post 5): immanence and transcendence

From Charles Sanders Peirce and a Religious Metaphysics of Nature (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011), 3-4.

In my judgment, the modality of possibility (or, pre-ordinally speaking, the infinitely dense layer of reality that is the supreme power of generation, potential—as opposed to mere conceptual possibility) serves to function as a basic, yet crucial, mechanism, if not primal ground, for such a disclosure. Many philosophers throughout the history of philosophy, for example Aristotle, Duns Scotus, Schelling, Heidegger, Sartre, and Jaspers, have struggled to clarify just how the modality of possibility relates to transcendence, whether personal or divine. These were philosophers of the natural, the existential, and the immanent, yet they acknowledged the possibility for transcendence, too. That thought can grasp the divine in some significant way was the philosophy of Plato, Plotinus, Augustine, Hegel, and Emerson. They were philosophers of the transcendent, but they also recognized the importance of the historical, existential, and embodied conditions that are required for what is transcendent to appear, to be disclosed, or to “immanentize” within human experience. Yet, in all of these accounts, a tension still remained between what is of this immanent world called “nature,” and what was thought to be a wholly other transcendent world, the supernatural “beyond” (even after Kant, who attempted to mediate such tensions through his “correlationism”)  


I believe that it was the American philosopher C. S. Peirce (1839-1914) who was one of the first philosophers to be sharply clear about the issue as he developed in a fully open triadic metaphysical structure one of the most evocative and insistent descriptions of a divine nature capable of mediating the tensions between natural and supernatural, immanent and transcendent, or finite and infinite. It was Peirce who, in his trichotomous metaphysics, ventured to articulate how a “beyond” (for him, God) may find disclosure through a primordial ground and modal category of real possibility (potential, spontaneity, chance, power, freedom, and creativity; that is, “Firstness”) that is accessible from within nature.  Because this ground is not purely abstract or rational, as in Hegel, it presents itself first as a feeling, and this, I think, helps make room for naturalized forms of transcendence to occur ... 


A distinction should be made between the transcendental (a metaphysically subterranean and infinitely dense layer of sacred potential or power, i.e., a ground of real modal tendencies that help to constitute the divine life, or, as called by some, nature naturing) and a plane of the actuated immanent (the existential representation of actualized divine potential). Stated in different terms, as Peirce fashioned his metaphysical categories, including the category of Firstness, he attempted to better understand the divine and cosmic relationship between the real modal conditions that establish the very possibility of nature/Being which underlie all of experience and these conditions’ corresponding interplay of existential actualization. It is important to note that these modal conditions underlie nature and establish its possibility as such, and so they are transcendental, but they are also “beyond” the sheer immediacy of any actualized experience, and so they are also transcendent, but not entirely so, for they are not absolutely disconnected from the wider realm of nature’s reality (here Jaspers’s notion of the Encompassing, an all-enveloping yet ontologically borderless reality, may be of aid). “Ecstatic transcendence” affords a glimpse into the transforming power of an infinite nature—the divine life—and in this transcendence Peircean Firstness, I think, is key.

[1].   In the American philosophical tradition the debate between what should properly be called “natural” or “nature” as opposed to what is deemed “supernatural” or “beyond” nature (what cannot be or even be meaningfully experienced and known) is a debate detailed in American Philosophic Naturalism in the Twentieth Century, ed. John Ryder (New York: Prometheus Books, 1994). “Correlationism” refers to the idea that the real of the world is to some extent unknowable (Kant’s noumenal, or perhaps the supernatural or transcendent) because human knowing is always to some extent conditioned. The term may be attributed to Quentin Meillassoux. See Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude (New York: Continuum, 2008), 5, 19, 20.
[2].   I use the term “structure” with intent. To say that Peirce maintained an “open” metaphysical philosophy with a triadic structure alludes to Hegel’s triadic system and the debate whether a metaphysical “system” by its very nature and definition should aim for closure (totality) in the description of what is most general. Peirce’s philosophy was an architectonic and its systematic features permitted revision to the overarching vision of the structure, thus the “openness” to his system (I see this trait in Whitehead’s philosophy as well, though it is more systematic, strictly speaking). Mainstays to Peirce’s architectonic were the general features and categories dictated by reality. Details of this debate may be found in Hegel and Whitehead: Contemporary Perspectives on Systematic Philosophy, ed. George Lucas (New York: SUNY Press, 1986); see especially Neville’s “Hegel and Whitehead on Totality: Failure of a Conception of System,” 86-109 and Van der Veken’s “A Plea for an Open, Humble Hegelianism,” 109-21. In handling the tensions between finite and infinite and immanent and transcendent, 20th-century philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze did grapple with the virtual or possible’s relationship to the plane of immanence, as well as with empiricism and transcendentalism, although I do believe that Deleuze did owe much to philosophers such as Whitehead who did not leave one wondering what is transcendental about the empirical, at least in clear or succinct terms (and thus the lack of a systematic approach in Deleuze). To add an additional point, interestingly Bergson’s and Whitehead’s ontologies are remarkably Peircean, and so given Deleuze’s indebtedness to Whitehead this makes Peirce’s treatment of possibility all the more important in this context. See Deleuze, Whitehead, Bergson: Rhizomatic Connections, ed. Keith Robinson (London: Palgrave Macmillan 2008).