Overcoming Ontotheology (Westphal)

Westphal, Merold.  Overcoming Ontotheology. New York, Fordham University Press, 2001.

This is a Christian, albeit sympathetic, reading of academic postmodernism as it has come to us via Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida.  It is not a treatment of the emergent church. That is not academic postmodernism.

Ontotheology is when someone treats God as another datum to be analyzed and uses this datum to explain all of reality.  Like all of Westphal’s books, this is very well-written and learned. Parts are even in German. There is a danger to this book:  both sides, modernist and postmodernist, and the Christians within both camps, might say that this book, and by extension Continental Philosophy, is the true philosophy.  Therefore, analytic philosophy is ontotheology. Even worse, they might argue that Continental philosophy = postmodernism. Westphal himself doesn’t do that, as he notes that some postmodernists like Rorty are closer to the analytic tradition in some ways.

For Heidegger, philosophy starts out as Being qua being, but this needs an Unmoved Mover to complete the system. For Heidegger, if we try to introduce God into this system, we can only do so on philosophy’s terms.

We will have to square up to Westphal’s use of the term “postmodern.”  By it he is simply denying that humans can have a “God’s-eye view” of Truth. He finds this in Plato’s claim of “the unaided intellect” which is purified from the senses (Phae 65e ff). Pure thought meets a pure object. 

What critics like Kant and Heidegger suggest is that we can never escape Time.  Our experience is always temporal. With this in mind, Westphal summarizes the leading postmodernists (Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Rorty, Heidegger, Derrida):

  1. All our experience is linguistically mediated.
  2. Every language is a conceptual scheme that lacks universality.
  3. Every language is contingent.
  4. Every language is a perspective.

Christian Philosophers and the Copernican Revolution

Westphal’s specific argument is that Kant’s claim to a thing-in-itself is not necessarily an anti-Christian claim.  Indeed, Westphal argues that Kant correlates (somehow) the phenomenal and noumenal worlds. For him, the distance between things-in-themselves and appearances is the way the world is versus the way I experience it.

Positive Postmodernism as Radical Hermeneutics

*Foundationalism is a replacing of mythos with logos.

The Hermeneutical Turn in Modern Continental Philosophy

The trace: something at work in my thinking that is not present now yet never has been fully present.

Laughing at Hegel

Mediation: mediation involves otherness.  Immediacy is its absence. At this level Hegel is a philosopher of difference. Hegel does hold to immediacy at one level, though.  Something is immediate in its being “self-evident,” yet it is not self-evident in itself. It is self-evident to us.

Immediacy is abstract self-relation and hence it is abstract identity (EL 74A). Immediacy is a product of social mediation, of our being in history.  Hegel’s argument is that immediacy can never exist at the level of abstraction, for then it would only give you the altar of the unknown god.

Immediacy tries to undo all of the relations that connect to us.

What does Hegel mean by “dialectics?” First, he doesn’t mean what you’ve been told by bloggers that he means.  He never uses that triad (thesis/antithesis = synthesis) in the way that you think he does. For him, and well for all of the philosophical tradition, dialectics is the negative point of reason (EL 81R).  Everything finite is its own sublation. Westphal suggests that this sublation, this aufhebung, is a recontextualization into the whole.

If you want a triad, it is this: abstract self-relation, mediation through another, and the self-mediation of the totality.

The Otherness of God and Ontological Xenophobia

I see where Horton got the “meeting a stranger” motif.  I agree that the Augustinian/Ps.-Dionysian project is more Neoplatonist than classical theists want to admit.  I just don’t think Derrida is the answer.

For the Neoplatonist et al, the goal of religion is “overcoming estrangement,” by which he means finitude.  For Covenant man, it is meeting a stranger who descends to us. In the former we ascend via negation. In the latter God descends to us.


Heidegger himself might not avoid his own criticism, for in saying we must go beyond the horizon of being to understand being, is he not putting being into intellectualist terms?


*He says Husserl’s process of epoche is an attempt to escape finitude.  I’m fairly certain Husserl is not doing that.  

* Westphal takes issue with Plantinga’s attack on Kant’s “creative anti-realism.” This hinges on whether Westphal’s theistic reading of Kant is tenable.  When read in light of Kant’s philosophy of religion, I don’t think it is.

* Finally, the pious churchgoer might wonder if there is any point in reading Derrida.  I would have to say no. Everything Derrida wants the Reformed already have in the archetypal distinction.  Further, while we agree with Heidegger that we should overcome ontotheology, God has already done so in being the God of the Covenant.


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