Friday, March 12, 2010

Hitler wasn't spiritual enough

The most popular European philosophical movement of the last generation has been "Deconstructionism" sometimes called "post-structuralism" or "postmodernism". Jacques Derrida 1930-2004) is usually named as the father figure of the movement.. Derrida believed that the history of Western philosophy had been a futile quest for a logos, i.e., a creative presence or original intelligence that gives meaning and purpose to all things, a transcendent Word or reference point from which all particular points get their bearings. In short, God or Reason.  Deconstructionism has been a sustained attack upon the idea of "Logos" and a rejection of the classical Western philosophical tradition.

Since Plato, "Logocentrists" have considered meaning to emanate  from some logos or original source that is pure and undefiled. So, for instance, if one wanted to understand Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, it was thought that he could, ideally, with enough background study, close reading, empathy, etc., arrive at the undefiled and original understanding of the work that Jane Austen possessed as she wrote it and sent it out into the world. Deconstructionists deny we can ever arrive at or even approximate to such an understanding. They reject the idea of knowing Jane Austen and claim we can only know the text and even the text can't be understood "objectively" since its meaning changes according to whoever is handling or reading it. There is no original construction to be had. So deconstructionists spend their time disabusing the rest of us of the notion that we objectively know any text, event, person or thing. Everything is perspectival and malleable.

This is a revolution in Western thought. Historically, examples of the rejected Logos would include:

  • Plato’s Forms,
  • John’s Logos,
  • Augustine’s Trinity,
  • Descartes’ Mind,
  • Kant’s "Thing in Itself",
  • Hegel’s "Idea" or "Absolute Spirit" 
  • Coleridge’s "I Am that I Am".
  • Sometimes this logos becomes internalized and is known as the absolute self or transcendent ego.
Derrida sees all these efforts as failures. There is no pure and undefiled source of meaning from which we can gain orientation to life's ultimate purpose. No great I Am, no Ideal Form, no knowing the thing-in-itself, no Logos. 

 According to the "logocentrist", the purpose of all art and language is to point back to this original pure and undefiled source. Louis Markos in his lecture series From Plato to Postmodernism traces this history. He also describes Derrida's immediate predecessors. For example,
  • Nietzsche who did away with concepts like Being and Truth.
  • Freud who dismissed the subjective Self as a reliable transcendent presence.
  • Heidegger who did away with a pre-existent, eternal Being or "I Am". 
In my read of things, Nietzsche really deserves the credit for the grand break with the "logocentric" tradition of classical, scholastic, enlightenment and Catholic confidence in Reason. Nietzsche described our culture's killing not only of God but of Reason.

So what happens when we've lost any sense of ultimate meaning but can't deny the abiding power of art and language in our lives. That's where Heidegger and his fascination with language was so important and why his lapse into Nazism was so instructive. When we reject God as the source of ultimate meaning, we don't reject all meaning. We are meaning seeking creatures and are driven to locate the source of meaning in something other than God. We fill the vacuum left in our hearts. Even Nazism was plausible to the man who rejected any sense of logos.

Martin Heidegger wasn't the only thinker in this genealogy of elite postmodern thought to be stained by contact with Nazism. Derrida, a Jew himself, was taken by surprise to find that his friend and colleague Paul de Man (1919-1983) had been a Nazi collaborationist during WWII. De Man had also displayed a sophisticated anti-semitism in some of his letters. This must have been especially vexing for Derrida since, coincidentally, his friendship with de Man began at the very conference in which Derrida came to public notice with his 1966 seminal essay "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." He should have loved the irony. At the very conference that launched the most popular academic assault on "logocentrism" in our generation, a irrational and barbaric ghost of Europe's rejection of Christianity hung over this next generation's new spokesman. The shadow of the twisted cross was cast across the lecture hall. Derrida, however, went on to defend Heidegger and de Man refusing to see what we fogey logocentrists thought we saw: Deny God and dance with the devil.

In a 1982 article I just stumbled on tonight, "Heidegger is no Hero", Ivan Strenski points out that the Nazis disappointed Heidegger, de Man and others like him mainly because they were not as “spiritual” as some followers had believed them to be. They settled down to administration and forsook the spiritual revolution Heidegger seemed to have welcomed in 1933.

"Heidegger’s reversal, then, was not so much away from a spiritual ideology which he genuinely believed Hitler embodied, but merely away from the F├╝hrer’s failure to live up to Heidegger’s Nazi ideals. Say what one will about the dubious quality of Heidegger’s judgment here, the problem for his interpreters seems to remain one of demonstrating that his later philosophical views are any less dubious than his earlier ones -- especially as they are rooted in the manner in which he lived."

Kresta theology point: Pope John Paul II was intimately acquainted with both the political and philosophical consequences of rejecting the Word, the Logos and he lamented Europe's postmodern condition much as Jesus wept over Jerusalem as His people rejected the Logos made flesh.

“I would like to mention in a particular way the loss of Europe’s Christian memory and heritage, accompanied by a kind of practical agnosticism and religious indifference whereby many Europeans give the impression of living without spiritual roots and somewhat like heirs who have squandered a patrimony entrusted to them by history. It is no real surprise, then, that there are efforts to create a vision of Europe that ignores its religious heritage and, in particular, its profound Christian soul, asserting the rights of the peoples who make up Europe without grafting those rights onto the trunk that is enlivened by the sap of Christianity…

“This loss of Christian memory is accompanied by a kind of fear of the future. Tomorrow is often presented as something bleak and uncertain. The future is viewed more with dread than with desire. Among the troubling indications of this are the inner emptiness that grips many people and the loss of meaning in life. The signs and fruits of this existential anguish include, in particular, the diminishing number of births, the decline in the number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and the difficulty, if not the outright refusal, to make lifelong commitments, including marriage…." 

May his insight motivate us in our work of the New Evangelization. As Europe declines as the center of world Christianity, might America experience a baptism of Catholic spirituality and a confirmation to follow a path unlike her European parents. Then again, the future vitality of the Church may emanate from Africa. In any case, if God's judgment in history collapses Western political, economic and philosophical preeminence, we need not be afraid. Isn't it another opportunity to cast out into the deep and toss out our nets. As for Heidegger, de Man and the rest of us, the divine mercy promises that, for the sake of His sorrowful Passion, none of us need to be defined by our own worst act. The Logos has redefined, regenerated and redeemed us.


  1. Mr. Kresta, I've enjoyed your reflections this week. Judging by the time that this article was posted, this topic is something that you have been chewing upon.

    I've always wondered something about deconstructionists - and I apologize that I can't ask this question in a more personal way than over the internet but I must - and that is: why do they bother to tell us their theories? If we don't find the Logos (or logos if you will) essentially outside of our finite existence, then ignoring the logical problems (oops, I guess I can't use that word!), err, that-which-flows-from-one-statement-to-the-next problems of such a stance, why bother to tell people it? Either you want them to know because you adhere to some benevolent attitude which even darkly resembles a halfway shadow of Christian Charity and you want them to break free of the Logos, or you're just spouting an incorrect theory to sell books.

    Since we're all at least partial-Aristotlians here: it all seems awfully contradictory.


    Matthew Wade

  2. Again you invoke the memory of johnpaul the great,as you also ignore his teachings on this tragic immoral invasion of iraq and afhganastan.You also reject the logos as you discuss torture rather then condemm our inhumane torture of innocent civilians for mere political reasons.You embrace the the bushes,cia,and military bombings and blockades.All of which john paul the great called immoral.The logos spoke through him.Please be true to who you are.You are not pro-life catholics.You have sadly joined the catholic world with the protestant/pro-death/culture.You ignore the memory of the vicar of christ-the way the bush/masonic/dynasty did...elliot

  3. elliot
    What specific words of JP2 do Catholics ignore, who "embrace" Bush's leadership?


  4. Eliot,
    Thanks for writing although I don't understand your persistent distortions.

    Who are you describing? I reject the use of torture based on the CCC and other magisterial documents. Try listening to my interviews with Fr. Joseph Koterski and Dr. Kevin Lee and Fr. Brian Harrison if you want to hear serious Catholics work through this application of Catholic moral teaching.

    On Afghanistan, you are also simply mistaken. JP II declared that the attack upon the Taliban fell under the criteria of a just war.

    Further, I have almost always opposed blockades as a tactic on the grounds that the poor are the most hurt and the wealthiest are the least hurt in such action. Military historians, however, are divided on their efficacy which is a different question than that of morality.

    You must be confusing Kresta in the Afternoon with some other program or you're just more interested in political theatre than truthtelling.

    Try again but each time I hear from you it's like receiving a hairball some cat has coughed up. The shape is a bit different than the last one but all the same hairs are wierdly intertwined, tapped down and molted together.

  5. Matthew,
    You've put your finger on what I believe is a great aid in successful evangelism/apologetics. People can't live consistently within their presuppositions concerning God and the world and human nature, if they have rejected the Infinite, personal Triune God who reveals himself in Christ and through His Church.

    We are meaning seeking creatures and we expect others to get our meaning. We are morally judging creatures and we expect that people should be fair to us. If they are not, we make judgments. A person must be able to live consistently with the apparent design in the universe as well as his aspirations for love, significance and purpose as well as his capacity to make moral judgments.

    Francis Schaeffer tells the story back in the 50s or 60s of talking with a college age existentialist who kept insisting that he and Schaeffer weren't "communicating". (Sounds like a line from Cool Hand Luke.) Schaeffer, recognizing, that this was simply an attempt to evade real communication, asked for a pot of hot tea. When he go the pot of tea, he held it over the fellow's head with the clear threat of pouring the scalding liquid over his scalp. When he then asked the young man, "Would you like me to pour you some tea?" the fellow said, "No, no, What the heck are you doing?" Schaeffer set the teapot aside and said, "Now we are communicating."

    I was watching a film of Derrida last night basking in his elitist notion that somehow most people are incapable of understanding him.

    Yet, the truth is he wants to be understood and believes that people can understand him or else he wouldn't write. He can claim that there is no "objective" meaning but he will not be shy about about telling you where you misunderstand him.

    Everyone has faith in some unverifiable assumptions, some First principles. We can't escape assumptions about objective truth, moral judgment or apparent design or purpose. What worldview best fits these phenomena of naive and pretheoretical human experience. Aren't these assumptions properly basic to our functioning as healthy humans?

    The way I resolve the issue is to ask what set of assumptions conform most closely to my experience in the world and enable me to live an intellectually consistent and emotionally satisfied and spiritually open life.

    I love to tell the story of the random composer John Cage who was also a respected mycologist, i.e., a collector and categorizer of mushrooms. If Cage collected and ate mushrooms with the same degree of abandon and random composition that he applied to his music, he would be dead. His music made a metaphysical statement that he couldn't live by when he was collecting mushrooms.

    My plane to Fort Myers is arriving and I've got to cut this short. Write soon.

  6. I just found this article by Fr. John McCloskey that I think is a great complement to this post.


  7. Can we really have an "objective" understanding of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice?

    That question reminds me of one of my favorite movie lines. It's in a silly Rodney Dangerfield movie called Back To School. Dangerfield plays Thornton Melon, whose "Tall and Fat" clothing stores made him rich. When he finds out that his son wants to quit college, he decides to enroll at the same college, both to encourage his son and to get the college experience he never had. However, he uses his money to hire people to do his homework. He takes a literature class taught by Professor Diane Turner (Sally Kellerman) and gets an assignment to write a paper about Kurt Vonnegut. Thornton hires Vonnegut (in a cameo) to write the paper. Turner gives Melon an F because she could tell it was not his own work. She tells him: "Whoever did write it doesn't know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut."

    It's a favorite line of mine because I had a know-it-all co-worker (who was a big Rush Limbaugh fan) tell me that I should read the portion of The Brothers Karamazov called The Grand Inquisitor. This co-worker was certain that Dostoevsky was an atheist who intended to show the absurdity of Christianity. I read it, but I also happened upon a little book about it at a local college bookstore: I think it must have been the newly published book Dostoevsky - The Grand Inquisitor (click on the "look inside" and read the introduction). When I skimmed through it, I learned Dostoevsky's true intentions: he threw his best shots at Christianity, but Christianity ultimately wins. Needless to say, I was eager to tell my co-worker friend what I had learned.

  8. If you want to see the part of Back To School about Kurt Vonnegut, you can watch it here on YouTube.

  9. 1 Corinthians 13:12

    "At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known."