November 24, 2010


-EXCERPT: Introduction: Epistemological Backdrop (Michael Oakeshott's Skepticism by Aryeh Botwinick)

The epochal location at which Oakeshott is situated in the history of skepticism affords us a unique opportunity for reassessing the larger metaphysical import and background
postulates of skepticism. What the theoretical trajectory of Oakeshott’s career dramatizes for us are the inextricable theoretical fortunes of religious belief and skepticism. There is a very pronounced religious impulse animating skepticism. A world comprehended from start to finish from the perspective of a lack of finality of judgment is a world that negatively recaptures the prospect of wholeness: none of our intellectual schemata have an unreserved claim to truth. The truth (if it exists) is beyond us and elsewhere. The skeptic restores to God the conceptually empty universe that He bequeathed to us at the moment of Creation—indirectly
reaffirming by his critical renunciations the space that God occupies.

This book is devoted to making the case that on grounds of reasoned argument skepticism issues forth in mysticism. The skeptic is driven to question everything—except his own deployment of skepticism. To be consistent, he needs to turn the critical engine of skepticism inward in relation to the tenets of skepticism themselves. However, to preserve protocols of consistency, he cannot merely dilute skepticism to the level of a generalized agnosticism—so that what results is a tepid, irresolute maintenance of both skepticism and its critical targets. To be consistently applied, the skeptical questioning of skepticism must encompass a thick,
full-blooded rehabilitation of all of the objects of skeptical attack. The theoretical mandate of skepticism extends to making the “yes” of skepticism as resoundingly rich as its “no.” Whatever objects are devastated by skepticism need, according to the internal logic of skepticism itself, to be thoroughly rehabilitated by it. This interminable oscillation between rejection and affirmation yields a mystically saturated world where all of the defining markers of human existence simultaneously are and are not. Under the prism of skepticism, the completely familiar world is exposed as a tissue of defamiliarized possibilities—permanently coexisting with and reconfiguring what on one level we believe we are encountering on a regular basis. In the skeptical-mystical universe of our daily habitation, suspended animation becomes a precondition for a recognizable human universe. The conjunction—or, better still, the confluence—of skepticism and mysticism works to clarify the meaning and status of belief in God as well. The God of all three sets of monotheistic scriptures needs to be conceived as being Absolutely One—utterly transcendent—completely beyond human projection and imagining. If He bore any literal resemblance to things human—if His attributes overlapped with ours in any way—then God would have been situated in a comparative framework with ourselves, and no matter how superlatively superior He was to us in the display of those attributes, His radical and unique Oneness would have been tarnished and undermined. The way to remain faithful to the postulational requirement of God’s Unqualified Oneness is to posit Him as subsisting in an infinite dimension, so that all of our descriptions of Him remain irreducibly metaphoric. However, it is precisely at this point that a parallel contradiction and paradox that we noticed emerging with regard to skepticism resurfaces in relation to the biblical teaching concerning God. If God as a matter of definitional and conceptual necessity must be postulated as “occupying” an infinite dimension, then to know that the traditional epithets of monotheistic religion—such as “omnipotent,” “omniscient,” and “all-merciful”—cannot be applied to Him in a literal sense is already to have pierced through the impassable barrier to infinity in order to know which descriptions need to be ruled out. From a somewhat different angle of vision, we can say that if biblical religion affords us a notion of God only for the sake of parsing away the literal descriptions that religious texts and our own imaginations project unto Him, then in what sense can we be said to be working with an intelligible and sustainable notion of God? If God is only there to be perpetually deliteralized, how can we understand ourselves to be relating to—and speaking about—God at all? Where—and who—is the subject concerning whom these acts of deliteralization occur? Our logical predicament with regard to God nudges us into a pattern of response that is similar to the one we mobilized in relation to the perplexities surrounding skepticism.

The infinity of God debars us from saying both that He is and that He is not—and from coherently assessing how our human vocabularies might impinge upon and reflect His being. The community of believers is forever oscillating between statements and descriptions of Him—and a neutralization and cancellation of those statements and descriptions as being inadequate to or contradictory of the task of reporting who and what He is. Our relationship to God in biblical religion—just as our relationship to the everyday world and to specialized worlds such as science and history invented by human beings over the course of the generations, when viewed from the perspective of skepticism—remains irredeemably, unremittingly mystical. We simultaneously inhabit a “yes” and a “no” without the possibility of permanent release from the one type of response into the other.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 24, 2010 3:33 PM
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