March 17, 2012


Simon Criotchley Interview (Jonny Gordon-Farleigh, Stir)
With the publication of his new book The Faith of the Faithless, I spoke to philosopher Simon Critchley about why a counterfactual faith is so important to modern politics, why it offers an "archive of possibilities" for those involved in political transformation, why there is still an obsession with "big men", and what the the true political terrain is today... [...]

Simon Critchley: [...]

For me, I've never been a particularly secularist thinker and I've never had a strong faith in the ideas of secular modernity.  I've had a huge interest, as long as I've been aware of such things, in religious thinkers like Paul, Pascal, Augustine and many others.  It seems to me that if you start from some idea that philosophy or theory has to do without religion then you are cutting yourself off from that incredibly useful archive of possibilities.  So, I think that philosophy is inconceivable without religion, or shouldn't be done without religion as it shouldn't be done only with religion.  I am not a theist in that sense.  It means using the best and most powerful ideas in that tradition for other ends.  Of the people who have gone back to using religious sources to think about politics, then I would say that Alain Badiou's Saint Paul is the most powerful.

The question for me is two-fold.  Firstly, it is diagnostic:  to understand the nature of political forms is to think of them as different forms of sacralisation.  In my view, I have this idea that the history of political forms -- fascism, liberal democracy, Stalinism -- is different forms of the sacral.  There is always some sacred object: the nation, the people, the race, or whatever it might be.  So, rather than seeing the history of politics as the movement from the religious to the secular, I see politics as a shift in the meaning of the sacred.

For me, that is an incredibly useful diagnostic tool when you are, say, looking at political forms in a country like the one I am living in (the US), where an incredibly powerful political theology exists in terms of American civil religion which is able to exert a unusual power over citizens and using that to find out how that works.  [...]

Stir: Many of Terry Eagleton's forays into political theology have been to argue that faith is performative rather propositional.  Does this chime with your claims in the book about the nature of faith?

SC: I am very close to Terry's concerns and maybe as time goes on I will get even closer to them.  His trajectory is one where he started off as a radical catholic and then became a Marxist.  In a sense, nothing has really changed because the object of critique is the same: liberal democracy and the secular theology that underpins it - human rights, freedom, individuality, and so on.

Faith, for me, is not theistic.  It does not require a belief in some metaphysical entity like God.  Faith is a subjective proclamation.  It is a proclamation in a relationship, in my jargon, with a demand.  It places a demand on you so that you can bind yourself as an ethical or political subject.  That is the way it works.

Now, if we have a strange situation where there are people, like myself for example, who are faithless but have an experience of faith in relationship to an infinite demand, say, the prohibition of murder or the furthering of equality.  Then there are people where that faith is underwritten by some theistic reality in their worldview.  My view is that it makes no difference at the subjective level:  the belief in God is neither here nor there.  It is a useless distraction.  It does not matter what you believe but rather how you act.

Of course, the infinite demand is a metaphysical entity like God. The personal view that Mr. Critchley is here describing is the one that differentiated Anglospheric philosophy from Continental and saved us from Modernity: given that we can never have any metaphysical certitude about anything, all that matters is our faith.

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Posted by at March 17, 2012 7:00 AM

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