Recèsse de l'Abîme

From a letter to a friend. The logical structure of intentionality. Self-consciousness as an infinite regress of self-representation and self-interpretation. A semiotic recasting of Reinhold Niebuhr's existentialist interpretation of the Fall in terms of anxiety over the threat of nothingness. The human being as embodied self-contradiction. Clement of Alexandria, anhypostatic christology, and an intentional model of prayer.

Hey, it's just everybody's favorite light conversational topics, over dinner at a Chinese restaurant on the north side of Davenport, Iowa, eh? Reprinted by permission.

Sitting here early Tuesday morning. Got home last night without incident, thanks to Firestone. Will try to supply you with bibliography of our discussion yesterday.

Barth's defense of a strong form of the filioque is to be found somewhere in his Church Dogmatics (over in the church office, sorry). Many Western theologians will admit a formulation along the lines of "the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son"-- conceding that the role of Father and Son in the procession of the Spirit is asymmetric-- but not Barth. (Here I think Barth is wrong.) Interestingly enough, many Eastern theologians are willing to admit that this variation on the filioque is formally correct-- but refuse to admit it for the reason that, historically, such a formulation served as a stalking horse for attempts to deny the full divinity of the Spirit. I wonder whether this Orthodox attitude isn't a pneumatological correlate to the fact that the East has always had a firmer grasp, historically, on the actuality of the Incarnation than the West had until the past few centuries; but that Eastern christologies often nonetheless appear to the Western eye, formally, as hovering on the brink of docetism.

(How can they be further from this danger than us, in terms of the historical substance of their theology, and yet closer in terms of the impression their way of formulating it gives off? Just look at an icon...)

The book-length theology of prayer by von Balthasar is, I believe, simply entitled Prayer. Another article on the subject I've found helpful is "Prayer and Personality: Prayer as Primary Speech," by Ann and Barry Ulyanov, in Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, Edward Yarnold, eds., The Study of Spirituality (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 24-32. It seems to me that the Ulyanovs have since completed a book on the subject-- seems I may have seen it at that Catholic book store in Davenport back in December-- but don't know the title.

Where are there any good pneumatologies? I don't know of any. Am sure Berkouwer has written a volume on the Holy Spirit (as he has on every other traditional locus of the old Protestant Orthodox theology), and I have a volume by Michael Ramsey entitled Holy Spirit sitting on my bookshelf. But Barth died before he could start on the Church Dogmatics volume V.1, the Doctrine of Redemption. (His projected title for it, according to Art Cochrane.) Usually, theologians have settled for writing ecclesiologies or eschatologies, and the typical ecclesiology is even further from concrete reality than the worse of the eschatologies are from reason or relevance. (Hence my remark last night that the operative categories in ecclesiology should be "faithful" and "unfaithful," rather than "visible" and "invisible.")

Josiah Royce (d. 1916) wrote many books, most of them in philosophy; but of great ecclesiological interest is his The Problem of Christianity, with a new introduction by John E. Smith (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1968; orig. edn., the Macmillan Company, 1918). This book is very much worth reading. It is densely textured, but surprisingly simple to read; deceptively so, in light of the technical apparatus underlying Royce's argument.

But Royce manages to keep the moving parts out of sight. For them, you will have to go to two articles he wrote. "The Relation of the Principles of Logic to the Foundations of Geometry," Transactions of the American Mathematical Society 6(1905):353-415, develops Royce's "System Sigma" in the vein of pure formal logic. The implications thereof for the philosophy of science (and for a general philosophical perspective on the nature of human judgment!) are developed in "The Principles of Logic," in Logic, Volume I in the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, ed. Arnold Ruge (London: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1913).

Royce's "calculus of modes of action" bears some resemblance to Peirce's work on intentionality, but minus representation as an element irreducible to interpretation. The best introduction to a Peircean perspective on intentionality, which also draws out the parallels with Husserl, Brentano, and Thomas Aquinas, is T[homas] L. Short, "Semeiosis and Intentionality," in the Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society. My own application of this to an intentional model of prayer, briefly(!) excerpted from chapter 3 of my dissertation (Copyright ©1991 Paul M. Burgess, all rights reserved):

In the semiotic structure of the prayer of confession, we have isolated four elements: (1) an embodied sign which is the community of faith; (2) an act, the community praying, which is an interpretant of this sign; (3) a further interpretant which is the intention of the prayer; and (4) an object which is the condition of the second element leading from the first to the third. Note that we can neither deduce the fourth element from the other three, nor does the third element necessarily eventuate from the first two, except as it is determined to do so by the fourth element.

But this is essentially an example of the sort of intentional semiotic structure which Peirce discusses in his analysis of "Logical Interpretants" (5.470-492), and which Thomas Short has extended into a Peircean model of intentionality. "[An] event, A, produces a second event, B, as a means to the production of a third event, C." (5.473) And B "interprets A as signifying an object, O, which, if it obtains, would make B a means for achieving C." Such a model of intentionality is comparable to other accounts of intentionality, from the medieval scholastics up to the present.

There is much more to this semiotic model of prayer as intentionality than we have room to develop at this point. We will mark only one further minor adjustment, borrowed from the Thomistic account of intentionality, which is that an intentional act may be directed at once toward several objects, though toward only one final end: thus, God is the final end of this prayer of confession, as of every prayer, and among the other ends intended are "delighting in [God's] will" and "walking in [God's] ways." Similarly in its representational function, the prayer represents God as its ultimate object, but in addition the prayer self-referentially represents finite objects such as the community of faith.

You will notice that this makes intentionality entirely a function of the triadic structure of signs in their teleological orientation. The self-referentiality is also important, as this is where we get a foot in the door on an analysis of the role, within human judgment, of self-consciousness.

But self-consciousness is also the point where the potential for sin arises. (See Augustine!) Human self-consciousness gives rise, within the person, to a sort of self-referential infinite regress. If you've ever stood between two parallel mirrors, you may have noticed how each mirror contains a string of mirrors-within-mirrors-within-mirrors-within-mirrors, stretching away to infinity. If a self-referential map could contain a copy of itself without any loss of detail, it would contain a similar infinite regress. I myself was introduced to this notion at age three, through a cup I had, which was called a "Tommy Tippee" cup (I think they still sell them): on the cup is a picture of a bear, who is drinking from the same kind of cup, on which is a picture of that same bear, drinking from a cup on which there is a picture of the bear drinking from a cup on which there is a picture of the bear drinking...

The French have a wonderful term for this kind of structure: recsse de l'abme. And this structure, as it arises within self-consciousness, does indeed give us a sort of sense of vertigo, of hanging suspended by nothing over an infinite abyss. As semiosis involves both representation and interpretation, so self-consciousness involves both self-representation and self-interpretation; and the rub lies in the lack of fit, within the human being, between these two self-referential functions.

I don't know where the philosophical formulation of this first arose-- you will certainly find it in full-blown form in existentialist philosophy. I think Kierkegaard is getting at something of the sort, in his Philosophical Fragments, when he discusses the Absolute Paradox between our Reason, and our Passion for God; but Kierkegaard is quite dense in this passage, so am not sure that he is saying quite what I am trying to say.

Reinhold Niebuhr, in The Nature and Destiny of Man, expresses this paradox at the heart of human nature as a tension between human finiteness and human self-transcendence. (Cf. self-representation and self-interpretation.) Any attempt to come to grips with this tension always issues in paradox, or "reveals some presupposition or implication which seems to deny what [one] intended to affirm." As Niebuhr goes on to argue, most of the polar contrasts in modern culture can be analyzed as expressions of this fundamental tension in human nature (note also theological correlation with Word and Spirit).

I think Calvin somewhere describes human nature as "that which is always outstripping itself toward God"? As Niebuhr puts it, the human being "can transcend himself in infinite regression and cannot find the end of life except in God." Or, in Augustine's classic formulation: "O Lord... you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."

At any rate, this internal infinite regress gives rise to the impression that we, as human beings, are trying to suspend ourselves in mid-air by our own bootstraps; that there is no point at infinity to which the infinite regress converges, so that human self-reference becomes a vacuous and vicious circle. In existentialist terms, this is the threat of annihilation which arises out of our confrontation with Nothingness, and out of the human reaction to which the Fall precipitates.

My technical analysis of this, in chapter 6, is interesting enough that I venture to excerpt it here (pardon me if I omit my footnotes):

We can model this situation by considering our semiotic model of self-consciousness. The human being as a sign A0 of self as a human being A, gives rise to an indefinite sequence of interpretants A1, A2,..., each of which is a further sign of the human being, A, itself an embodied sign. We can diagram the structure of this process more or less as follows:

Each arrow indicates a perhaps somewhat vague logical determination. In its interpretive function, human self-consciousness is indefinite and open, an unending sequence of interpretants open to further future development and determination. In its representational function, human self-consciousness is continually being directly re-presented as a finite, bounded, embodied sign in a world of signs. Since the process is in fact one of self-representation, what is being presented is, more or less vaguely, A = A0, A = A1, A = A2,... , that is, more or less vaguely:

To the degree that self-representation and self-interpretation are rendered precise, this sequence of determinations would approximate to the sequence of direct logical implications:

But such a recsse de l'abme is the logical equivalent of the negation of A, ~A (2.356). Thus, self-consciousness paradoxically seems-- by its very logical constitution as both self-representation and self-interpretation-- more or less vaguely to entail its own negation: . In Peirce's "existential graphs," the proposition is represented by an empty graph, which in logical terms stands for a null universe of discourse (cf. 4.395-396, 4.567).

Such anxiety is not itself sin, argues Niebuhr, but is rather an ambiguous precondition both of sin and of creativity. There is the "ideal possibility" that anxiety would come to rest in a perfect trust of God's love. However, in actuality, anxiety always leads to pride and sensuality.

Man falls into pride, when he seeks to raise his contingent existence to unconditioned significance; he falls into sensuality when he seeks to escape from his unlimited possibilities of freedom.

Of these, pride is "more basic" than sensuality: as we have seen, both self-representation and self-interpretation become objects of judgment within self-consciousness only through a further act of self-interpretive judgment (5.86). Pride manifests itself in ideological pretensions to knowledge, in the will to power, in the self-contained possession of good in self-righteousness; the last of these tends, in the limit, toward the explicit self-deification of spiritual pride. And in each of these, pride displays a peculiar dishonesty, as if the self must deceive itself regarding itself through a sort of "willing ignorance," and then deceive others as well, so that "If others will only accept what the self cannot quite accept, the self as deceiver is given an ally against the self as deceived."

In semiotic terms, the self-negation somewhat vaguely implicit in self-consciousness would remain as an "uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves" (5.372) by seeking, through ongoing self-interpretation, to remove the source of irritation. The human being who is not content to leave this paradox in its vagueness (that is, at least tacitly, under the ultimate disposition of God) would have to attempt to precide this vagueness by self-interpretively rendering the self as a sign more definite. But this would be to intend to leave further determination of the self up to the self, and so, at least by intention, to render the self as sign general to the future self and vague to God (cf. 5.446-449). To do this would be to assume control over oneself and over one's world of signs. It would also be virtually the opposite of that attitude of obedience to God's will which we have traced in worship as judgment.

Such efforts at self-control might assume many forms; but in the final analysis, as our model of self-consciousness suggests, they would amount to self-interpretively abstracting the self either from self-representation or from self-interpretation. Such a self-interpretation, like any act of judgment, would be intended for further interpretation as "a command to one's future self" (5.487). But this further interpretant would be self-conscious, hence an interpretation and a representation of the self, in its own right. So when the real triadic relations in which this further interpretant stands, conflict with the self-precided interpretation which the earlier interpretant commands the further interpretant to interpret-- as they inevitably but not necessarily would-- this further interpretant would be placed in a situation of pragmatic paradox.

For it can accept as a self-interpretation the self-precided interpretation urged upon it only by accepting the unwarrantable abstraction from self-representation or self-interpretation which that self-precided interpretation embodies, quite in defiance of its own self-interpretation and self-representation. And it can challenge this self-precided interpretation only by becoming itself a further self-representation of what it judges the earlier interpretant really to have represented; but to do this would be to accuse the earlier interpretant of having been a liar precisely in its self-interpretive attempt to escape the vague threat of total self-negation. Thus, whether its judgment amounts to "yes" or "no," the further interpretant becomes a further sign of pragmatic paradox.

But this is to say that self-consciousness as such, whenever it assumes self-control in this manner, sets in motion a process of ongoing fragmentation and further self-abstraction from within which there is no escape, no matter which way the dilemma is interpreted.

Something not unlike this, from a Roman Catholic perspective, is behind the thought-structure of Walker Percy's novels, and of many of his essays, as in The Message in the Bottle.

It's also interesting to notice how many places in popular culture, in the twentieth centure, similar notions have popped up, often with the idea that the potential "nullness" of the infinite regress in human self-consciousness leaves us free to write ourselves our own "blank check" drawn on the "bank of existence." Look everywhere from Joseph Campbell to Douglas Hofsteder, to almost any "New Age" interpretation of quantum physics, logical recursion, philosophy of science, fractals and the new mathematics of chaos, etc. (If you belong to Book-of-the-Month Club, you can obtain a book entitled Turbulent Mirror: An Illustrated Guide to Chaos Theory and the Science of Wholeness, by John Briggs and F. David Peat, which is a classic example of this sort of metaphysical confidence game. Key metaphor of the volume: the universe as a "symphony in perfect harmony, without any conductor.")

In the midst of all this, you begin to see the importance of a rigorous and precise intentional model of prayer-- centered in an analysis of the prayer life of Jesus Christ. One project I intend to work on, one of these days. Of course, it is this self-referential infinite regress that is precisely the theoretical obstacle to constructing such a model, in the case of Jesus. For you and me, the regress doesn't matter, since for us this regress can "converge at infinity" on one other than ourselves, namely Jesus Christ; that "externality" of the convergence is precisely how and why we can end up, through the Spirit, not hanging in the void, pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, playing in a symphony without a conductor, engaging in metaphysical check-kiting schemes, etc. (It is also why I can't buy into any form of panentheism, God as "being itself" rather than a being, etc...)

But as Reinhold Niebuhr puts it somewhere in another of his works, one of the key points of christology is that "Jesus Christ has no other who stands to him as he stands to us." Put otherwise, any self-referential regress in which Christ partakes must be a mutual self-referentiality of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not just a self-referentiality of the Son alone. Put still another way, the triune being of God and the essentially "unitarian" being of the creature are incommensurable with each other.

Which is part of the reason why the Incarnation is such a headache, intellectually. Chalcedon tells us that our christologies must not divide the divinity and humanity of Christ along any qualitative or quantitative lines. What our christologies may do, is a good deal less clear. Clearly, some sort of distinction must be drawn (else we tend toward monophysitism), but it cannot amount to any kind of division or separation. (Cf. the Reformed christological catch-phrase: "distinctio sed non separatio.") The only obvious distinction within the human being, which is at the same time qualitatively and quantitatively indivisible, is the human being's status as a "logical subject," that is, as the unique and irreplaceable actor that one is on the stage of existence; the one who is the grammatical subject of which statements about hc homo are predicated. (Babu Latin? But you know what I mean.)

The solution of Cyril of Alexandria was to say that, in Jesus Christ, it is the Logos himself who is the logical subject. (Well, actually, the "hypostasis," but it works out much the same.) In every act which Jesus Christ undertakes, the divinity and the humanity are co-present as regards every quantitative distinction which might be drawn (hence, no lapse into apollinarianism), and also as regards every quality that might be predicated of him (hence, no nestorianism: the communicatio idiomatum is preserved); but it is the Logos, and the Logos alone, who is the actor and the grammatical subject. The humanity of Christ is not a matter of hiccity, not a matter of the hc but simply of the homo in hc homo.

That is, in the incarnation the Logos has assumed, not a particular human nature, but human nature in general. For a philosophical realist, that means that the humanity of Jesus is, literally and ontologically, the humanity that will be ours eschatologically.

This gets one around the problem of having to posit within the Godhead a kind of self-referentiality proportionate to the creature, that is, a self-referentiality which is a real vestigium trinitatis but nonetheless essentially "unitarian." The same kind of self-referentiality we find in ourselves is also to be found in the humanity of Christ; but it is not "hooked" to his status as logical subject the way the recsse de l'abme within you and me is "hooked" to our existential status as concrete actors "thrown" into "a world we never made" (more existentialist jargon.)

So this kind of "anhypostatic" christology preserves certain fine distinctions which would otherwise threaten to collapse. But it creates other problems. Cyril of Alexandria (like Geoffrey Wainwright, who is the one who pounded this kind of christology into me) was often suspected of being a closet docetist. Also, as D.M. Baillie argues in God Was in Christ: An Essay on Incarnation and Atonement (London: Faber and Faber, 1948), the anhypostasis threatens to render any account of the prayer life of Jesus Christ unintelligible. If the "actor" in every action of Jesus Christ is the Logos, then just who is praying to God the Father? Cyril would have a hard time giving an answer convincing to Baillie.

Well, I see I've produced a whole monograph here, and typed away most of the morning in the process. Much of my thinking here, particularly in the latter part of the letter, is off the cuff, i.e., out at or beyond the "cutting edge" of my current thinking on the subject. I suspect my own intentional model of prayer has a positive contribution to make to all this-- and thus, in the long run, to a detailed pneumatology, as we were discussing yesterday-- but I have office work to get done yet before a pastoral visit this afternoon, so will leave that for another time.


(s) Paul

P.S. One more analogy regarding the infinite regress within self-consciousness. You know that when a microphone and a loudspeaker in a sound system are brought too close to each other, the feedback produces a "shriek" or a "howl" in the system which can be stopped only by turning down the system, drawing microphone and loudspeaker far apart from each other, "cutting" some element out of the system, etc.

What happens in self-consciousness with the "microphone" of self-representation and the "loudspeaker" of self-interpretation is in some ways similar. And sin amounts to an adoption of similar strategies to "damp out" that self-interpretive feedback "shriek" of the soul which is anxiety...

(Rather than leaving it to God to "adjust," and speak into, the sound system.)