The Church-Man’s Skepticism 2

I have added bits of poetry in the last couple of posts, one from Johnson, the other from Herbert, as further explorations of what I am calling “Church-Man’s skepticism”.  I suspect some may find my choice to call this “skepticism” as peculiar; perhaps “pessimism” or “cynicism” will seem to them to be more appropriate.  I have puzzled over those terms; I have felt, indeed I feel, their pull.  But I do not think they fit as well as “skepticism”.

I should admit that I use the term idiosyncratically.  I have learnt so to use it from Stanley Cavell and Thompson Clarke.  Cavell, developing a line of thought in Clarke’s work, insists that there is a truth in skepticism.  Now, the skepticism that Cavell and Clarke first are thinking of is more or less Cartesian external world skepticism, a skepticism that pictures the would-be knower as related to the would-be known in something of the way that the Rich Man was related to Lazarus:  between them there is a great gulf fixed.  The would-be knower has thoughts and those thoughts bear on the world, but the question is whether they bear on it in a way that makes them true.  As much as the would-be knower would like to feel the cool water-drop of knowledge on his parched epistemological tongue, he cannot.  His cognitive thirst cannot be satisfied.  Lazarus is barred from him.  But looming behind Cartesian external world skepticism is a larger and darker form of skepticism, Kantian skepticism.  That skepticism questions whether the would-be knower is rightly so-called; it questions whether the “would-be knower” so much as has thoughts that bear on the world; it doubts that the “would-be knower” can so much as produce items that could be truth-valuable.

I will say more about these two forms of skepticism in a later post; I will also say more to connect my use of the term to Cavell’s and Clarke’s in a later post; so treat what I have said so far as partial but I hope helpful background.  But I want now to consider what Cavell in one place (in The Claim of Reason) says is the truth in skepticism, namely that our relationship to the world is not primarily one of knowing.  Gloss: we do not secure a world to know or a world to talk about primarily by acts of cognition, specifically by acts of knowing.  Of course that is not meant to leave us ignorant of the world.  Rather, it changes the way in which we find ourselves as in the world.  We find ourselves in the world in our non-bodily circumstances, oriented away from our bodies, indeed from ourselves, and so away from our bodies as the sufferers or ourselves as the bearers of knowledge.  Finding ourselves in the world in this way makes problems of knowledge recede; they do not press us.  To reverse and amend Schopenhauer’s classic set of claims (near the beginning of vol. 1 of The World as Will and Representation): there is a sun; there is an earth; I do not know an eye that sees a sun or a hand that feels an earth.  But saying this does not solve, resolve or dissolve skepticism.  It simply shunts it aside, shuns it, crowds or reduces the space in which it lives and moves and has its being.  Put another way, this truth in skepticism will not satisfy the skeptic; it will not seem to him or her to capture the truth of skepticism. (As, indeed, it does not, if there is such a thing.)

But thinking about skepticism in this way allows us to remove ourselves from the primarily theoretical predicament of Cartesian and even Kantian skepticism and allows us to return our attention to our practical predicament, and to forms of skepticism that may arise within it.

Church-Man’s skepticism is primarily practical.  It focuses not so much on knowledge as it does on various other ways in which we are implicated in the world, particularly on the world as a scene of values, and of those values’ spheres of influence. Church-Man’s skepticism is not skeptical about our knowledge of those values, but of the valuability of the values themselves, of whether or not they are wholly satisfactory.  It questions not the reality of the values, or their (differential) availability, but rather their fullness (for lack of a better term).  This is neither cynicism, which would question, even deny, the reality of the values; nor is it pessimism, which would question, even deny, their availability.  It is a skepticism, practical or (as I said in an earlier post) existential. It does not deny that life, here under the sun, is livable or that life must deny the wise person any satisfaction. But it does understand that life as enigmatic; its meaning, sought here under the sun evades us–again, not as a theoretical insight, but rather as a practical reality.  Our problem is not ignorance:  it is restlessness.

3 responses

  1. One thing I often wonder about, related, I think, to what you call ‘the Church-Man’s skepticism’, is the relationship b/w the notion of Faith and what may be called ‘human contentions with God’. Exemplary cases that come to mind are, of course, Job’s soliloquy and Jesus’s cry on the cross, but you can also, I think, see the issue in the Herbert poem you posted, “Bitter-Sweet”. Another example, from Jewish sources, is The Berditchever Kaddish— a version of the Jewish prayer for the dead written by a great Hassidic Rabbi of the 17th century, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev. Here is how it goes in English (it was originally written in a mixture of vernacular Yiddish and liturgical Aramaic):

    Good morning to You, Lord, Master of the universe,
    I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berditchev,
    I come to You with a Din Torah from Your people Israel.

    What do You want of Your people Israel?
    What have You demanded of Your people Israel?
    For everywhere I look it says, “Say to the Children of Israel.”
    And every other verse says, “Speak to the Children of Israel.”
    And over and over, “Command the Children of Israel.”

    Father, sweet Father in heaven,
    How many nations are there in the world?
    Persians, Babylonians, Edomites.

    The Russians, what do they say?
    That their Czar is the only ruler.
    The Prussians, what do they say?
    That their Kaiser is supreme.
    And the English, what do they say?
    That George the Third is sovereign.

    And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berditchev, say,
    “Yitgadal v’yitkadash shmei rabah —
    Magnifed and sanctified is Thy Name.”

    And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berditchev, say,
    “From my stand I will not waver,
    And from my place I shall not move
    Until there be an end to all this.
    Yitgadal v’yitkadash shmei rabah —
    Magnified and sanctified is Thy Name.”

    (As an aside, let me note the use of “sweet” in the Berditchever’s appeal to God, and its relation to Herbert’s poem…) What interests me about this issue is a tension I find built in to the notion of Faith—a tension between contention and acquiescence as both part of its (true) spirit. In this connection, it is interesting to note another poem of Herbert’s that was especially dear to Weil, “Love,” which I think highlights the side of acquiescence in faith:

    Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
    Guilty of dust and sin.
    But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
    From my first entrance in,
    Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
    If I lack’d anything.

    “A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
    Love said, “You shall be he.”
    “I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
    I cannot look on thee.”
    Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
    “Who made the eyes but I?”

    “Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
    Go where it doth deserve.”
    “And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
    “My dear, then I will serve.”
    “You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
    So I did sit and eat.


  2. D,

    I don’t know if this exactly counts as a reply or an answer, but here is G. Manley Hopkins’ “Carrion Comfort”, one of his so-called “terrible sonnets”. It seems to me to exhibit the same tension of contending and acquiescing that you find of interest. I will at any rate think more about what you have asked.

    NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
    Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
    In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
    Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
    But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
    Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
    With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
    O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

    Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
    Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
    Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
    Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
    Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
    Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

  3. Pingback: Kantian Skepticism and John McDowell « Quantum Est In Rebus Inane

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