Letter to the Editors: The Rowan Williams Review – By Kevin Hector

Kevin Hector responds to Rowan Williams’s review

theology without metaphysics 2
Kevin Hector, Theology Without Metaphysics: God, Language, and the Spirit of Recognition, Cambridge University Press, 2011, 302pp., $31.99

I am humbled that Rowan Williams has even heard of my book, much less read it, and genuinely grateful for the many kind things he has to say about it. His summary of the book’s constructive proposals is perceptive, and his appraisal of those proposals is generous and positive. [See Rowan Williams’s MRB review here.]

Williams nevertheless thinks that the book “suffers badly” from problems that threaten to overshadow what he considers its otherwise helpful proposals. In the spirit of MRB’s stated commitment to conversation, and for the sake of clearing up what Williams sees as “mixed philosophical messages,” I would like to address a couple of these problems. In doing so, I hope to turn our attention to a different problem: the widespread assumption that language is inherently “metaphysical.”

First off, Williams is probably right about the inelegance of my writing, but it is worth noting that I decided to use the term “correspondentism” because of the exact concern he raises about the term “metaphysics”: a concern that readers might be misled if I didn’t explicitly distinguish the target of my criticisms from other senses of the term “correspondence.”

I also think Williams is right that my use of the term “metaphysics” has “the potential to mislead.” I underestimated how hard it would be for some readers to get past the impression made by the title. I thought if I distinguished what I meant by “metaphysics” from other senses of the term, and then strictly regimented my usage, it would be clear to readers what I meant to oppose. Apparently I was wrong, and I don’t think it is unfair for Williams to point that out. (If I had titled the book “Theology without Idolatry,” for instance, readers might have been better positioned to understand what I was actually claiming.)

Williams then suggests that this “potential to mislead” follows, in part, from what he characterizes as a “loose” use of the term “metaphysics.” This is a serious charge, and upon reading it I worried that perhaps I had not been as careful as I had thought. So I reexamined what I actually wrote. In the book’s first chapter, I explicitly distinguish “metaphysics,” as I am using the term, from other legitimate uses, and I introduce a bit of technical terminology to keep the distinction straight: “in order to set this understanding of metaphysics apart from other referents of that term,” I write, “we can label it essentialist-correspondentist metaphysics.” A search of subsequent chapters turned up 28 pages on which I used the word “metaphysics” and its variants; in every case, I either explicitly use the formula “essentialist-correspondentist metaphysics,” or use “metaphysics” in the immediate context of “essentialist-correspondentism,” or qualify “metaphysics” with an obvious paraphrase of essentialist-correspondentism. I honestly have a hard time seeing how this usage could be characterized as “loose.”

To be clear, as I am using the term, “metaphysics” refers to a picture according to which the fundamental reality of objects coincides with our preconceived ideas about them — hence, “essentialist-correspondentist metaphysics.” The phenomenon of objects being thought to coincide with preconceived ideas is familiar enough. Think here of parents who see one of their children as “the smart one,” the other as “the fun one,” and who therefore have a hard time seeing the smart one as fun or the fun one as smart. Or, a bit closer to my topic, think of patristic debates in which some theologians claimed that their rivals opposed the doctrine of Incarnation only because they were clinging to unwarranted preconceptions about “divinity,” preconceptions according to which “divinity” is a matter of being ingenerate, for instance, or being exalted above the lowliness of creaturely life. Examples aside, the point is that — as I am using the term — “essentialist-correspondentist metaphysics” refers to a framework or systematic viewpoint wherein the fundamental reality of objects is equated with such preconceived ideas. Most theologians would want to avoid including God in this sort of framework, since they would see it as idolatrous if God were equated with our preconceptions.

“Metaphysics” in this sense is distinct from “metaphysics” in the sense of making claims about that which transcends the physical realm, or about what things are really like, and I introduce the terminology of “essentialist-correspondentist metaphysics” precisely to maintain this distinction. The book advances several claims about a transcendent God and about what God is like, so it should be obvious that I harbor no principled objection to such claims.

Williams’s other criticisms are best addressed if I clarify “who exactly is claiming what Hector attacks.” He seems to think that I am targeting unnamed practitioners of essentialist-correspondentist theology; if that were the case, then it would be a serious oversight if I did not name at least some such practitioners. That is not my target, however — at least not directly or primarily. Rather, I am arguing against those who assume that language is itself metaphysical (in the essentialist-correspondentist sense), and who therefore claim that we can avoid idolatry only by keeping language at a distance from God. The book’s targets, then, are those I name in the first chapter and to whom I refer throughout: Martin Heidegger, Jean-Luc Marion, John Caputo, and others whose postmodern, apophatic approaches take it for granted that language is inherently metaphysical (in the essentialist-correspondentist sense).

Because these figures take for granted a certain understanding of language, I wanted to demonstrate that there is at least one plausible alternative to that understanding and, in turn, to render it optional. To be clear, then, my argument rests not on the assumption that there are only two ways of understanding language, but on the contention that there are at least two. This is what I mean by calling it a “therapeutic” argument, since I am not trying to solve the problems posed by the alleged violence of language, as do apophatic anti-metaphysicians, but to dispense with the picture of language that made these seem like problems in the first place. Entitling myself to this claim meant dealing with these figures’ worries about language, one of which is that language is inherently “violent.” This rhetoric of “violence” may be overheated, at least as a putatively general claim about how language as such works, but given its prominence in the figures with whom I am dealing, I felt obligated to bring it into my discussion.

All told, then, it seems to me that the book is liable to only one of Williams’s criticisms: that my use of the term “metaphysics,” especially in the title, risks misleading. This is a genuine problem. Yet the fault lies not in my using the term loosely but in my underestimating how difficult it would be for some readers to disentangle my usage from that of others.

The proper moral to draw from Rowan Williams’s review is that my use of terms like “metaphysics” and “violence” may lead readers to focus on those terms themselves, rather than on my proposals about theological language. It has surely had that effect on some. I hope his review, along with my letter, helps get the conversation back on track.

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