a collaborative genealogy of spirituality

the list

by Nancy Levene

Approaching the Ventricle by <a href=''target='_blank'>Seth Ellis</a>
Approaching the Ventricle by Seth Ellis

The single-page list of possible terms circulated to contributors to the Frequencies project on a genealogy of spirituality has the clean feeling that comes courtesy of the alphanumeric. All those capital Hs in a row; all that happy cacophony, from Horatio Alger to LSD to the White Dog Café (Philadelphia, PA), contained by the stuttering letter. Jarena John John John Johnny Jonathan Joseph. One is enjoined widely—“what comes to mind when you think of spirituality”—while sensing that one’s flights of association will be easily contained. You left out (speaking of them) John-John.

One could say that this is what spirituality itself does. It is elastic, while expressing common rules of order. It contains everything, while conforming to strict limits. As the curators note in their invitation, with some understatement: “Few incidents or characters in the history of spirituality can be contained within national borders.” But do we—yet—know what contains spirituality? Do we yet know if anything does, and thus whether there can be history (or genealogy) here, rather than simply classification?

These questions are not intended to threaten the project. One would be hard pressed, I suspect, to advance a preemptive critique of a history of spirituality—of the very idea of such a thing—that was not already considered in the Frequencies conference room. Of course such a history is impossible. That is why it must now be attempted.

I would like to contribute to this attempt, if not a preemptive critique, then something like the question of whether or how one could be disobedient to its terms—the question of the project’s concept. Like the question to spirituality itself, one asks: is there really anything that could not go on the list? This might seem a playful or obnoxious intervention. It is playful in tracking the spirit of the call while taking its investigative thrust to potentially absurd lengths; it is obnoxious in pretending serious engagement while revealing the project itself to be absurd. I mean the question in neither sense.

In elucidating what I do mean, it is instructive to bring to mind the late metaphysical work of spirituality connoisseur William James. James spent the better part of his career as psychologist and philosopher attempting to debunk metaphysics of its spiritualist pretensions, while also, not incidentally, carrying on with theosophists and occultists. After achieving notice for his essays on religion, pluralism, and belief, and at the same time as he was honing his pragmatic theory of truth, James developed his own metaphysical theory, which he called radical empiricism. Fascinating as a historical document, radical empiricism is distinguished mainly by the claim that the world is composed—not of mind and body, or temporality and eternity, or indeed any of the other famous dualisms in the metaphysical water, then and now. Radical empiricism was to be a monism, whose basic unit is experience.

James’s theory has the advantage of cohering with his pragmatist commitment to make truth something we can see, feel, taste, practice, do. His rejection of standard (in his view, “Hegelian”) metaphysics was that it posited a world (“Spirit”) subject to none of these things, a world therefore useless in providing a framework for the investigation of what really does exist and matter, among which James’s empiricism stressed the relations between things as much as things themselves. It is also worth noting that the “incident or character” of James’s philosophy always toyed with, and was consistently received in the light of, a fairly explicit nationalism. America would be the land of a properly grounded, empirically contained, pragmatic philosophy, cutting itself loose from the decadence of an ethereal European spirit forever spilling out into tyrannical and sloppily conceived social and political projects. James’s solution, a radical empiricism, makes such a spirit subject to the containment of American knowhow: experiment, revisability, and an overall temper of constructive, this-worldly optimism. Dams and railroads would be built; souls and their sicknesses studied, diagnosed, and allayed, if not cured.

I call James to the task of considering the nature of a history of spirituality since he was himself so aggressively interested in the spiritual—in both fertilizing and disciplining it. But I also call on him for the scope of his philosophical ambition. James’s metaphysical system, unlike those of the Idealists he loved to lampoon, has as one of its features that, as with our list of terms concerning spirituality, everything, presumably, can be contained within it. It is a theory of everything.

Is this a problem? First to the task of what it means. A thinker like Spinoza has often been called a monist. By this, readers mean that he sews up all of life’s particularities into one, single, existing substance. This reading can still afford to acknowledge that Spinoza understood substance to be infinitely modified. For the point, so it goes, is that its modifications are nevertheless, finally, of this one thing. James was against such pictures of the universe. His appeal to experience was precisely meant to give us the “blooming, buzzing” confusion of life—the smell of a dog’s nose, the angle of a roof as it is about to collapse, the agony of guilt over a failed connection with someone, the moments of longing for death. Finally, American readers have always felt, in turning to James after a spell in the archives of the Germans and the French: someone to give us the sense and taste of the damned gorgeous springtime in Cambridge MA, and not merely, as Schleiermacher vaguely promised, the sense and taste of the infinite.

And yet. Does James really get around the problem of how to have, while also theorizing what it is to have, experience? Does James really give us a theory of everything that marks what that everything shall smell and taste like? To do this question justice would take us deep into the bowels of modern philosophy—into, at the very least, the curious logic of an apriori worldview centered elsewhere than in the mind. Kant thinks, for example, that we meet up with the world of blooming experience with a mind that already orders it; James thinks we meet up with singular objects in the world with a self that is already experiencing, or better, a self that already is experience. There is a critical difference in the shape of the two positions. For Kant, we are limited to experience, and the work is to make this limitation and its structure as pellucid as possible. What it leaves out. What it leaves in. For James, we are limited by nothing, whose name (the thing, the nothing) is experience. It is noteworthy, then, that James’s theory of experience, in leaving nothing out, has a harder time than Kant’s at specifying what is left in—what it is, in short, that we are having an experience of.

It is enough in this context to suggest something like the following about James, concluding with some questions to a history of spirituality. What James was evidently after with his concept of a radical empiricism was a way to resolve the call of spirituality. As a sick-souled, genealogically-stressed denizen of the Cantabrigian beau monde at the turn of the twentieth century, James was fascinated by the more colorful of spirit’s possibilities. But in his philosophical commitments, he was a critic of spirit, Hegelian, Bradleyian, Blavatskian, and otherwise. James wanted to give us the real, and he felt sure that this real was both empirical and absolute—that the empirical was not simply the place of experiment and Baconian habit, but was also mind. This might seem a surprising claim in the light of James’s insistence that the turn to the empirical saves us from all forms of rationalism. But it is one that makes sense both of his various personal commitments and of his inheritance of a Kantian seriousness with respect to the integration of the person. James, like Kant, felt it important to admit that there were cracks in existence. He simply thought he knew how they could be philosophically, which for him meant empirically, resolved. That this resolution in a thinker like James comes couched in the language of open-endedness only serves to underscore the maddening sleight of the apparently decisive thing that nevertheless has no borders.

So again: is this a problem? The problem I want to draw attention to is that James comes up with a theory of the way things are that—by virtue of the decision to resolve dualisms before they arise—gives us no insight into its logic of inclusion. This would be as if a moral philosophy or psychology proposed a theory of what to do or how to live without reckoning with the obstacles (psychical, social, intellectual, animal) to doing so. James’s theory of radical empiricism cools our desperation over being split—mind from body, higher from lower, Jew from Greek or male from female, if you want to go that route. In doing so, however, it abandons us to a different problem. Put simply, everything can count as experience. But what is the concept of everything? The problem is not that everything can count. The problem is: what is an everything? What do I have when I have it? What are the grounds of distinction within it, or between it and itself, if not some other? How might everything (or anything) fail (to be everything)? What is or what could be failure? I scramble for the simplest of images here: a queue for a roller coaster, say, in which the gate keeper is checking that the prospects meet a list of qualifications, a list of qualifications that everyone happens to meet. Who is that gate keeper? And: must she keep checking?

The list supplied for the genealogy of spirituality has this quality of an itemization that requires continued checking even as everything could be included in it. This is not to say its curators imagine themselves gate keepers. Just the opposite. The call makes clear that the charge is to roam as far and wide as possible. Still, those possibles would—I suggest—be exceedingly unlikely to fail inclusion on the list. Let me amend. They could not do so. Like James’s reading of the metaphysical tradition, the list excludes only what it does not desire (what does not exist); of things desirable, all are present. Everything is—however implicitly—present. And yet there is no account of what this everything tears itself loose from. Experience—or spirituality—as opposed to what? In this silence, James ironically mirrors the logic of his own bête noir, an otherworldly spirit struggling to make the world fit reason (the monistic Spinoza, the benighted Bradley), while evading the logic of his ostensible quarry, an immanence of spirit, which is present, pace James, in the dialectical Spinoza, who locates spirit in creaturely life, in the pragmatic Hegel, who culls reality redolent with smells, in the mechanic Kant, who knows the difference between an engine we make and our fantasy of one. James confuses the universal (all) with finite inclusion (everything), failing both spirit and its histories, both what spirit is and what it isn’t. With a universal, one could say, the gate keeper is the position that founds the all on a primary exclusion (choice); with an everything, the gate keeper is simply the delirious confusion of not having to choose—the confusion of redundancy. Although James’s radical empiricism promises to subordinate spirit to experience, it yields what looks like nothing so much as spirit augmenting itself infinitely through the undifferentiated logic of its suppression.

Is the Frequencies list a sign that its call is caught in this same confusion?

I pose the following final questions:

What is the relationship between the call to consider spirit and the provision of a list of spirit’s projects, the implication being that this list, like the alphabet, could come to an end while being, in its inner nature, expansive to infinity (JJJJJJ…)?

What has this gambit already decided about spirit in imagining its projects alphanumerically, and not in substance and subject?

What is a history of the alphanumeric if history is already (is it not?) the alphabet’s undoing—the decision (expository, creative, poetic) to count Jarena and not John-John? What is the nature of such a decision in this project? Would it, like the list itself, get its own line on the list?

The project of Frequencies hints—against conventional wisdom—that spirituality can be contained by its manifold histories; by a history of the manifold. Might there also be a value in ascertaining whether spirituality is not already contained, a list of lists, a theory of when and where its own decisions make distinctions, apriori, as it were—before we assimilate it to the White Dog Café in Philadelphia, PA? Might there not be something in spirit itself—and not simply in our alphabets—that finds it(self) everywhere? Might this not be spirit’s own creative history of us?