An alternative to Kant
Kant’s antinomies occur in the treatise that was the turning point in his philosophical career, and ushered in the concerns that are characteristic of modern philosophy, his Critique of Pure Reason; they form part of his ‘Transcendental Dialectic’. There are, he argues, four antinomies of pure reason: in each case the antinomy is a contradiction both terms of which can be demonstrated by reason alone, or pure reason. Because we can prove both sides of a contradiction, we have in effect demonstrated that reason here fails: we can go no further, there is no longer anything on the basis of which reason can proceed. His four antinomies are these:
1 Does the world, the cosmos, have a beginning in time and is it limited in space? Or does it have no limits with regard to time or space, as it is infinite? Kant shows how you can demonstrate both: that it can be shown to be both finite and infinite.
2 Is matter composed of atoms that cannot be divided further, or is matter infinitely divisible? Again it can be shown that either is true.
3 Is causality in accordance with the laws of nature the only causality there is? Or is it possible for humans freely to act as a cause of actions? Again, either can be demonstrated.
4 Is there within the cosmos an absolutely necessary being, either as a part of it or as its cause, or not? Again both positions can be argued for.12
For Kant this demonstrates that reason cannot establish anything sound about the nature of the cosmos, the nature of matter, the nature of causality, or the existence of God. All the so-called problems of metaphysics – about God, the soul and the cosmos – are beyond human reason. The antinomies constitute for Kant what one might call roadblocks to reason; they prevent reason from going any further in pursuing the central questions of metaphysics. For Kant, it follows that there is no speculative metaphysics; what speculative metaphysics is concerned with is relegated by Kant to the realm of the regulative, which is derived from moral presuppositions, but is not in any ordinary sense a matter of knowledge at all. We shall be better moral beings if we act as if God existed, as if the soul were immortal, if we believe that good will be rewarded beyond this life, and evil punished. But we have no reason to suppose that any of this is true.
Fr Pavel Florensky turns this on its head, and in so doing challenges Kant’s notion of the nature of reason, and argues for something very different. In the Divine Liturgy, just before the creed is sung, when we confess our faith in what the Church teaches, the priest says: ‘Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess’, and the people reply: ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Trinity consubstantial and undivided!’ The third letter of The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, which is about Tri-unity, Triëdinstvo, picks up this response in its first words: ‘“Trinity consubstantial and undivided, unity trihypostatic and eternally co-existent” – that is the only scheme that promises to resolve epoche, if the doubt of scepticism is at all resolvable.’13 It is the Trinity, the incomprehensible Three-in-Oneness, that can alone resolve the suspension of judgement, the epoche, of the ancient sceptics; only the apparently incomprehensible dogma of the Trinity can cut through the doubt that underlies, and undermines, all human thought.
How this is so is explored in Letter 6, concerned with contradiction, and it is here that Florensky introduces the term antinomy. For Florensky, antinomy is central to the recognition of truth, for without antinomies, without contradiction, we would simply be faced by rationally convincing proofs. This would mean that we would be compelled to accept the truth, for one cannot arbitrarily reject the conclusion of an argument, if one has accepted the premisses. This would have two consequences, both unacceptable to Florensky: on the one hand freedom would be abolished – truth would be imposed, as it were, rather than accepted and embraced; but on the other hand truth would be transparent, obvious, ‘clear and distinct’, as Descartes put it; but such truth would bear no relation to the world we live in, which is fragmented by sin and finitude, and thus – far from being transparent – is utterly opaque. Truth without antinomy, Florensky maintains, is both tyrannical and also something that makes no sense in the world in which we live.
In fact, Florensky continues, reliance on rationality would lead to irreconcilable contradictions between different systems of belief, and therefore to conflict between those who are committed to them. We would be left with rationality’s egoistical isolation and its egoistical opposition. Now this is indeed what we experience; this is the nature of fallen humanity. Argument based on reason sets humans one against another; it drives them more deeply into the fallen world that they constitute. Kant’s deployment of antinomy is naive: the use of reason on which it is based is not going to stop at the roadblocks constituted by Kant’s antinomies; it will lead back to where one started from – conflicting ways of understanding the world and humanity, a conflict that is not necessarily confined to learned argument, but can lead directly into conflict between different people and different societies. Kant’s philosophical heritage seems to me to bear that out.
Florensky’s solution is the embrace of antinomy, for such an embrace will lead us to question the claims of reason, its claims to coerce what it maintains is the truth. As he puts it in Letter 6:
In other words, truth is an antinomy, and it cannot fail to be such. And truth cannot be anything else, for one can affirm in advance that knowledge of the truth demands spiritual life and therefore is an ascesis. But the ascesis of rationality is belief, i.e., self-renunciation. The act of the self-renunciation of rationality is an expression of antinomy. Indeed, only an antinomy can be believed. Every non-antinomic judgment is merely accepted or merely rejected by rationality, for such a judgment does not surpass the boundary of rationality’s egoistical isolation. If truth were non-antinomic, then rationality, always revolving in its proper sphere, would not have a fulcrum, would not see extrarational objects and therefore would not be induced to begin the ascesis of belief. That fulcrum is dogma. With dogma begins our salvation, for only dogma, being antinomic, does not constrain our freedom and allows voluntary belief or wicked unbelief. For it is impossible to compel one to believe, just as it is impossible to compel one not to believe. According to Augustine, ‘no one believes except voluntarily’ (nemo credit nisi volens). (P 109)
Whereas for Kant the antinomies constitute roadblocks to reason, for Florensky they trip up reason, as it were, expose its deficiencies, and make us realize that truth can be attained by no method such as that of rationality, but only by the spiritual life, which demands self-renunciation, ascesis, which explores the world opened up by dogma, which is the realm of freedom, the freedom of the spirit that discovers truth through opening itself to God. This idea that the defeat of reason enables reason to transcend itself and attain what it is really searching for recalls the way in which Origen justifies allegory: the contradictions in the narrative of the Scriptures force us to look beyond the literal meaning and attain the true meaning of the Scriptures by a sensitivity to symbol and allegory – but this means moving into a realm where conventional certainties are abandoned, and the way forward proceeds through repentance, self-renunciation, progress in the spiritual life, which is not a matter of achievement, but of surrender to the love of God. More nearly it recalls Solov′ev who, as we saw last time, sees love as an encounter with the other that displaces the centre of the self, and overcomes egoism.
Another way of putting the point Florensky is making would be to say that rationality proceeds by success: arguments only convince if they are successful. But such success does not lead to the truth in any fundamental way, though it may help one to get some things right, especially in relation to the material world. The way to truth is through the spiritual life; it is a way that proceeds through repentance and self-renunciation. One could say that, in contrast to the way of rationality, it proceeds through failure, defeat, which dislodges the self, displaces it, and opens up the realm of freedom and dogma.
Several consequences follow from this understanding of the nature of truth and the way to embrace it. First, for Fr Pavel, the danger with rationality, or rationalism, is that it places the reasoning self at the centre; it entails an egoistic or egocentric view of the world, and that entails the illusion that here on earth it is possible to transcend the fragmentariness of the world, due to sin and finitude. In reality, this is impossible: lots of egos produce lots of clashing views of the world, which compete with each other, and prevail through power. In reality truth and its apprehension demand self-renunciation; there is an asceticism of the truth. As Florensky exclaims, ‘Contradiction! It is always a mystery of the soul, a mystery of prayer and love. The closer one is to God, the more distinct are the contradictions’.14
Second, the ultimate overthrow of reason – by reason – is the realization that reason is not enough, that proof is not enough. What is needed is commitment to the spiritual life, to repentance and self-renunciation – to experience. As Florensky put it at the end of the prefatory letter to the reader in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth:
The Orthodox taste, the Orthodox temper, is felt, but it is not subject to arithmetical calculation. Orthodoxy is shown, not proved [an anticipation of Wittgenstein!]. That is why there is only one way to understand Orthodoxy: through direct Orthodox experience . . . To become Orthodox, it is necessary to immerse oneself all at once in the very element of Orthodoxy, to begin living in an Orthodox way. There is no other way.15
And third, for Florensky truth is dogma – not something we confect or make up, but something to which we surrender, and no brief moment of surrender, but a constant attempt to surrender to the truth that embraces us. Florensky would have been sympathetic to T. S. Eliot’s conviction that sanctity involves a ‘lifetime’s death in love’.16
Dogma is hardly understood in our modern world; its overtones in use are almost always negative. But it is dogma, its apparent arbitrariness from a merely human perspective, that points us to truth enshrined in antinomy as offering the only possibility of meaning. So Florensky said, in the letter on Tri-unity, in a remark paraphrased by Vladimir Lossky, a theologian supposedly so far removed from the religious philosophy of Florensky:
Either the Triune Christian God or dying in insanity. Tertium non datur. Pay attention: I do not exaggerate. That is precisely the way things are . . . Between eternal life within the Trinity and eternal second death, there is no clearance, not even a hair’s breadth. Either/or . . .17
At moments like this, Florensky reminds one of Pascal, or of Anselm. Indeed Florensky mentions Pascal’s wager in this letter (P 49) and quotes Anselm’s credo ut intelligam (P 47). But Florensky takes a step further than Anselm: instead of an ontological argument for the existence of God, we might regard him as offering an epistemological argument for the existence of the Trinity.