- Processing Contingency with Theology:A Defense of Whitehead's Pragmatism
Contemporary debates about the implications of contingency are understatedly vast. One central question is whether or not a metaphysics of contingency is a contradiction of terms. Of course, how one answers this question in large part depends on what else one means by the terms of the question. Metaphysics, according to Alfred North Whitehead's redescription, is not conceivably the sort of thing one could so much as avoid. Metaphysics is "nothing but the description of the generalities which apply to all the details of practice."1 It is true that the contingency of our starting points and formulations makes it such that our everyday experience underdetermines our metaphysical generalities. Thus, one may have very good pragmatic reasons for not engaging in such a project. But it is another claim entirely to say that all such efforts violate pragmatic scruples. One cannot avoid metaphysics in the sense of denying the metaphysical implications of one's epistemic structures.
A relationship between metaphysics and contingency is implicit in the foregoing characterization. This characterization is in tension with an alternative recently proposed by Nancy Frankenberry, a proposal that has negative consequences for Whitehead's theology. While I generally agree with many of Frankenberry's philosophical proclivities, I disagree with her on two points. First, I differ in my account of the implications of contingency for philosophy. Second, I differ in thinking that there is a pragmatic warrant for Whitehead's distinctive form of God-talk—pragmatic in the sense that his theology aims to elucidate certain elements ubiquitous in experience. This second point is directly related to the first, since how one understands contingency informs how one sees metaphysics as warranted or unwarranted. Further, whether or not one sees metaphysics as warranted by the implications of contingency has a lot to do with how one understands the relationship of referentiality—that is, how it is that we talk about something, and the ontological status of that [End Page 36] something. Moreover, how one understands reference to work informs one's understanding of the relationship between language and what language is about. If what counts as an object on a given account is either too scientistic or idealistic, then the pragmatism of Whitehead's God-talk will be quickly overlooked.
In service of a more charitable reading of Whitehead, I will offer a critique of the most recent attempt to remove the theological linchpin from Whitehead's metaphysics, and in due course, I will detail what is at stake in debates about Whitehead's philosophical theology. Perhaps we will come to a place where theology could just as easily be atheology, with no structural compromises made to Whitehead's metaphysics. The distinction between theology and atheology may be a distinction that makes no pragmatic difference, save for the imaginative force of theological characterization—but this may well be difference enough to warrant the theology.
II. Contingency "All the Way Down"
In her recent article "Contingency All the Way Down," Nancy Frankenberry advocates for detheologizing Whitehead's philosophy. Such detheologizing is meant to allow mystery to "float free in a cloud of unknowing, without being converted into a subtle form of knowing."2 Her alternative proposal is something akin, in her own words, to Keat's "negative capability"—the capacity for "being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."3 I argue that a fallibilist ethic such as this is compatible with efforts to think the world in which that ethic is rightly prescribable.
Frankenberry's position represents one candidate for understanding the consequences of contingency for philosophy. In considering her proposal, I have encountered some difficulty on at least two points. The first is the pragmatic contradiction involved in advocating for a particular understanding of ourselves and the world while simultaneously critiquing any such worldview. The second concerns the idea that claims to ultimacy can be dismissed by declaration. We may well heed Frankenberry's warning against the temptation of making claims to ultimacy, but it is something very different to ignore the fact of the temptation altogether. Much can come from an...