Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Christos Yannaras’ paper, OTRF Conference – Oxford 2013

The Orthodox Research Forum organised a Conference in honour of Christos Yannaras, which took place in Oxford, St. Edmund’s Hall. The following paper was given by Christos Yannaras, who opened the conference. For more information look here.


Oxford, September 2013
I should like to extend my warm thanks to those who had the idea of organizing this meeting and took the initiative to make it a reality, those who undertook the care and responsibility of organizing it, and those who provided the funds that have enabled it to take place. I should also like to thank warmly all of you who have done me the great honour of coming here today to engage in what is the first attempt to subject my published work to critical discussion- its aims, its success or failure in attaining these aims, and the mistakes and inadequacies of my work.
I hope you will forgive me if I venture to set out briefly for you, almost as a bare set of headings, those elements or aspects of my work which I personally believe have not yet been subjected to critical scrutiny. I have been attacked at various times on a number of specific points, for example for an exaggerated assertion of human eroticism, and for a one-sided insistence on the priority of the person that inevitably depreciates or distorts the meaning of essence (ousia). It is said that I do not do justice historically to the West and arbitrarily embellish the Hellenic tradition. These, and many other similar accusations may be right, or may be mistaken, but they do not touch on the main axes of my work, on its central themes. Perhaps I am just deceiving myself, but I believe that the most important and most personal elements of my work have not yet been properly examined. If I am deceiving myself, I risk being blamed for a lack of seriousness, but in a meeting of this kind we shall become trapped in a web of commonplace compliments if we shirk the risk of expressing ourselves frankly.
1 Heidegger was the decisive encounter of my life. What aspect of his work? His catalytic critique of Western metaphysics. It confirmed and interpreted Nietzsche’s proclamation of the ‘death of God’. I had had a Western education, I possessed a typically Western religiosity. The critique of rationalism, of ‘intellectual idols’ of God, related to my personal experiences. I inquire into what knowledge could be in terms of experiential immediacy, not only in terms of intellectual conception. Ancient Hellenism showed me relation as shared experience of ‘rational contemplation’. The Aeropagitical Writings showed me relation again but within the unbounded dynamics of love: as an ek-static (departing from or free from the ‘other way’) erotic self-transcendence.
Knowledge, as experiential immediacy and dynamic relation, clarified for me the relativity of the linguistic expressions of knowledge, their character of referentiality to the experience of relation. I arrived thus at offering a definition of apophaticism: It is the denial that we can exhaust knowledge in its linguistic expression, a denial that we can identify the understanding of the signifiers with the knowledge of the things signified. By persistent research I became convinced that the Hellenic tradition, both ancient and Christian (of the ecclesia of the demos and of the ecclesia of the faithful) is unified, continuous and unbroken, thanks to a common epistemology: knowledge is verified only as shared experience – ‘when we share in something we prove it true’. Later,  in my Postmodern Metaphysics (1st edn 1993; ET 2004), I showed, I think, that this Hellenic and ecclesial ‘principle’ concerning the social verification of knowledge (an epistemology centred on relation) responds in a striking fashion to the demands of an epistemology that is foreshadowed by the uncertainty principle  and the theory of relativity in the field of post-Newtonian physics.
2 My studies on apophaticism and epistemology have never been critiqued: do they represent a genuine contribution or are they simply mistaken? The same is true with regard to my extended investigations in the field of ontology. There, Heidegger’s critique of Western metaphysics guided me to the ‘mode’ by which I could ‘say’ the difference presented by Hellenic ontology. The West makes ‘to exist’ independent of ‘to be related’. It takes the terms/factors of the relation to pre-exist before they are related – it treats relation as an attribute/capacity which characterizes only certain existing things (those endowed with reason, those that are rational).
In radical contrast with the West, ecclesial Hellenism recognizes existence (confirms it empirically) as an event of activated relations; it identifies existence with relation. The sense of existence which I personally draw from the witness of ecclesial experience is that to exist in itself constitutes an event of reference to (as towards) the fact of relation. Nothing exists first and then subsequently becomes related; every existing thing exists because and so long as it is related – it participates in existence, which is activated relations.
3 This identification of existence with relation is revealed very clearly in ecclesial language as the primordial event, the Causal Principle of existing. Existing is not owed to some (initial) atomic ‘divine’ onticity (of divine essence), to a supreme being that is divine and of a most honourable kind – and consequently Causal Principle of that which exists is not defined by a name of atomic existence (Zeus, Kronos, Uranos). In ecclesial language the Cause of all things is not an atomic existence predetermined by its essence (that is, by necessity) to be God; the Cause of all things can only be indicated linguistically by the word Father.
The Father exists because he ‘begets’ the Son and causes the Spirit to ‘proceed’. Free of any existential necessity, he wills to exist, and he wills to exist because he loves. His love is not one of the attributes of his existence. It is not a mode of behaviour; it is the mode of his existence: his freedom to exist. He hypostasizes his being, that is, his love (makes it hypostases, real existences), ‘begetting’ the Son and causing the Spirit to ‘proceed’. His being is not godhead or divinity (existence that is predetermined as from its essence, by necessity). It is triadicity, the freedom of love. The God of ecclesial experience and the witness of the gospel ‘is love’ (1 Jn 4:16).
4 The human rational subject, too, is ‘in the image of God’ (of the Triadic God). It does not first exist and is then subsequently related, but it exists because it is related. Its existence is the hypostatic (existential real) realization of a response to the call-to-relation by which the Cause of existence calls it out of non-being into being. The logos/call of God constitutes (hypostasizes) the rational (logike – capable of an active, that is, free relationship) existence of human beings: The mode of human existence, too, is also freedom, but freedom that is inevitably relational (subject to the limitations/necessities of createdness). Human beings are free to hypostasize (to make into a mode of existence) a yes or a no to the loving/erotic call of the Creator which makes them exist. They are free to realize their existence as a ‘becoming’ of affirmation or denial of the love of God for their persons.
My Person and Eros (1st edn 1970;ET 2007) sets out an attempt to put together a philosophically coherent counter-proposition to Heidegger’s ontology. Using the extremely apposite (with regard to the culture of Modernity) terms of Heidegger’s approach, it attempts to put together the response of ecclesial experience and witness to the ontological question – a question about the ‘meaning’ (cause and aim) of existence. This undertaking was supplemented by my studies: Propositions for a Critical Ontology (1st edn 1985) and Relational Ontology (1st edn 2004; ET 2011) which test the philosophical adequacy of the ‘ontology of the person’. To refute the oppositional distinction (and mutual refutation) deriving from Kant between the terms critique (critical examination) and ontology – whether in reality the ontology of the person excludes in a coherent fashion that which in the West constituted a defining mark of ontology: recourse to an a priori acceptance of principles and axioms not subject to shared empirical control.
5 So when I venture to say (with the risk perhaps of expressing only a subjective, narcissistic illusion) that my publications on apophaticism and the ontology of the person have not yet been subjected to critical judgement, I mean that they have not been treated as a contrasting alternative to the philosophical approach of the West. Those who have engaged with some of my works have focussed on whether the formulations of (Hellenic) ecclesiastical literature have been reflected correctly in them. This is helpful, indeed essential, but it is only half the work of critical examination. The other half is whether the ontological argument is really freed from its Kantian bias (as having the character of being subject to the operation of laws), whether a pragmatic empiricism of the ‘meaning’ of existence has been set against the empirically very coherent nihilism of Heidegger, and whether an epistemological apophaticism that presupposes a relational ontology has built fruitfully on Wittgenstein’s insistence on a strict distinction between what can be said and what cannot be said.
The whole of my work and my life is a dialogue with my Western self, a search in my Hellenic ecclesial roots for serious (experientially shared) responses to the quandaries of the modern West which is the flesh of my daily life.
6. Let me add to this summary review a personal conviction – mistaken as it may be – that until now my attempt in my books to examine the ‘fruitfulness’ of apophatic epistemology and the ontology of the person (their connotative coherence) in various fields of empirical interest for the modern mode of life has also been ignored by those qualified to judge it. Initially, in the field of ethics, I received some reviews in Western languages when The Freedom of Morality was published (1st edn 1970;ET 1984), but the central point of my proposition was ignored: That as a criterion of morality Modernity recognizes either ‘authority’ or ‘convention’, both of which presuppose, as something self-evident which is accepted for the organization of the mode of life (that is, of the cultural paradigm), an anthropology asphyxiatingly centred on the individual and a mechanistic ultilitarianism. The novel element in the Freedom of Morality is the Hellenic ecclesial version of existential freedom, that is of love (of the loving mode of existence) as an ontological criterion of ethics – a criterion of morality or realization of existence ‘in accordance with truth’, not the utility and effectiveness of ‘objective’ regulative principles of behaviour.
My book The real and the imaginary in the Political Economy (1st edn 1989) is part of the same attempt to examine the philosophical ‘fruitfulness’ of the twins apophaticism and ontology of the person. This attempted examination has been extended into the field of today’s socio-political theories by my Rational thought and social practice (1st edn 1984). It has also been extended into the field of the philosophy of law by my Inhumanity of rights (1st edn 1998), and into the field of the delimitation of linguistic realism and metaphysics with my What can be said and cannot be said (1st edn 1999).
7. Consequently, the question of the validity, coherence, and fruitfulness of this work of writing and research seems to remain open. When one is living is a country on the periphery (perhaps one should say on the margins) of international developments, and is writing in a language whose readership is constantly shrinking, there are moments when one is overwhelmed by a sense of exclusion or loss of hope that some ay one’s work will be judged.
Yet when one is engaged with the problem of existence and truth, when this acquires the urgency of a need, it becomes, I imagine (and we all understand this), one’s primary concern, even when one is clinging to the life-raft after a shipwreck. Nobody in the end works on such topics to have his work judged and evaluated or for any other ulterior motive, however lofty. Very simply, he works to share his inquiry with others. That alone.
Allow me to repeat that I am grateful to you for this meeting.
Christos Yannaras. 


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