Is Humanistic Secularism Based on a Univocal Metaphysics?

Central to my philosophical and theological work in recent years has been the distinction between a univocal and an analogical metaphysics. The first regards all beings as existing in the same way. If there is a God, then this is only because one being is infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, etc. An analogical metaphysics, on the other hand makes a distinction between contingent and necessary Being. We, and everything we experience in the phenomenal world, are contingent, depending on our relationships with others for our Being.  But in order to explain why there is something rather than nothing, we need to have recourse to something which has the power of Being in itself. This, from the vantage point of an analogical metaphysics, is what we mean when we talk about God. (We will leave to one side, for now, the question of the Buddhist metaphysics of pattica samupada, or dependent origination, which argues that nothing has inherent existence, but that everything is simply dependent on everything else. The question of how this metaphysics relates to the analogical metaphysics of Esse, and of whether or not it can be reconciled with that metaphysics, will be addressed in a later essay.)

I have attributed a great deal of the problems of Asharite Islam and Augustinian Christianity (what I call theistic secularism) and technocratic secularism to their univocal metaphysics. I will not rehearse those arguments here. Suffice it to say that at best they lead only to what Hegel called the “bad infinity” –more of the same forever. And they set up a zero sum game in which our gain –even in the sense of authentic spiritual growth and development– is God’s loss or at least that of another being, and thus Sin. There can be no good but God in such a world, and God’s goodness can consist only in forgiving Sin which is, in effect, inscribed in the very finitude of our existence.

In this essay, however, I would like to explore a more difficult question, and one on which I have long remained undecided.  Is humanistic secularism, which aims to transcend contingency by creating a political subject (the rationally autonomous individual, the democratic state, the communist party, or the people) which makes humanity the master of its destiny also rooted in a univocal metaphysics.

This is an important question because it bears on “what went wrong” with the liberal, democratic, socialist, and populist projects –and thus on the extent to which the traditions to which these projects have given birth retain some enduring value –still have something important to teach humanity. It is also, of course, of great personal importance to me since  my work began with an attempt to carry the project of dialogue between the Catholic and dialectical materialist traditions to full integration, and while my work has grown beyond that, in search of a much broader synthesis between humanity’s great spiritual traditions, humanistic secularism, especially in its communist form, remains an important part of that synthesis. We must understand what was wrong with the communist project not in order to heap on it yet further condemnations, but in order to save what was healthy, sane, and whole and give it new life in the context of a new spiritual and civilizational ideal. And since metaphysics is the architectonic for all disciplines, we must understand where communism erred at the metaphysical level.

It would seem, at first, that humanistic secularism is not rooted in a univocal metaphysics, because its concept of Being is characterized not by what the Hegel called a “bad infinity” but rather by the capacity to bring forth all specific determinations from itself, determinations which eventually come to consciousness and find their realization in Spirit (for Hegel), in Communism (Marx), or in the various disclosures of Being in the history of specific peoples (Heidegger).  This concept of Being is much closer to that of Plato, Aristotle, and their Jewish, Christian, and Islamic commentators, and ultimately that of Thomas than it is to that of al-Ghazali or Duns Scotus or any of the rationalists or empiricists.

But all that this shows is that the univocity Being for humanistic secularism is not a univocity Being as contingent (if also, potentially, infinite).  What I would like to argue here is that humanistic secularism reduces all Being to Necessary Being, to Esse as such, effectively divinizing everything, which is what its requires, of course, as a civilizational project in which humanity, through the medium of some political organization, becomes, effectively divine.


The philosophical genealogy of this error is actually rather simple. It derives from a straightforward attempt to correct an error, or at least an ambiguity, in Aristotelian metaphysics. Specifically, Aristotle made a distinction between substance and accident.  Substances exist in themselves, accidents exist only in something else. Thus “cat” is a substance, because we encounter independently existing cats; “black” is an accident and exists only in cats, holes, or other things which are substances. It was, for Aristotle, who did not have a fully developed concept of Being, the essence of something which gave it substantial existence.

The difficulty with Aristotle’s formulation, of course, is that once we have a clear concept of Being, something which the dialectical tradition gained by its engagement with Judaism, with its concept of God as yhwh, the causative form of the verb to be, the idea of “substances” such as cats existing on their own begins to break down.  While we may mean different things when we say that something is a cat and that it is black, in neither case are we really saying that it exists by its own power.  This why, by the time we get, by way of the Radical Aristotelians of the late Silk Road Era,  to Spinoza, we have abandoned the substance/accident distinction in favor of the idea that there is only one Substance: Nature or God. Spinoza himself, wedded as he is to the task of remaking philosophy on the model of mathematics, veers dangerously close to a univocal monism in which the distinction between infinity and necessity is lost.  But Hegel, in insisting that Being be thought as Subject rather than Substance overcomes this difficulty and we arrive at the other side of the Enlightenment with an understanding of the phenomenal world as only apparently constrained by the limits of contingency.

The divine spirit must interpenetrate the entire secular life: whereby wisdom is concrete within it, and carries the terms of its own justification. But that concrete indwelling is only … ethical organization (Hegel, G.W.F. Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: Part Three: Philosophy of Spirit: Paragraph 552).

For Hegel there is only one Being and we are its conscious manifestation, God not only Incarnate but finally come to consciousness and fully possessed of its power in, and only in, the State. While it is customary to bash Hegel for identifying this State with the Prussian Monarchy, any credible reading of even the Philosophy of Right in the light of the larger trajectory of Hegel’s thought makes it clear that he envisions a constitutional monarchy with significant democratic participation and a social policy that prefigures both contemporary social democracy and associationalist and communitarian alternatives.

Marx extends this idea politically, but also makes the metaphysical  implications of Hegel’s move more explicit. Following Feuerbach, he regards the idea of God as simply a projection of humanity’s own species being, which is to say that humanity is, in fact, at least implicitly divine.  This alienation, as Marx calls it, is a product of social structures which leave humanity at the mercy of forces beyond its comprehension or control, the most recent of which is capitalism.  The socialization of the means of production and the transcendence of the market order undo this and leave humanity to realize its full divinity. That the aims of communism are every bit as metaphysical as they are economic or political is apparent from Marx’s formulation in the Paris Manuscripts, where he calls it :

… the definitive solution of the contradiction between man and nature and between man and man, the true solution of the contradiction between existence and essence, between objectification and self-realization, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. Communism is the solution to the riddle of history and knows itself to be that solution (Marx 1844/1978: 84).


What this does, in effect, is to reduce the whole of phenomenal reality, at least as appropriated and organized by humanity once it has reached the stage of Communism, to the divine. Marx’s metaphysics, like that of his followers, is univocal and necessitarian. It is, in effect, not a true atheism, but rather a materialist pantheism, a point made decades ago by philosophical sovietologists such as Dahm and  others.

The question of whether or not Heidegger’s (anti)metaphysics is univocal or analogical is controversial (Tonner 2010, Harris 2012). And, as with Spinoza, Hegel, and Marx, it is probably most accurate to say that, if we divide the metaphysical field between Thomas Aquinas and john Duns Scotus, Heidegger will be uncomfortable in either camp. But our analysis has, however, defined a third camp, that of a univocity of being modeled not on the ordinary, contingent beings we encounter in the phenomenal world, with or without the possibility that one of them is infinite, but rather a univocity of Being as divine, and of the world with it. Here, however, it is the People (in the sense of the culturally specific Volk, not the plebian demos or laos) which is the medium through which Being reveals and realizes itself. Being, for the later Heidegger, manifests itself in a people only through the voice of the few who help it to discover its “god,” a sort of mythos under which Being is revealed.

… the essence of the people is its “voice.”  This voice does not, however, speak in a so-called immediate flood of the common, natural, undistorted and uneducated “person.”  The voice speaks seldom and only in the few, if it can be brought to sound …  (Heidegger >1934/1989: 319)

A Volk is only a Volk if it receives its history through the discovery of its god, through the god, which through history compels it in a direction and so places it back in being.  Only then does it avoid the danger of turning only on its own axis … (Heidegger >1934/1989: 398-399).


This is the philosophical genealogy of humanistic secularism. But where did such an idea, which today seems so improbable that most scholars focus their attention on other, actually subsidiary aspects of Hegel, Marx, and Heidegger, come from? It would be easy to see humanistic secularism generally and socialism in particular as a product of the industrial, democratic, and scientific revolutions –of the growing weight of humanity in the universe. This is certainly the answer that an orthodox historical materialism would give and it is one which offers some hope for the eventual realization of the humanistic secular ideal. Hegel and Marx, this line of reasoning might suggest, were prescient but premature. Humanity is still very far from mastering the secrets of nature and history and becoming explicitly what it always has been implicitly.  But ultimately we will, and Marx’s communism will come to pass. Indeed, much as his own secularism was ultimately humanistic rather than technocratic, it was the conviction that science and industry would make it possible for humanity to transcend contingency which led Marx to opt for a “scientific” rather than “utopian” socialism, grounded in and dedicated to the full development of the productive forces rather than in the political action based on intellectual, moral, and spiritual development.

But we have seen where this option led. Historic socialism, as we have argued elsewhere, was a complex reality which integrated peasant and artisan resistance to capitalist development, the humanistic ideals of the intelligentsia –and the drive of what eventually became the technocracy to accomplish in colonial and semicolonial regions what capitalism had not:  industrialization and the social development it made possible. And it was these technocrats who, inevitably, came to dominate historic socialist societies, so that they have everywhere become an expression of an alternate path to technocratic secularism, with very little that is authentically humanistic about them. Indeed, in the longue durée, they look suspiciously like variants of a broader statist path to industrializations and capitalist development shared by nonsocialist societies such Germany and Japan, relying on a legitimation strategy which involved just modestly more humanistic than nationalist ideology, and then only for a little while.

But this analysis touches only the historic strategy of humanistic secularism, not the ideological complex itself, except perhaps to suggest that technocratic secularism is the truer path.  Either we believe that science and technology will eventually redeem us, whether we live in capitalist or socialist societies, which in any case look less and less different from each other, and abandon humanistic for technocratic secularism, or else we regard the alliance as an error and consider other strategies.

The first option, in the light of what we know about the “bad infinity” which the technocracy promises and the ecological crisis engendered by industrial technology, no longer seems credible. The latter option is more attractive. But while there is no shortage “postcommunist” thought which takes Marx’s humanistic ideals seriously, there has been no new strategy for communism. What someone like Zizek offers is not so much a strategy for authentic, humanistic communism as a way to keep the ideal of rational autonomy alive in a civilization dedicated to killing it.  And even this seems like a more and more desperate ploy. Our old allies the peasants are gradually disappearing into the new global “middle class” which, like the industrial proletariat of the advanced capitalist countries before it, seeks not revolution but rather reform (read increasing disposable income), or else descending into the global underclass of migrant workers, refugees, and slum dwellers who lack the social capital to organize effectively.  Meanwhile the technocracy is gradually hounding the humanistic intelligentsia out of existence.  Too many humanistic scholars and practitioners now inhabit “adjunct hell,”  keeping liberal education alive by working for wages well below the (admittedly rather high) replacement cost of their labor, or “barista hell,” still looking for a way to break into what –from a barista’s vantage point– looks like a rather higher circle in global Capital’s burgeoning Inferno.  The revolution’s head has lost its heart and does not know where to find it.

Ideologies, Marx would remind us, die for a reason: the social classes the aspirations of which they articulated die out, left behind or actually crushed by changing social conditions. Ideologies, Hegel would remind us, die for a reason: they embody only a partial truth and in living this truth they are exposed as lies.  Humanistic secularism is dead for the simple reason that its central claim is incorrect. Phenomenal reality, material reality, whatever we want to call the world we experience with our senses, while it participates in the divine, is not itself God. Or rather it is God only in and through its not-being-God, through the limits it imposes and the dependence on others it requires of us, which point us beyond ourselves to the authentic ideal of Being as Such (or, in the apophatic language of the Buddhists, the ideal of dependent origination, the truth that we live in each other’s embrace).  This does not mean that humanistic secularism generally and communism in particular embodied no truth. On the contrary, the human civilizational project and especially the struggle for justice are real participations in the life of God, real ways towards enlightenment.  But they do not make us masters of our own destiny. And there is no political subject, be it the rationally autonomous individual or the democratic state or the communist party or people which can do this. On the contrary, we should have known all along that any organization powerful enough and compact enough to become a real collective political subject (itself a tall order) would negate the rational autonomy of its members and render itself an instrument of oppression rather than of liberation.  Rather, civilization building and the struggle for justice stretch us beyond ourselves, teaching us the deep truth that there is no Self –not even a We—which can become the master of its own destiny. Being is neither Substance nor Subject, but rather Relation, pure generativity and finds itself only in the gift, given or received, which reminds us of our dependence on each other as well as our creativity.

But this does not mean that we should simply leave our old humanistic ideals behind in favor of traditional spiritual paths. Those paths themselves are flawed because they too represent only a limited perspective on the truth –and in particular because they have neglected the aspiration of a spiritually maturing humanity for rational autonomy and because they have too often denied the deep truth of matter’s participation in the divine (something which expresses itself in, among other things, misogyny and repressive sexual morality). Those of us who have followed the way of humanistic secularism, either exclusively or in syncretism with traditional spiritual paths, have a special calling in the present period. We must safeguard the ideals of rational autonomy of which we have been the principal carriers in the Saeculum. We must re-affirm the sanctity of matter even as we acknowledge its limits. And we must re-situate these truths in the context of higher spiritual paths which stretch us not only towards full humanity but beyond it, towards the divine.  Then, and only then, will we emerge from the various circles of Capital’s Inferno and rise, “once again to see the stars.”


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