Living Together in a Haunted House

By Stephen Minister, Assistant Professor of Philosophy

“I am going to say some things that will make you uncomfortable. If you haven’t been made uncomfortable, you haven’t really had a cross-cultural experience.” Thus began my class’s conversation with Raymundo Sánchez Barraza on a cool January morning in the mountains of Chiapas. Raymundo’s intention was not to scandalize us for his own amusement, but simply to share with us a glimpse of what the world looks like from the perspective of indigenous communities in southern Mexico. He quite rightly saw that for us, a group from Augustana College, to take this perspective seriously would mean the discomfort of having some of our beliefs, values, and practices called into question. To truly engage another perspective we had to risk the discomfort of having ours challenged. Of course, we need not leave our own country to experience this sort of discomfort as even here we encounter a variety of perspectives, religious and otherwise. In honor of Reformation Day, which of course is also Halloween, I would like to reflect a bit on the important role that being uncomfortable, unsettled, and even haunted plays in genuine engagement with others.

This may seem an unlikely topic for a philosopher as my discipline has long been concerned with ontology, that is, the attempt to determine what things really exist and what they are like. Is there a God and if so what is God like? Do humans have souls and what would it mean if we do? Why is there something rather than nothing? Recently, though, thinkers like Jacques Derrida and John Caputo have suggested that our answers to such questions should always be troubled by a “hauntology.” We should be haunted, they suggest, by the diversity of answers people give to these questions, by the existence of a plurality of perspectives, by disagreement among thoughtful, sincere people. We should be haunted by the thought that had we been born at a different time or in a different society, then our beliefs would likely be quite different, that others’ beliefs which seem so strange to us might have been our own. For, once we realize this — genuinely, internally realizing it — must we not give up the complacent assumption that our beliefs must be right, that of course they are better than other beliefs? Must we not always be a little spooked by the perpetual possibility that we may be wrong? The point of such a hauntology is not to engender a skepticism that would reject all beliefs, nor a relativism that would reduce all beliefs to mere opinion, nor even an agnosticism that would withhold belief pending further evidence. We can’t help but have beliefs and act on these beliefs. Hauntology simply reminds us that they are not quite as settled or as obvious as we sometimes take them to be. We must still give voice to our convictions, but alongside the voice of our convictions we should hear others’ voices, perhaps even a “still, small voice,” raising questions, doubts, “but what-ifs?”

The history of philosophy is largely a history of trying to quiet these doubts and thus overcome the discomfort they cause by proving, once-and-for-all, that “we” are right. With this in mind, the twentieth century Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas says, “The best thing about philosophy is that it fails.” Philosophy, of course, has the reputation of never really getting anywhere. Twenty-five hundred years of asking the same questions and we have yet to come up with any answers that aren’t contentious. Rather than seeing this as an embarrassing defect, Levinas suggests that we see this as philosophy’s virtue. For when we think we have once-and-for-all final answers, when all the ghosts and other mysteries have been banished and we stand in the clear light of pure truth, then we cease conversing with others, we stop really listening to those who continue to disagree with us. Indeed, at that moment we can only regard those who disagree with us as ignorant, irrational, or dishonest. One need look no further than contemporary political discourse to see this dynamic at work. By contrast, the failure of philosophy, the abandonment of claims to definitive, final answers, heralds the recognition that we always need to return again to the work of attempting to articulate our views and listening to the views of others.

Hence, the failure of philosophy and the inescapability of hauntology, of being-haunted, need not drive us away from rational inquiry, but instead should drive us into conversation. They allow us to think of “reason” not as a noun, as something I possess and use to prove that I am right, but as a verb, as the honest, open reason-giving that we do with each other. As God says to Isaiah, “Come now, let us reason together.” On this model, reasoned argumentation is about jointly digging deeper into our beliefs and values, rather than digging in our heels. Rational discourse need not be the expression of pompous self-righteousness, but can instead be the practice of vulnerability, trying to express ourselves clearly and honestly so as to open ourselves to the responses of others. Such reasoning may not always reach agreement, but it may allow us to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of others even amidst our disagreements. To my mind, learning to reason in this way is a vital component of a liberal arts education. Being liberally educated is not about memorizing a bunch of information or being able to ace multiple choice exams. It is about learning how to be unsettled, uncertain, and haunted, and then cultivating the critical, creative, and cooperative thinking skills to move forward together. Are any skills more useful in an irreducibly pluralistic society and increasingly interconnected world?

Of course, the possibility for productive conversation across the boundaries of geography, religion, and philosophical perspective is not new. History provides many such cases. Take, for example, the work of Thomas Aquinas, which has been so significant for subsequent Christian thought. While working from the Christian Scriptures, his theology was also powerfully influenced by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, the Jewish thinker Mosheh ben Maimon, and the Islamic scholar Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina. Christian theology as a Greco-Judeo-Islamo-Biblical hybrid? Uncomfortable yet? So let conversations across perspectives continue, but with neither the complacent pretense of a shallow multiculturalism that pretends to affirm all differences while dismissing whatever is unsettling, nor the apathy of a comfortable relativism that rejects the possibility of cooperative inquiry. Instead, let us proceed with honesty, humility, and — what both of these ultimately require — courage. For the house we share is haunted. Proceeding in this way will sometimes be uncomfortable. But as Raymundo reminded my class, if we haven’t been made uncomfortable, then we haven’t really listened to each other.