Introducing the network… Daniel Whistler

24 03 2013

[This is the first in a series of posts in which those closely involved with the new network introduce themselves.]

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I’m the Principal Investigator on this network and work in the Philosophy Department at the University of Liverpool where I’ve been for three years. As PI, I am running the first workshop at the University of Liverpool in May 2013 and also oversee the project as a whole (particularly and joyfully enough, the admin side!).

My background is in the history of philosophy (especially German Idealism), but I’ve written a lot around debates in contemporary continental philosophy of religion. In particular, I am very interested in the way (what is often called) ‘the speculative turn’ in recent European philosophy impacts on how philosophy of religion will be done in the future. And it is out of this context that my interest in the relation between philosophical discourse about religion and the actuality of lived religion itself emerged…

Around the time we edited After the Postsecular and the Postmodern: New Essays in Continental Philosophy of Religion, Anthony Paul Smith and I were interviewed by Scott McLemee for Inside Higher Ed. One of the exchanges went as follows:

Scott: Sometimes the relationship of academic theological discourse to any creed or confession can be difficult to make out. With the philosophy of religion, obviously, such distance seems to be built right in. What are the stakes of your book – if any – for “people of faith,” as the expression goes? That is, do you see this work as having consequences for what goes on at a church, synagogue, mosque, or whatever?

Daniel: I tend to deploy a rather crude, form/content model on this issue: the material with which “people of faith,” theologians, and philosophers of religion all deal is the same – “religion” in the broadest sense of the word. It is the operations of thought to which this material is subjected that differentiates them… The question then becomes: Does “religion” after such transformations bear any resemblance to or (more importantly) have any relevance to the “religion” with which “people of faith” engage? And the answer is still very much open to dispute… I would be horrified if someone found a kernel of everyday relevance in my contribution on Schelling (in which I argue that names such as “Christ” or “Krishna” are literally the products of geological eruptions). Personally (and here I am speaking very much for myself), I think there’s an element of smugness to the anti-“ivory tower” rhetoric that has emerged in the academy in the last century: the assertion that academics have something interesting or useful to say to the world imparts, in my mind, false value to what we say. In other words, I feel content to revel in the uselessness of my work.

Anthony: I love this answer! The militancy behind it stands against the pathetic “Theologian-Pope impulse” of so many theologians or the “Philosopher-King impulse” of so many philosophers that think the salvation for the world lies in our thought. However, I want to nuance it somewhat, as I do think some of what lies behind what we do as academics, the reasons we take up this work, can participate in political struggles or help to deal with the very serious problems we face without our thought being directly “useful” in some crude practice… What Dan called the “uselessness” of our work in some sense mirrors the uselessness of religion in general.

… at least this was my initial reaction. But afterwards as I thought about it more, I realised I didn’t actually know at all what relation philosophy does have and (more significantly) what fruitful relations it could have to religious practices. Might there be ways of modelling a closer relation that didn’t compromise philosophy’s ‘uselessness’?

In 2012, alongside my colleague, Daniel Hill, I started an AHRC-funded project on religious discrimination and interpretations of Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights. This work is coming out as a monograph, The Right to Wear Religious Symbols: Philosophy and Article 9, later this year (and the initial report is available here). Most significantly, it involved us – as philosophers of religion – actually talking to people from faith communities, as well as secularist organisations. Such discussions suggested that philosophers and practitioners could talk to each other in a constructive and mutually beneficial way.

It was in this context that the collaboration with University of Chester’s Centre for Faiths and Public Policy and William Temple Foundation began. Along with Chris Baker and John Reader, we put on an initial event in which philosophers of religion interested in continental speculation and public theologians and researchers on religion from a sociological background were put in the same room for a day to see what happened! And the results were productive… A further event on education and well-being from philosophical and religious perspectives followed, as well as a special issue of Political Theology setting out the stakes of this collaboration in detail (indeed, the introduction to this volume provides the theoretical background to what’s going on in the network as a whole). And out of these initial events and publications emerged this fully fledged network.

[For further info on my research, see my website.]