Kevin Hart currently teaches in the religious studies department at the University of Virginia. There he is the Edwin B. Kyle Professor of Christian Studies. In 1989 he published a remarkable book titled The Trespass of the Sign: Deconstruction, Theology, and Philosophy. Although originally brought out by Cambridge, it was republished by Fordham University Press in 2000 with a new introduction and appendix. I find the book remarkable for its skillful attempt to appropriate Derrida for theology. Hart does this (as I read him) in view of two purposes. The first of these it to make a case for God’s “aseity” – the idea that God is utterly unique and owes nothing of what he is to anything outside of him (TS, , xxi). “God,” says Hart, “comes only from God, certainly not from being. For without God there could be neither being nor beings” (TS, xxii). The second purpose is to show how negative theology, understood as a form of Derridean deconstruction, can help in the development of a non-metaphysical, or non-ontotheological, theology (TS, xxxv). I do not agree with Hart’s conclusions but I find the project immensely interesting nonetheless since negative theology is a major focus of my own research, especially negative theology in the context of continental thought.
In a section of my dissertation (Fordham, 2008) I wrote about Hart’s interpretation of Aquinas as an ontotheologian in The Trespass of the Sign. In the event that some of our readers might find these thoughts useful, I’m going to post them here in a few parts in a slightly revised form.
I begin with a consideration of what Hart means by “ontotheology.” There is no general consensus on how to understand the meaning of this term, which comes down to us from Kant and from Heidegger. Whenever someone uses it, it is always a good idea to ask what their concept of ontotheology is.
Hart appears to use “ontotheology” interchangeably with “metaphysical theology.” But it is not easy to grasp what he intends by these terms. There are places in the book where he seems to present a precise definition, but then when he actually identifies a particular theology as ontotheological, the features that he singles out are not always the ones that he had given in his earlier definitions.
However, if we pay attention to both his definitions and his actual critiques, I think we can get a more or less accurate idea of his concept of ontotheology. In brief, Hart considers a theology to be ontotheological if it (1) completely identifies the God of metaphysics, the causa sui [sic],with the God of faith (TS, 97); (2) understands God exclusively as a cause or ground or essence of beings (TS, 104, 255); (3) takes God to be nothing more than the highest being, value, etc. (TS, 80, 191); (4) takes God to be a determinate kind of being (TS, 76, 255); (5) regards positive theology as having a priority over negative theology, which it regards as a supplement “merely added to positive theology” (TS, 104, 199-203, 256). With respect to the last point – which is the one that receives the most attention in the book – Hart believes that in the best theology the negative has priority over the positive in the sense that the theologian must acknowledge that “God always exceeds the concept of God” (TS, 296).
Now, it should be added that Hart does not think that it is entirely wrong to apply our concepts to God. He thinks that we only get off track when we suppose that these terms adequately express God (TS, xxii, xxvi, 295-296). Hart does not specify whether a theology must possess just one or all five of the characteristics that I have enumerated in order to be considered ontotheological. Since there is no obvious and necessary connection between them, I will suppose that in Hart’s mind a theology only has to have one of the characteristics to be considered ontotheological.
To be continued…