Transcendental journalism?

“In this Day the secrets of the earth are laid bare before the eyes of men. The pages of swiftly-appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world. They reflect the deeds and the pursuits of divers peoples and kindreds. They both reflect them and make them known. They are a mirror endowed with hearing, sight and speech. This is an amazing and potent phenomenon. However, it behoveth the writers thereof to be purged from the promptings of evil passions and desires and to be attired with the raiment of justice and equity. They should enquire into situations as much as possible and ascertain the facts, then set them down in writing.” — Baha’u’llah, Tarzát #6

When I was in the Alps, I had a productive conversation with a young Italian student who is doing her doctoral work at the Sorbonne. She was curious about my opinion on the “faith and reason problem” as a “religious philosopher” (i.e., a philosopher who is religious and who thinks about religion). I was surprised by my answer.

I began talking about Husserl’s concept of the “epoché”, which may be understood as literally “to step back” and look not at the object but the way the object is given to us in experience. The concept was already on my mind as a way to describe God. What’s striking is that, even though Husserl was interested in the epoché as a philosophical tool or act, he described it as a “complete personal transformation, comparable in the beginning to a religious conversion” (The Crisis of European Sciences, 1970, Northwestern University Press, p. 137).

Since I’m not a Husserlian, I may be doing some damage to his thought here, but it’s my understanding that the entity doing the epoché — the who is taking the step back — he described as a “transcendental subject” (à la Kant). Maybe another way of describing it is that in order to take a step back, the philosopher must presume the position of a transcendental subject. Either way (and both could be true), this got me to thinking about Descartes’ radical skepticism. Briefly, Descartes had systematically doubted everything, even his own existence, in order to find at least one thing that actually does exist. In an epiphany, he realized that there must have been someone in the vast darkness beyond time and space who was actually doing the doubting — hence his legendary remark, “Cogito ergo sum“. No surprise that Husserl had entitled (one of his many) introductions to phenomenology, Cartesian Meditations.

However, in my eyes, Descartes made a critical mistake: he assumed that this discovered cogito was his own, when all he had actually managed to confirm was that there was a cogito somewhere out there (beyond “where” and “there”, of course). This intuition crept up on me as far back as my freshman year of philosophical studies, although at the time I had difficulty describing it. At first I thought that Descartes was shying away from what I used to call “the innate deification of his own logic”, but what I now realize is that what I wanted to say is: the cogito is God. Whether we want to compare my claim here to late Medieval Nominalism or Islamic Occasionalism, Descartes’ immense Doubter is the source of all “existents” in the sense that they are all Its hallucinations — including, by the way, that meager, finite hallucination which once called itself “Descartes”.

And therein lies the connection between, as it were, philosophical method and religious method, namely, that both are taking a step back via the presumption of a transcendental subject. Where Descartes tried to claim it and individuate it, Husserl apparently had an inkling of what it really was — hence his remark that the epoché is akin to a religious conversion. This would mean that at the very heart of philosophy is something profoundly religious, not that philosophy as a discipline and discourse can be reduced to, as it were, theology sans an explicit theo, but that it is fundamentally spiritual in a manner perhaps analogous to what may be the inevitable methdological-ontological intersection between scientific method and religious method.

Needless to say, I was impressed by this reasoning at the time (although I don’t know how original it may or may not be in the history of philosophy); my young colleague was not convinced, but she was also struck, so my Cartesian ego can give itself a little thumbs up. But now, here I am, a few weeks later, sitting in Leuven and pondering about it (when I really should be preparing for my “Media Ethics” exam tomorrow!) in light of a project my friend Ben Schewel is working on concerning insights gleanable from the praxis of the Baha’i community for the larger question of religion, science, and Modernity. Since Ben’s project is very much at the beginning stages, I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag just yet, except to say that what they have in mind is damn good stuff.

Although I have the ambition to be a great philosopher, the truth may end up being that I just don’t have what it takes — certainly not when I look at Ben. So, I’ve been trying to figure out something that I could actually do, some contribution I could actually make, and for better or for worse, maybe it’s in journalism. Again, I’m not actually especially good as a journalist, since most of my career has been as an editor, and moreover, I’ve been working on the fringes or avant garde of contemporary journalism in the arenas of digital pluralism, “scientific leaking”, radical subjectivism, etc. But, you know, my Cartesian ego’s got to try something “to make a mark”.

One of the ways that makes me “fringe”, at least in the West, is that I’m religious, as in my experience, the overwhelming majority of Western journalists are at best agnostic. The difference is all the more striking working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, since many of the Muslim journalists on the staff are very devout while their American and Russian colleagues are frequently died-in-the-wool atheists. Now, as a student of Charles Taylor and Marcel Gauchet, I’m actually not surprised by this difference, as I believe that deep down inside, whether they know it or not, the structure of my Western colleagues’ ideals is actually very Christian, if secularized so much that they can’t see it anymore. Yet, the historical-sociological aspect is only part of the story; I want to do what Ben’s doing for religion and science, namely, applying the insights of the Baha’i Faith. So, here goes:

The Baha’i approach to historical and social phenomena tends to be very Modern(ist) in the sense of getting to the universal essence of things. This is most evidenced in our doctrine about the prophets of old, namely, that They have all actually been Manifestations of the same Divine Reality, culturally contextualized but the innermost truths of Whom have been gradually unfolding over the course of time until Baha’u’llah (and shall continue to unfold after Him into the future). When this kind of reasoning is applied to journalism as an historical or social phenomena — and mind you, a lived phenomena, right now — what I think it shows is that there is a deep skepticism that comes naturally to the profession, one that cannot be said to just be specifically emergent from this or that religion or historical period (even if, as Habermas has pointed out, it is distinctly Modern).

Moreover, that so many of my Muslim colleagues are critical of Islam, i.e., in terms of its political and social practices as a community, and they do so while still being completely devout, citing the authority of no less a personage than the Prophet Muhammad Himself to legitimate their stance, indicates something very, very important about the true nature of this skeptical instinct — perhaps, for me, it’s the key hint. What it tells me is that journalists are in fact a breed of philosopher as understood by Husserl, wielding the epoché like an axe in the wilderness of the world. The differences between them are merely apparent and the result of the differences between the media and academic industries. In fact, the philosopher’s focus upon the structure and meaning of the mind and the journalist’s focus upon the structure and meaning of information is tantamount to the same thing. Moreover, their concerns for accuracy and insight as a means of enlightenment, transformation, and justice are in fact resonant, if not the same.

Thus, if journalists are actually a breed of philosopher, then that would mean that at the very core of journalistic method is a profound religious sensibility. The journalist’s commitment to The Truth, The Fact, The Voice of the People, and so forth, is actually a commitment to God. Perhaps, if there is a substantive difference between the philosopher and the journalist, it is that while the former is seeking the manifestation and realization of the Divine Presence within the individual mind, the latter is seeking it in collective consciousness, i.e., society, government, public opinion, etc. — but then a figure like Socrates would call even that distinction into doubt.

Hmmmm I suppose what I want to argue for, then, is what might be called transcendental journalism. It’s certainly a snazzy way to put it, but it also describes my point very well. There’s just one problem: authority. There’s a potential paradox in this religious approach to journalism, especially as a Baha’i. On the one hand, the transcendental journalist roots himself in Divine Reality as the position from which he can examine events, assertions, etc. — in other words, he or she is a kind of anarchist, obeying no authority save the Lord’s — but on the other hand, that Divine Reality, via Its Manifestations, has identified or appointed channels for Its authority in this life: for Catholic Christians, the Church; for Protestants, the assemblage of believers; for Muslims, the ulema; for Baha’is, the Universal House of Justice; and so on. What, then, should the journalist’s stance be toward these institutions?

Judging from experience, many of my colleagues almost certainly would opt for a Tolstoy approach, i.e., The Kingdom of God is Within You — indeed, that’s pretty much their approach already. The really radical ones among them might even go down the path of Bakunin, arguing that God demands His own renunciation (resulting in a kind of intoxicating infinite loop of submission and rebellion). And I must confess, there is a strong allure to both approaches, if for nothing else than their sheer spiritual energy and logical coherence. Yet, they also seem somehow to be the epoché instinct gone a bit too astray, seduced indeed by its own logic — in a sense, the cry of the Divine within the journalist actually can lead him or her away from the Divine, a scary idea for sure. My intuition suggests that the problem may lie in the emphasis on doubt and criticism and a de-emphasis on belief and construction, but at present I don’t yet know how to philosophically articulate that in the same way that I did for the former. Maybe that should be my project?

[The photos above are, in order: the room in which the Bab declared His Mission, the pen used by Baha'u'llah, and the cover image from Nabil's chronicle, The Dawn-Breakers. If you're curious to read an earlier reflection of mine concerning the spirituality of journalism, check out: The Journalistic Doors of Perception.]

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One thought on “Transcendental journalism?

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