Monday, February 06, 2012


The pairing of permanence and change is one of those dialectical relationships which drives the western philosophical tradition, partly due to the fact that it won't fit easily within that system.  (Other pairs which function in a similar way would include unity/plurality, and infinitude/limitation - these are all linked).  They won't fit well into the western tradition because the west has typically been driven by an either/or dynamic.  This goes back a long way.  On permanence and change, consider Zeno and Heraclitus, both kicking around in the 5th century BC.  Zeno seeks to show, through a fascinating reductio ad absurdum, that the very idea of change is nonsensical.  Heraclitus, on the other hand, famously declared that one cannot step into the same river twice - appearing to be referring to the fact that both the river and the person stepping into it are constantly changing.

Clearly the either/or approach does not serve us well here.  In fact, permanence and change are, at least conceptually, dependent on one another.  Without some sort of permanence, there is no change, but only a constantly new universe; there is no way to posit identity over time, and therefore no way to say that anything changes.  To deny permanence is to make change illusory.  Without some sort of change, there is nothing that can be identified as permanent; there is nothing that persists through time, because there is no time.  To deny change is to make permanence a nonsense.

If we persist, with the western tradition generally, in seeing dualities as necessarily dichotomies, we have to prioritise one of the pair, making the other illusory.  When we realise this just won't work, we find some way of relating the two so that both can be true.  The old metaphysics of substance and accidents is an attempt at this; the Roman Mass is a reductio ad absurdum against this view.  If we start from a position of fundamental opposition between the pair, we are left with either horrible tension (Descartes), weird and rather too convenient concurrence between opposites (Leibniz), or the internalisation of one of the pair such that it only exists as a human property (arguably Kant).

So we need Hegel; we need someone who will treat two as two.  Hegel's dialectic, however, ends in monism, because although the two are real and really two, they are ultimately subsumed into one.  Still, Hegel is a step forward.  What we need to be able to say is that permanence and change describe one another; when we say permanence, we refer to change, and when we say change, we refer to permanence.  This is not to identify the two, but it is to resist the temptation to dichotomise.

This is all waffle, of course, but I think it has implications for, amongst other things, the doctrine of God.


  1. Are these ideas sparked off at all by Frame's perspectivalism?

    1. Not really, actually, although I can see why you might think they were. I read Frame's Doctrine of the Knowledge of God in January, and found it weird and alien - and I think his vestigium trinitatis leads directly to modalism, although he doesn't take it there. I might write a review of it at some point, but I want to read his Doctrine of the Word of God first, in case it rescues the situation. Thus far, I don't understand why Frame is so well regarded in Reformed circles, as I've found him philosophically and theologically pretty awful.

      These thoughts came to me in the middle of the night, but I think they were probably stimulated by some Bruce McCormack lectures I've been enjoying - see here. They're really very good (if you listen, skip the Q&A time; it is tedious).

  2. Michael9:59 am

    Dan, I know this is an old post, and I know I'm rattling off the comments, but I wanted to ask you something about this. You mention Hegel as a 'step forward'. Do you think that's one of the major points of differentiation between pro-Barthians and anti-Barthians? His 'dialectical' method is objectionable to people like me precisely we see Hegel as extremely problematic and unhelpful. Even though Barth is offering a major corrective to Hegel and diverges massively, he is clearly heavily shaped by him, even in his *style* of writing.
    On a similar note, I was reading some of the literature around Barth's correspondence with Von Kirschbaum, and he explicitly uses the 'dialectical' method to justify paradoxically 'being married' to Nelly but 'being in love with' Charlotte. This is one of the virtues of dispensing with such dialectics - it allows you to say "the emperor has no clothes", and point out inconsistencies which should be ironed out and not simultaneously lived with.
    What do you reckon?

    1. Hmm. I don't know if I'd stand entirely behind these particular thoughts nowadays - I don't really remember having them or what the context was! In defence of Barth, I'll say that his dialectic is fundamentally different from that of Hegel - not just on the surface, but down in the dialectical engine room, there really isn't all that much in common. The primary difference is that for Barth things really are, in the end, very one sided: everything significant is said by God in Christ. But the eschatological sense is, perhaps, shared with Hegel, or maybe better to say that Hegel plays on the edges of Christian eschatology. That is to say, God's grace sets up a dialectic which is only finally resolved in the eschaton. One of the problems with classical reformed theology is that it doesn't seem to have any eschatology, except perhaps as a post-script. (It favours permanence over change..?)

      Anyway, as noted in the original post, this is a bit of waffle. I think I see what Past Me was getting at, but I think he might have put it much better. And there is no defending the CvK position, except to say that I don't find it convincing to see it flowing from Barth's theology; but that is a conversation for another day.