The Quest for Wholeness

Sometimes at Metanexus we say that we’re after “the whole story of the whole cosmos for the whole person.” We say we’re after it because we do not possess anything like the whole story. We say it, though, because the whole story is more like our motivating hope, our “regulative idea,” so to speak, that informs our thinking and our work, even though we do not possess it. It’s what gets us up and moving in the morning. There are plenty of stories—good stories—but we want the whole story.

What goes into the makeup of a whole story? Something like completeness or at least comprehensiveness, perhaps? And it would have to be about the whole of all that is, from the tiniest particle to the vastness of the universe, from the subjective to the objective, the inner and the outer, the physical and the metaphysical, the I and the We and the It. And why do we want this story? We want it in order to be whole persons, to fulfill all that we might become.

Let me quickly say that the whole story is impossible. It’s not just that we do not happen to have the whole story, that we could get it if only we worked long enough and hard enough. No. The whole story is impossible.

But that’s exactly why it is our hope. We hope for a future of wholeness, and that would require the whole story, and the whole story is impossible. But because it is impossible, we can have hope. And hope (along with faith and love) can transform the world. Let me explain.


The Impossible

John D. Caputo, in his book On Religion,1 helps us understand the meaning of the impossible. He writes that to speak of the impossible, we first have to understand what we mean by the possible, and to understand what we mean by the possible, we have to think about the future. Caputo says there are two ideas of the future, two futures. One is what he calls the “future present,” or the “relative present,” referring to the future relative to the present and its possibilities. This is the future you plan for, the future that follows on from the present. It is the present that is not yet, but one day will be. It is, more or less, a foreseeable future. It is the coming together of the possibilities.

On the other hand, Caputo writes:

there is another future, another thought of the future, a relation to another future, which is the future that is unforeseeable, that will take us by surprise, that will come like a thief in the night (I Thess. 5:2) and shatter the comfortable horizons of expectation that surround the present. Let us call this the ‘absolute future.’ When it comes to the relative future, the future present, we have ‘reasonable expectations,’ ‘cautious optimism,’ ‘bulls and bears,’ but as regards the absolute future we must be like the lilies of the field who sow not, nor do they reap, but who are willing to go with what God provides, which also means that they are ready for anything. For the relative future, we need a good mind, a decent computer, and horse sense, those three; for the absolute future, we need hope, faith, and love, these three. [7-8]

The impossible is that which is completely unforeseeable. Thus it is a function of the absolute future, the future you cannot plan for or take precautions about. For Caputo, “the impossible is a defining religious category…the stuff of which religion is made.” Caputo writes:

When the Latin comic poet Terence wrote that since what we wish for is impossible, we would have more peace if we sought only the possible, he was advising us to give up religion. For with God, as Gabriel told a very surprised virgin, everything is possible, even the impossible. That is what we mean by God. The impossible, if I may be so bold, is all part of a divine day’s work for God, part of God’s job description. […] The name of God is the name of the chance for something absolutely new, for a new birth, for the expectation, the hope, the hope against hope (Rom. 4:18) in a transforming future. […] With the absolute future, there are no guarantees, no contracts or warranties. With the absolute future, there is a lot of risk, so faith, hope, and love have to work around the clock. [10-11]

Much more could be said about Caputo’s story of religion, but let us take what we have from him so far. A whole story is impossible, and it is thereby a religious story. By religious story, I don’t mean that the whole story will be provided by any particular religion. Every religion or worldview or ideology, of course, offers what may look like a whole story, but it is rather a particular story, a possible story (however impossible some of the elements of that story may be—virgin births, multiple universes, etc.), a partial story. We know that beyond every particular story there is some other particular story. The whole story—wholly impossible—would be a story of all stories.

Paradoxically, a whole story could only arise at the point where particular stories breakdown. Wholeness is not opposed to fragmentation; it is the breakdown of fragmentation. The fragments do not add up to a whole (which would seem the only possibility); rather, a whole only comes in fragments, precisely where they fragment, where they breakdown, where the silos burst their seams, where the disciplines become undisciplined, where the rules become unruly, where our practices become “unhinged.”2

Hope or nihilism?

A whole story would be a complete speech, a last word, a final solution, and no one needs to be reminded of the horrors of final solutions.

We are supposed to live in postmodern times, defined by Jean-Francois Lyotard as “an incredulity towards over-arching metanarratives.” That’s a fancy way of saying that no one can believe—not if they are honest—in the Big Picture anymore. This claim is not obviously warranted. In fact, it seems untrue that there is any such incredulity. There is, on the contrary, ample evidence of allegiance in nearly all quarters to “absolutes,” “principles,” “essences,” “grand recits,” “verities,” “dogmas,” “home truths,” and all manner of “isms” which give meaning and succor to their adherents, and which exercise serious political, ethical, and spiritual influence in the world, not all of it good. It is likely that the claim of incredulity applies only for those Western intellectuals who find (what they take to be) the particular exhaustion of the Enlightenment story to imply the untenability of all metanarratives. Why this implication? Because the Enlightenment championed the cause of certainty, certainty as defined in terms of a Cartesian conception of universalizing Rationality-with-a-capital-R, and the end of all mythologies. When the mechanism of attaining certainty (this idiosyncratic flavor of certainty, I hasten to add) comes up short, the sense, apparently, is that the trustworthiness of any universalizing claim is in jeopardy.

A more theoretical way of putting this would be in terms of “deconstruction,” the idea (that’s not quite an idea…) that animates Caputo’s thinking. On this view, deconstruction applies to any and all discourse, meaning that all “texts” and “contexts” are constructions and are therefore exposed to deconstruction—which is thought not so much as something one does but rather something that “happens” or might happen to texts and contexts. In other words, there is no medication for the “Cartesian anxiety” regarding certainty. There’s no place to stand to get it, no absolute point of view, no “view from nowhere.”

If we grant that—and we have to grant that, I think—the problem for us will be the danger of nihilism. If there is no absolute certainty, is truth even possible? And if not truth, what about value? It would seem that the admission of the omnipresent possibility of deconstruction means nihilism. At least, that’s been the popular knock on deconstruction or Derridean philosophy.

Let’s explore this concept of nihilism before we pass judgment. Philosopher Stanley Rosen, in his book Nihilism,3 defines the term this way: “Nihilism is fundamentally an attempt to overcome or to repudiate the past on behalf of an unknown and unknowable yet hoped-for-future.” [140] Surely this resonates with Caputo’s description of the impossible, that which allows for hope. But Rosen issues a warning:

The danger implicit in this attempt is that it seems necessarily to entail a negation of the present, or to remove the ground upon which man must stand in order to carry out or even merely to witness the process of historical transformation. […] The attempt to overcome the past is necessarily rooted in a judgment upon the past; the nihilist inevitably and rather inconsistently asserts that, at the present moment, the past is worth less than the future. Because of the complex character of the instructions for overcoming the past, whether by political revolution, creative will, or ontological Gelassenheit4, we often fail to recognize the undefined character of the hoped-for future. The nihilist invokes us to destroy the past on behalf of a wish which he cannot articulate, let alone guarantee fulfillment. The classless society, the superman, the next epoch of Seinsgeschichte,5 so far as we in the present are concerned, are extreme revisions of the kind of wish described by Socrates in the Republic. […] One cannot understand the Republic by means of popular political categories like ‘conservative’ and ‘reactionary.’ Plato, like every philosopher, whatever his politics, is a revolutionary: he wishes to ‘turn men around’ (the famous περιαγϖγη), to make them face in a direction different from that of tradition. [140-1]

However, according to Rosen, there is an illusion of identity here.

The difference between Plato and the nihilists, however, is this: whereas nihilism points us toward the historical future, Plato turns us neither backward nor forward in a historical sense. The Platonic περιαγϖγη is directed upward. Plato wishes us to take our bearings in time by a vision that remains free of the transience of temporality. If such a vision is possible, then and only then has one acquired a ‘steadfast’ or secure ground for the present. Only then may one overcome not merely the past, but the dangers inherent in the undefinable character of the future. [140-1. Emph. added]

The trouble (for the non-Platonist, that is) is that “since temporality is the only substratum common to past and future, the one steadfast characteristic that may be attributed to the future is transience, negativity, or imminent worthlessness.” [140-141] In other words, nihilism.

But is such a vision as Plato calls for possible—possible in Caputo’s sense that we can plan for it, make plans for getting at it? Certainly, we (if we have not persuaded ourselves to be finally suspicious of “metanarratives”) desire a whole story. What is the relationship between this desire and the possibility of a whole story, a complete speech?

Rosen writes: “Desire, although not the same as speech, is completed by it; completely satisfied desire entails the complete speech. However, the completion of speech and the complete satisfaction of desire define a god, rather than a man. To achieve godhood is to cease to be a man, and so not to speak, but to be silent.” [209] According to Rosen, a complete speech—the whole story—would be impossible in that it would be indistinguishable from silence. Put differently, it is not for us mortals to have a whole story. If we had a complete speech, we would not be men, but gods. But we are not gods. Thus,

there is no complete speech (since it would then be the same as, or indistinguishable, from silence), but only speech about complete speech, or speech which articulates, renders intelligible, and is accompanied by desire. [209]

The quest for wholeness is a desire, a desire that cannot be ultimately fulfilled because its fulfillment would require the complete speech, the speech that constitutes the satisfaction of all desire. We can talk about this desire, however. Rosen:

Again, this does not mean that desire is the same as speech, but only that it is rational, i.e., capable of explication by speech. Desire is a mark of imperfection; ‘satisfaction’ does not and cannot mean simply ‘the fulfillment of this desire or that,’ but makes sense only when applied to the fulfillment of desire altogether. A desire may therefore be defined as ‘base’ when it interferes with the goal of complete satisfaction, and ‘noble’ when it advances that goal. A base desire stands in essential contradiction to the ultimate object of every desire, and so to itself. Unfortunately, a correct distinction between base and noble desires is as difficult as self-consciousness about desire altogether, or the construction of an adequate speech about the complete speech. Hence the difficulty of distinguishing between the philosopher and the sophist. The speech of the philosopher is an anticipation of, but not the same as, the complete or circular speech of the sage or god; as an anticipation only, it is easily confused with the infinite chatter of the sophist. [209-210]

A further complication: as we cannot possess the complete speech, it is difficult to tell whether our speech about the complete speech counts as philosophy or mere sophistry, just idle chatter, simple cocktail party pleasantries. Our desire for a complete speech, for a whole story, might have us wind up spouting gibberish. And some think that it inevitably will, that what we at Metanexus refer to as “transdisciplinary” work will end up either superficial or gibberish in its quest for completeness. Rosen writes: “In sum, one might well claim that philosophy is as dangerous as, or for all practical purposes indistinguishable from, sophistry, and this is to say that speech is as dangerous as silence, or that man’s natural condition is nihilism. The standard of a permissible speech is then the warning against the dangers of speech.” [209-210] There are those postmodernists who think this is exactly the case, that the upshot of deconstruction is reticence, the fear of saying too much, of straying too far into the enemy camp of “metaphysics” or other purported complete speech because that is at best meaningless and at worst dangerous (totalitarian).

But Rosen sees those who talk like this as missing something: “such a warning is pointless if taken as an invocation to silence, since it then becomes indistinguishable from an invocation to bestiality, or the impossibility of satisfying our desires as men.” [209-210] Rosen would have us draw a different lesson:

The most one can say is this: man is by his nature forever intermediate between speech and silence. As a consequence, he must conform to his nature by engaging in an intermediate or moderate speech, one which says enough to preserve his humanity, but not so much as to obfuscate the difference between the human and the divine. Speech which preserves the difference between the human and the bestial by a recognition of the difference between the human and the divine is prayer, or the speech of religion. [209-210]

In this case, nihilism would be thought of as brought about by philosophers’ desire getting the religious to be immoderate, that is to say, getting the religious to become irreligious. The intellectuals against the pious! The solution seems to remain in prayer (and perhaps tears).

Yet troubles remain, because even the partial, moderate speech—religious speech, as Rosen sees it—will be evaluated in its very being grasped. What if there is false prayer or a false prophet? From what vantage point would this problem for humans be solved?

But Rosen has been arguing all along:

that there cannot be any final solutions to man’s problems, that man is a problem (or paradox), however little this may appeal to common sense, and that to ‘solve’ the problem would be to dissolve man. This dissolution, or nihilism, arises precisely from the exaggerated attempt to enforce a simple solution, or to reduce complexity to unity in opposition to a more or less unstable harmony. Unity, or a non-articulated monad, is unspeakable and unthinkable. It is therefore true that, in order to exist, man must successfully combine the traits of conservatism and radicalism, but not that he must unify them. As both radical and conservative, man is neither one nor the other. In this vein, it makes sense to say that man is a harmony of opposites. Thus man can know the truth about himself with respect both to his end and his incompleteness, but he cannot, by virtue of the nature of that truth, possess a ‘systematic’ or ‘complete’ account of it. The truth is that, instead of solving his problems and thereby incurring the disaster of a ‘final solution,’ man must reconcile himself to a perpetual process of approximations, of prudential adjustments and accommodations, sometimes in the direction of daring, sometimes in the direction of caution. But these approximations are not directed toward an infinitely distant, and so infinitely inaccessible, goal of progressive perfection, for that would amount to having no goal at all, and so to approximate nothing, or to nihilism. The goal is accessible but unaccomplishable; man can understand that his nature would be fulfilled in a completely rational speech satisfying his desires as such, if it were not the case that such a speech, when completed, would destroy his nature. [216-217]

I should note that at Metanexus we sometimes talk about the “unity of knowledge.” We do so because that is sort of an intellectual “term of art,” and we mean it in contradistinction to the fragmentation of knowledge. But Rosen is right. We don’t mean “unity” in a reductive sense, a la E. O. Wilson’s “consilience,” for instance. Rather, we should talk (as we often do, as a matter of fact) of a “harmony” of knowledge. But this harmony is possible, however unstable, because of the relation of the partial to the whole, as we shall see.

To be complete, a human being must always be partial, must stand apart from beasts and gods and all things in order not to be confused or lost in them. Rosen writes:

To be complete, man would have to be simultaneously partial. If this is impossible, there is nevertheless an imitation or surrogate form of completeness available to him, namely, to speak in the light of, and so about, completeness Speech that is genuinely about completeness and not about something else—that is, speech which has grasped the truth about human nature, and so which functions in a healthy or sane way to articulate desire, guided by the ideal of perfection, but which, for that reason, avoids pressing any element in the situation beyond what it can bear, or which is guided by the ideal to avoid all unbalanced attempts to achieve it—is philosophy. [217-218]

The problem—the perhaps impossible problem—is for us to be simultaneously whole while remaining partial. We can only be wholly what we are so long as we are not submerged into all else that is, ie., the whole. That is the “problem.” The “solution”—which is in no way a final solution—is for us to be philosophers. This does not mean academic philosophers, card-carrying members of the American Philosophical Association, but to be philosophical in the way Rosen just described. And it is only in that way that we can determine how to evaluate other partial speeches, speeches about the various parts of our world and experience, the speeches one finds, for instance, in academic disciplines, in the various sciences, humanities, and world religions.

Philosophy, in this precise sense, is, for human beings, supreme. Rosen writes:

Other modes of speech, such as art and science, are reasonable or unreasonable, and so ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ as they do or do not participate in philosophy in the genuine sense of the term. It is therefore nonsense to judge philosophy in terms of art, science, political ideology, or any other secondary (because detached) form of speech, which itself implies prior philosophical decisions, whether known to the speaker or not. Philosophy can submit to no judge but itself, which is of course to say that it submits not to self-indulgence or pride, but to the standard of things, desires, and fundamentally to the desire for a complete interpretation of things, desires, speech, or itself. (217-18)

The philosophy of which Rosen is speaking is never ultimately escapable. It is intrinsic to every form of speech, and therefore to every discipline or field of knowledge. Rosen summarizes that to speak is to philosophize, and the “philosopher” is the one who can understand and give an account of speech, i.e., who can speak about the complete speech. “If it is not the complete speech about or toward which we speak, we are not philosophers; if our speech is the complete speech, then we are not men, which is to say we are not speaking.” [218] The upshot is that “if speech radically understood is philosophy, it follows that men lose their roots when they cease, or attempt to cease, to philosophize.” [219] One consequence of this is that

there are not several or indefinitely many ‘philosophies’ or ‘conceptions of philosophy,’ but only one. There are, however, indefinitely many philosophical speeches, certified as philosophical by the criterion just mentioned, indefinitely many because coextensive with human existence, or with ‘history’ in the vulgar sense of the term. Philosophy is always the same, but circumstances vary constantly, as they must by the nature of temporality and so of the dialectic between memory and forgetfulness. Every new circumstance demands a new philosophical speech. But just as memory provides the thread of continuity to circumstance, so the nature of desire and speech provides the double-thread of continuity to philosophy. Those who forget too much, and specifically this, break the thread of continuity, and of circumstances as well as speech. Speech becomes unending chatter, however analytically proficient, since the principles of analysis are themselves discontinuous speeches, beautiful perhaps, but like scattered pearls when the string of a necklace snaps.” [218-219]

The complete speech, or to say the same thing, wisdom, is both the beginning and the end of all partial speeches (all the disciplines, all the prayers). If this were not so, then no part would be intelligible at all. “The intelligibility of a part, or of a partial speech, cannot be identical with that part as partial, for if it were, there would be as many principles of intelligibility as there are parts, and these would be mutually self-contradictory. To be radically partial is to be unintelligible, or not even an identifiable ‘part.’” [221-2] Rosen concludes that:

either each part is in principle unintelligible (and hence a part in name only), so that what we at any moment think of as intelligible is merely local superstition, a kind of epistemological patriotism, or else the intelligibility of any part, even the most ordinary one, is a manifestation of the accessibility or intelligibility of the whole—of the ideal condition for the possibility of partial intelligibility, a condition which is evident in, inferable from, but necessarily independent of each and every part. This condition is the arche [beginning] and telos [end] by which and toward which philosophical speech is directed. [222]

The whole (the impossible, at least in speech) is the condition of possibility of partial intelligibility. Rosen comes to two conclusions:

First, philosophy is an inescapable consequence of rational speech; every effort to prove that speech is irrational terminates necessarily in self-contradiction or, perhaps more strongly put, in a self-cancellation. Second, the inescapability of philosophy means the accessibility or intelligibility (but not necessarily the achievement) of wisdom. That is, philosophy ‘begins’ with the recognition of the accessibility or intelligibility of that whole within which we are but a part—a part, however, that is not merely ‘open’ to the whole, but that in some sense circumscribes or reflects it. The sense in which we circumscribe the whole is itself reflected in the different conceptions of the determinate structure of the whole. The difference between those conceptions is intelligibility, that is, the common properties of each determinate conception, through which each is visible or intelligible, in and through which rational argument concerning these conceptions is possible. It is a failure to appreciate the force of this difference … which leads some thinkers to a doctrine of radical, and radically incompatible, Weltenshchauungen, that is, of beginnings irrational because indefensible, each distinct from and excluding others, among which no genuinely philosophical dialogue is possible. This doctrine, which even in its ‘historicist’ form is closely related to the emergence of modern epistemology, results from a common human failure to remember that a refusal or inability on our part to discuss our presuppositions makes them neither secure nor undiscussable. If we can identify our presuppositions and thereby distinguish them from other presuppositions, then there must be a common environment of intelligibility within which this determination takes place.” [225-6]

Rosen’s insights bring us back from the brink. While a complete speech for us mortals is impossible, as we are neither gods nor beasts but humans, the whole is nevertheless intelligible and accessible. It must be; otherwise, the “parts” of the whole could not truly be (or seem as) parts. Parts presuppose the whole. The whole, for us humans, comes in parts. Being after the “whole story” is a built-in desire for us human beings; thinking we have it in some form we can articulate is hybris, mistaking ourselves for gods (which almost always means we’ll act like beasts). As humans, we cannot live with it and we cannot live without it. A speech about the whole informs all other partial speeches, i.e., all the various fields of knowledge and belief. The various sciences are only intelligible insofar as there is access to an (intelligible) whole, however impossible it may be to fully articulate that whole. Religion—all our prayers and tears—are what they are in relation to the whole, and in fact they embody and circumscribe the whole. Otherwise, it would all just be “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.” But it cannot be that, not ultimately. We can only talk and act as if it were. The fact is that the thesis of “radical incommensurability” (the idea that there are always only partial stories that have different roots and origins and aims and, importantly, cannot finally come to a “fusion of horizons”) fails, and we can have hope that we can engage together in a quest for wholeness.

The Quest for Wholeness

Carl Vaught, author of a book called The Quest for Wholeness,6 wrote that the “quest for wholeness has a mystery, a power, and a structure of its own, and it is one of the fundamental tasks of philosophical reflection to understand its significance.” [ix] Vaught was “convinced that all of us know what human wholeness means and that we have all endured periods of disruption in between our moments of fulfillment.” [ix] The question is, given Rosen’s insight into the animating force of the whole for speech, how we are to speak and act, indeed, live. How are we to pursue and perhaps fulfill our quest for wholeness?

Certainly, we must address the Socratic imperative to know ourselves, our human condition, our situatedness, and our limitations. Vaught’s book tells us a story—in the form of a set of stories—on how we might proceed. He writes that philosophy—and here he might mean something different from Rosen’s description, something more “academic”—will not be sufficient, however philosophical the imperative that drives us may be.

Though abstract reflection might permit us to grasp the generic structure of human existence, it is not sufficiently rich to encompass the quest for wholeness as it unfolds within direct experience. For reflection of this kind to be possible, the concreteness of art and religion, and the human drama which they often express, must be blended with the discipline and the precision of philosophy, giving us access both to the depth and to the intelligible structure that the quest for wholeness always exhibits. […] In the early stages of the philosophical tradition, Plato warns us against ever writing our deepest thoughts, and in the more recent past, Wittgenstein has claimed that philosophy is more an activity than a doctrine, more a way of thinking than a set of propositions. Separated so widely in philosophical history, and separated as well by the basic thrust of their philosophical commitments, both thinkers recognized a common problem: "How can we speak discursively about the most important issues without our words degenerating into frozen letters on a printed page?" [x]

Vaught concludes that “abstract reflection can never exhaust the richness of the quest for wholeness; it demands reflection from the reader that will never come to an end; and if it is not too paradoxical to say it, the "categories" of depth and mystery must always remain a crucial element in any attempt to articulate the meaning of the quest for unity.” [x-xi] Vaught asks us to ponder how a philosophical system—what Rosen would call a complete speech—would even relate to our lived lives:

Suppose a philosophical system could be constructed that described the world as a whole and gave an adequate account of the place of the human soul within it. What would be the relationship between a system of this kind and the concrete situations from which we come and to which our philosophical reflections must finally be related? Is the richness of our origins contained within the Whole we attempt to understand, or do the concrete contexts from which we spring resist incorporation into a larger unity? Can the quest for wholeness be satisfied by generating a philosophical system, or is it equally concerned with a real ground that imagination makes accessible and that can never be included in a wider context? [xiv]

Vaught autobiographically relates the nature of his own quest. It began, however inarticulately, as a child, with stories, stories meant to convey truths about the nature of things, about life and his place in it. Telling stories is the first way human kind simultaneously pursued and manifested wholeness, and these stories were fundamentally religious. They were religious, for Vaught, in the simple sense that they were Bible stories—just the kind my mom read to me as I drifted off to sleep. But these stories are “religious” in both Caputo’s and Rosen’s sense. In Caputo’s sense, they are stories in which even the impossible is possible. (“Mom—read me about the burning bush again!”) In Rosen’s sense, they are not attempts to be complete speeches, they are not attempts at philosophical systems, they convey that humans are neither gods nor beasts but humans, they are moderate, they are prayers. My bedtime stories always came with prayers.

But Vaught, as he grew older, began to evaluate these stories, to try to analyze them, even to rationalize them, to determine more precisely what the stories were “trying to say.” A second step in the quest for wholeness, beyond telling stories, is what Vaught calls “the articulation of abstract distinctions.” And it was just this that led to the third stage, the attempt to construct a philosophical system. This flow mirrors in an essential sense the way our educational system is structured. We go from stories in kindergarten to unpacking all these stories in terms of different categories, different fields of knowledge, and then go on to systematize at least some of these into various fields.

One of these fields or disciplines has even come to be called “philosophy.” It has its own history (or at least an indefinite number of histories), its own canon, its own professional associations, academic methodologies and standards, and so on. But insofar as it does, it loses the thread of the quest for wholeness. Vaught writes that he:

finally realized that there is a fourth level of experience and reflection, and that it lies beyond the telling of stories, the articulation of abstract distinction, and the building of a philosophical system. It is the standpoint from which the reflective individual looks back at the place where he began and asks, "How can the quest for wholeness be affirmed as it is rooted in direct experience and as it is expressed in richly human language, and at the same time, how can it become the subject-matter of philosophical reflection?" In order to answer this question, I have developed a concrete way of thinking that stands in between imagination and reflection, experience and system, story-telling and reflective discourse and that attempts to make the quest for wholeness accessible by weaving these elements together. As I have suggested already, the quest for wholeness demands concrete reflection…." [xiv. emph. add.]

By “concrete reflection,” Vaught reminds us that we are never isolated, that run-of-the-mill philosophical work is “autistic,” closed in upon itself, and that to attain, however imperfectly, towards wholeness, we must remember we are in community. Vaught writes,

Wholeness can never be found apart from the community, for the meaning of human existence is partly constituted by the human bonds that tie us together, first as members of an individual family, then as citizens of cities, states, and nations, and finally as members of the wider context that includes mankind as a whole. The fragmentation we experience is often caused by separation from others, and it is fragmentation of this kind that drives us toward the community to seek the fulfillment that can never be found in isolation. The person is what he is because of his relations with others, and it is relations of this kind that the quest for wholeness attempts to develop. [3]

And yet, just as Rosen warned us, Vaught tells us that we must not become submerged or lost in community, our surroundings, our world, as we would cease to be what we are.

On the other hand, the individual must not lose himself in the larger world, for to do so would be to lose the center of the fragmented self, and to abandon the hope that wholeness can be found in a fashion uniquely appropriate to oneself. If wholeness is to be accessible, it must be relevant to our particular condition, not only allowing us to be a part of something larger, but also permitting us to be ourselves as unique individuals. The quest for wholeness involves a delicate interplay between the individuality we express and the communities in which we participate, and it is the harmonious interconnection between individuation and participation that those who undertake it must attempt to achieve. [3]

Our wholeness can only be attained—if it be attained at all—in our partialness. The whole only comes for us, if it comes, in fragments. But fragments without a whole are no longer even fragments but nothing. For us, it means we are persons in community. We can only be whole persons in community, but should we lose ourselves in the mass or the collective, we are lost indeed.

But there is more to the quest for wholeness. In the paradox just described, Vaught recognizes that:

in the final analysis, the quest also requires that we move beyond the finite order and that we stand face to face with what is ultimate and unconditioned. As the word itself suggests, the quest for wholeness is a quest for salvation; but what can salvation mean apart from a source of power and meaning that can sustain our existence? This source of significance can be symbolized by the communities of which we are a part, and it can be made relevant to our particular condition. But the ground of our existence transcends the human community, and it can never be reduced to the uniqueness of the individuals within it. Though the quest for wholeness spreads outward toward the whole of humanity, and though it reaches down to the particularity of the individuals who undertake it, it also seeks a source of meaning that lies beyond the human realm. In doing so, it generates a three-dimensional space in which human beings can live. […T]his framework is constituted by the human community, by the uniqueness of the individuals within it, and by the ultimate source of significance that sustains our existence. In the final analysis, it is the interplay among all of these elements that makes human wholeness accessible. [3-4]

Vaught’s metaphorical cartography of wholeness consists not only of the inward movement of self-understanding authenticity and the outward movement that connects us with community and tradition, but also of a vertical movement (περιαγϖγη): “downwards” to the roots or fundament of being and “upwards” towards “divinity” (if that’s the right word). The “upwards” movement can be that which uproots the roots, that which causes transformations in traditions. It is often that which makes the possible no longer possible and the impossible “possible.” But it is the “downwards” movement that makes the “impossible” possible, understandable, systematizable, institutionalizable.

Vaught’s point is not that there are three possible directions of reflection; rather, concrete reflection requires engagement with and account of these three intimately bound dimensions of our being human. They are distinguishable, but inseparable.

There is also a temporal dimension that is equally inextricably woven into to the fabric of wholeness. The quest for wholeness

moves in two directions; not only driving us toward the future [telos], but also requiring us to make contact with the past [arche], and pointing to the possibility of a positive relationship with the sustaining ground of our existence. The quest for wholeness moves forward toward a larger, more inclusive unity, but it also leads us back to the origins of our individual existence. In doing so, it attempts to overcome fragmentation by allowing us to stand at the midpoint between an unbounded future and a determinate past that has left its individuating mark upon us. [4]

The quest for wholeness always exhibits a “crucial bi-directionality” that is “inherent” in the human situation. [5] All together, Vaught conceives a “Newtonian” wholeness, consisting of the move inward (individuality), the move horizontally (community), and the move vertically (divinity, fundament), coupled with bi-directional temporality—both ahead to a future fulfillment and back to the rootedness to origin and ground (three dimensions plus time).

Vaught notes that we characteristically encounter two problems or obstacles in our quest for wholeness. This first is what he refers to as a "preference for immediacy," [8] for doing rather than saying, acting rather than thinking, for dissociating thought and actions. “The conflicts between knowing and doing, and between life and reflection, involve a degenerate conception of all these notions, and to succumb to it is to embrace a way of thinking that places fragmentation at the center of human existence. We cannot be whole unless we find a way of holding experience and reflection together, and this can be done only be developing a way of thinking that moves beyond the limits of abstraction. “ [8]

The second problem Vaught calls the "philosophical tendency to demand complete comprehension." [8] This is, again, the same warning that Rosen sounded regarding the complete speech:

From this second perspective, fragmentation is identified with the finitude of partial understanding, and human wholeness is equated with the capacity to give a comprehensive account of the world as a whole and of the place of the human soul within it. According to this approach to the problem of fragmentation, the quest for wholeness is primarily a reflective activity in which the mystery and the power of the quest are subordinated to our demand for absolute comprehension. As a result, the earlier opposition between experience and reflection is replaced by the conviction that reflection can comprehend experience with perfect adequacy and that the quest for wholeness can be brought to completion at the distinctively reflective level. [8]

But this is to misunderstand what wholeness really is.

Wholeness is not to be equated with completeness, and fragmentation is not a problem that can be dealt with at the exclusively reflective level. Human wholeness is finite, and it is finite precisely because it is human. But finitude must not be confused with fragmentation, and the finite character that wholeness exhibits should not force us to transform the quest for wholeness into a quest for complete comprehension. Our reflective task is not to develop a comprehensive system, but to find the midpoint between fragmentation and completeness and to articulate a conception of wholeness that is an intelligible response to the human predicament. What is needed is a way of thinking that acknowledges the integrity of the quest for wholeness within direct experience; that understands the need for a description of it within the context of reflective discourse; and that attempts to connect the two levels without subordinating experience to reflection, and without holding these two dimensions apart in absolute isolation. [9]

Another way to think this is to recognize that the goal of the quest for wholeness is not to develop another academic discipline. It is about a life lived, a life of reflection lived in community.

With these introductory considerations, Vaught’s book returns to stories, stories of Abraham and Isaac, of Melville’s Ishmael, of Plato’s Socrates and Euthyphro, and even of Hegelian dialectics. Each of these stories is a manifestation of the quest for wholeness, and each exhibits wholeness, but none is a “complete speech” or adequate philosophical system. Each such particular quest exhibits or demonstrates all the Newtonian dimensions, its inwardness, its connectedness, its rootedness, its temporality, and its self-transcendence. Vaught sees the chapters of his book—his stories—as something like holographic versions of the whole, rather than parts of the whole; they can't be assembled into a system. Rather, each is a system of a sort. He writes:

I agree with Leibniz that the perspectival character of discourse prevents us from constructing a system that can transcend the point of view from which it is articulated. I am also convinced that there is no a priori limit to the number of different perspectives from which the world can be depicted and that experience has a depth and a richness that articulation can never exhaust. The holistic character of each perspective and the fact that there is a potentially infinite number of points of view from which the quest can be described are dual reflections of the infinite richness of the phenomenon before us. Taken together, these considerations should prevent us from trying to encapsulate the quest for wholeness in a completed system. [10]

Yet these stories themselves are not in isolation from each other. Each manifests a whole, and together they manifest a whole. Vaught writes that even though the stories and reflections he relates

are unique and irreducible perspectives on an inexhaustible phenomenon, they also form a community of images, giving us a plurality of interconnected approaches to the issues in question, and pointing in different ways to the ultimate dimension of experience that the quest for wholeness presupposes. The individual chapters are spaces in which the quest for wholeness unfolds, but the book as a whole is a world of different spaces, held together as a community of images. [10-11].

So the book exhibits what the book wants to say. There is individuality and community, and that which transcends, constituting an “unbounded, but unified totality.” [11] A systematic unity cannot be fully systematically articulated. But it opens up the space to pursue the quest. 

A “Whole” Story

Even though these present pages represent a philosophical, even a (more or less) professional philosophical, reflection on the notion of wholeness by way of a close reading of exemplary texts by professional philosophers, some of which might have been a little hard-going, there is also a story here. In fact, this is a sort of “whole” story, an example of a story about the whole.

The three thinkers whose works I’ve treated—each with very different perspectives, personalities, and philosophical views—all happened to have been my teachers. I sat in their classes, I read their books, and I know their voices, their mannerisms, their expressions. Even though it was a long time ago now that I was a professional student, with these teachers (along with some others) I have always been a student and, in this life, always will be. These teachers have very different “personalities”—in the aggregate, at least, they’ve been both admired and despised. They have different religious roots: one is Catholic, one is Jewish, and one is Protestant. And they are very different sorts of philosopher: one is a Derridean, one is a Straussian, and one is, well, a Baptist. Collectively, their political views span the spectrum from radical to conservative. But none is or was any of these things—spiritual, philosophical, political—in any orthodox way. I don’t think they would mind my saying that each of them is a little “unhinged.” All were professional philosophers, but all were just philosophers, too, and in their way (notwithstanding possible protests to the contrary), theologians in an equally non-academic sense. But not at all the same sort of philosopher or theologian, under any definition.

I should also note the obvious: none is a woman, none is non-Western. We are taught as much by absence as by presence. However, everything these teachers said and wrote has, for me, been filtered through the presence of the women who have raised, and who are continuing to raise, me, and everything they taught has passed through (what passes for) my experience with non-Western thought and cultures.

I have presented a close reading of very small portions of texts from each. These selections and readings are, themselves, saturated with my own experiences, questions, reflections, fears, and hopes. They are filtered and flavored by other teachers I’ve had (and have), other books I’ve read, places I’ve gone, people I’ve met, games I’ve played, illnesses I’ve suffered, jobs I’ve held, loves I’ve had and lost, prayers I’ve offered. My teachers’ own influences wrote in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German, French, English, and even Danish. And my teachers read whatever books they read and learned from the teachers they had, filtered analogously to the way I’ve read and learned from them. They and I also studied other subjects, had other teachers, worked alongside those with other expertise and with other avocations. Each of us come from and have families. Each of us has worked in a variety of institutions. Each has been to many parts of the world.

How can I take into account all of this? How can I begin to get the whole story of just my own philosophical education, let alone education in general? How would I get the whole story of, say, philosophy—or even just “Western” philosophy—if it always comes in this way? And then, how could I get the whole story that would include not just “philosophy” but all the disciplines of the university, all the diverse fields of knowledge? How would tell a story about how I incorporate—embody—in my story my biological, ecological, economic, cosmological situation. How could I get this transdisciplinary story, a story that goes through, between, and beyond the “disciplinary”?

My story, my little story consisting of a close reading of three tiny snippets of texts from three of my many teachers, is going to be partial, idiosyncratic, fragmented. So long as I am on this quest myself, my prospects are not good.

But what if we undertook this quest together? Derrida would then ask, “But who, we?” If there is an us, there will almost surely be a them. And so whatever we find along the way will be from a perspective, from a point of view, just the way we see it.

But what if, by some miracle, all of us could quest together? Again, some of this “big us” are alive, but some have died, and some are yet to be born. What would we do about time? And even if we could have a parliament of all souls who are and were and ever will be, what about where we all came from and where we are all headed? And what about everything in all the cosmos that is not us? Is there a story that could hold all of that?

No. It is impossible. It is impossible if what we mean by “wholeness” is completeness or comprehensiveness, the complete speech, the fully adequate system. Wholeness is not that. The whole is that in which we live and move and have our being, but it is not something we can put under the microscope or “get our arms around,” so to speak. The whole is in and through and between and beyond.7

And yet, as Caputo and Rosen and Vaught have taught us (like it or not), we are driven by the whole, by the impossible. And the impossible, as they also taught us, is fundamentally religious.

For me, the work (and even the parts of the work) of each of these thinkers constitutes a story in Vaught’s sense, one that conveys—without comprehending—the whole. And each story, singly and in combination, is (in the sense described) a religious story in that each manifests that to which I am “bound,” “tied back,” (re-ligare), or perhaps constitutively “religated” in the (difficult) terminology of Xavier Zubiri.8 These stories (and more) both make and unmake me (they are deconstructible), but I am always bound to them, bound by them, bound to be the way I am because of them. These stories are not simply aural stimulation or a series of small markings on a page. They are parts in which the whole is made manifest (to those with ears to hear).

So I have tried to talk about the whole (which is impossible) by way of a story, “my” story, one sort of story among many possible stories, that is meant to make manifest or indicate or disclose the whole, in of course, only a partial, fragmentary way. The whole comes in fragments…but it comes.

Yet, the whole is always “to come,” on its way but never arriving. Its arrival is impossible (and unbearable for us humans). This Derridean idea of the “to come”9 is mirrored in stories such as the Book of Exodus10 and Plato’s Phaedo.11 It means we cannot be quick to think we actually have the whole story, that we could even withstand the whole story. It teaches that we must be patient, indeed, that we must have the patience of a saint.

So perhaps, by way of conclusion, it would help if we were to consult a saint. Benedict of Nursia, in his Rule for Monastics, chapter 68, addresses what to do “if a brother is commanded to do impossible things.”

If, perchance, any difficult or impossible tasks be enjoined on a brother, let him nevertheless receive the order of him who commandeth with all meekness and obedience. If, however, he see that the gravity of the task is altogether beyond his strength, let him quietly and seasonably submit the reasons for his inability to his Superior, without pride, protest, or dissent. If, however, after his explanation the Superior still insisteth on his command, let the younger be convinced that so it is good for him; and let him obey from love, relying on the help of God.

Benedict counsels us that if we in fact have to do the impossible, then we have to do the impossible. And, as it is the impossible, we shall never be done doing it. We won’t get the impossible to sit still. We won’t be able to shoe-horn it into a book or corral it into a discipline. You cannot finally discipline the impossible.

But to forget is perilous. If we think we’ve cornered the whole, that we’ve made the complete speech, that we’ve figured out the “final solution,” we shall think we are gods and act like beasts. If we give it up simply because it is impossible, in other words if we lose hope in the wholly impossible, then we will have lost ourselves all together.

In an earlier essay in the Global Spiral, I contended that:

the challenge of the 21st century will be to integrate or synthesize the exponential growth in human knowledge into a meaningful whole.  It’s not that specialization needs to be overcome; it’s that individuals, communities, and civilization in general will need to develop the complementary means by which to appropriate and take the measure of all particular expertise.  We must attempt to follow the imperative of Periander, one of the seven sages of ancient Greece (ca. 625-585 BC):  μελÝτα τü παν, which the German philosopher Martin Heidegger translates as, “Take into care beings as a whole.”  We must regain our ability, a facility, an adeptness, at taking the whole into our most profound concern.12

When we say we are after “the whole story of the whole cosmos for the whole person,” we mean that unless we exercise this profound concern we can never have hope in the quest for our own wholeness. A complete and comprehensive story of the whole for us mortals is impossible, but its very impossibility—which we must never forget—makes hope possible. And if hope, perhaps faith and love.


1 John D. Caputo, On Religion (London and New York: Routledge, 2001). All future references will be cited in the text.

2 “The present and the future-present fall under the range of our powers, our potencies, our possibilities. Here things are manageable, cut to size and proportioned to our knowledge, so that we know what to do in the present situation and what to expect in the future. Here we are self-possessed and we have our bearings. This is the sphere of what the medieval theologians called the ‘cardinal’ virtues, the four strictly philosophical virtues of ‘prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance,’ upon which human life is propped up as upon the four hinges (cardines) of a table. These are the virtues of the self-possessed, of the best and the brightest, what Aristotle called the ‘phronimoi,’ the men (and he meant men) of practical wisdom, of insight and practical know-how, the well-hinged who know what is what, the men of means who went to all the best schools and who set the pace for the rest of us who are lower down on Aristotle’s very aristocratic list. But when we come unhinged, when our powers and our potencies are driven to their limits, when we are overwhelmed, exposed to something we cannot manage or foresee, then, in that limit situation of the possibility of the impossible, we experience the limits, the impossibility, of our own possibilities. Then we sink to our knees in faith and hope and love, praying and weeping like mad. These are what the theologians call (somewhat chauvinistically) the ‘theological’ virtues, by which they mean that we have come up against the impossible. […] So the unhinged life of love and hope and faith is saltier and more passionate and more worth living than that of Aristotle’s well-hinged phronimoi who swing back and forth effortlessly and make it all look easy (even if it takes a lot of training). […] Religion, I say, at the risk of being misquoted, is for the unhinged. (That is, for lovers.)” [12-13] Caputo is insinuating that the person of practical wisdom cannot be religious, or at least is not religious insofar as that person is being practically wise. The reader should be aware that Caputo is not the most sensitive reader of Aristotle and often sets him up, unfairly in my view, as a straw man to his argument. Being able to hold in tension both the Aristotelian (and perhaps Thomistic) approach and the postmodern (and deconstructive) approach is of the greatest importance for one seeking a whole story, impossible though it is.

3 Stanley Rosen, Nihilism: A Philosophical Essay (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1969). All future references will be cited in the text.

4 Referring, in order of appearance, to ideas of Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. Gelassenheit is a Heideggerian term meaning “letting be,” the state in which things are stripped of their historical “enframings.”

5 Again, in order, referring to Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. Seinsgeschichte is another Heideggerian term meaning, roughly, the historical sending of being, or the way being is or is appropriated in this or that historical epoch.

6 Carl G. Vaught, Quest for Wholeness, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982). All future references will be cited in the text.

7 That’s why transdisciplinary studies do not constitute yet another discipline. Transdisciplinary work operates on another level all together. As Basarab Nicolescu defines it in his Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity [excerpt at], “as the prefix ‘trans’ indicates, transdisciplinarity concerns that which is at once between the disciplines, across the different disciplines, and beyond all discipline.” When we get to the “department of transdisciplinary studies,” we’ve hit a dead-end.

8 “This seizure by the power of the real is not a relation into which I, already constituted a reality, enter with respect to the power of the real; but it is an intrinsic and formally constitutive moment of my personal reality. It is a constitutive respectivity. I am a personal reality thanks to this seizure in such a fashion that the power of the real is a kind of support a tergo, not in order for me to act as a living being, but for me to be real. Not only is man nothing without things, he needs them to compel him to make himself. Being able to and having to make himself is not sufficient; he needs an impulse to actually make himself. And this impulse is an intrinsic and formal turning towards the power of the real. Man is not a personal reality except when he actually depends upon the power of the real, so that in virtue of the aforementioned seizure we are not extrinsically subjected to anything. We do not “go to” reality as such, but on the contrary we “come from” it. The seizure implants us in reality. This paradoxical seizing when it seizes me, makes me to be constitutively separate “when facing” that very thing which has seized me. Therefore, the seizing occurs by ligating us to the power of the real in order to be relatively absolute. This peculiar ligature is just what I term religation. Religated to the power of the real is how we are sustained on it, in order to be relatively absolute. Put differently, {93} the formal subject of religation is not nature, but the person, or better still, it is personized nature. In itself, religation affects man not as separated from things, but insofar as it affects everything. However, only in man it is formally religation; only in man it is the formal occurrence of fundamentality. A person is not simply linked to things or dependent upon them, but is constitutively and formally religated to the power of the real.

“This is not a mere theoretic conceptuation, but an analysis of facts. Religation is above all else a fact perfectly verifiable. Moreover, religation is something which affects the totality of my human reality, from my most modest physical characteristics to my most elevated mental traits. And this is true because what is religated to the power of the real is not just one aspect or another of my reality, but my own personal reality in all its dimensions; indeed it is through all of them that I make myself a person. Religation, consequently, is not only a verifiable fact, but a complete, integral fact. Finally, religation is something basic and radical. Religation is the very root of this personal reality of mine. It is not only a verifiable and complete fact, but is above all a radical fact. Therefore, religation is not one function among a thousand others of the human life, but is the root from which each life may become, physically and really, not only an I, but my I.” X. Zubiri, El Hombre y Dios, trans. Joaquín A. Redondo (

9 And the whole is always “to come” (a viens), as Derrida’s messianism reminds us. See John D. Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida, New York: Fordham University Press, 1997, pp 156 ff.

10 ‘Moses said, "Please show me your glory." And he said, "I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name 'The LORD.' And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But," he said, "you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live." And the LORD said, "Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen." ‘ Exodus 33:18-23 (ESV)

11 ‘Socrates proceeded: I thought that as I had failed in the contemplation of true existence, I ought to be careful that I did not lose the eye of my soul; as people may injure their bodily eye by observing and gazing on the sun during an eclipse, unless they take the precaution of only looking at the image reflected in the water, or in some similar medium. That occurred to me, and I was afraid that my soul might be blinded altogether if I looked at things with my eyes or tried by the help of the senses to apprehend them. And I thought that I had better have recourse to ideas, and seek in them the truth of existence. I dare say that the simile is not perfect-for I am very far from admitting that he who contemplates existence through the medium of ideas, sees them only "through a glass darkly," any more than he who sees them in their working and effects.’ Phaedo 99 d-e (trans Jowett)

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