Myths of Kenosis

Innocence, mythicality, love, semiosis…

The suicide of sacramental theology

(and how to resurrect it)

“the doctrine of transubstantiation, in its Tridentine form, is truly the collapse, or rather the suicide, of sacramental theology” – Alexander Schmemann.

To Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, Western culture formally lost its ability to experience and understand worship in the middle ages, when it severed the unity between “symbol” and reality, instead of affirming their unity as the Church Fathers had done.

This, to Schmemann, had truly world-shaping consequences, via a surprising chain of causes. Its immediate effect, though, was a transformation of sacramental theology: by alienating “symbol” (that is, what in a post-Peircean world is called signification) from reality, it altered the nature and understanding of worship from being an act in which God is made really present to people via the action of symbol, to one in which God is nonsymbolically but really present in a sacrament.

But this relatively marginal shift (from a modern secular perspective) had the epoch-defining effect of making way for secularism. It did so as follows: it caused the sacraments to be thought of as a unique type of thing – the only part of reality in which God is bodily present – which, to the same extent as it elevated the sacraments to an exclusive domain of the sacred, marginalised and secularised everything else. No longer was there a means by which the whole world was caught up into God, and no longer did it share with the sacraments a teleological nature whose perfection or fulfilment lies in embodying God.

The specific cause of this trouble, as Schmemann understands it, is that theologians of the middle ages focused on mechanism at the expense of perspective:

“[In the misguided scholastic period,] the causality linking the institution [of a sacrament by Christ] to “signum” [the sacrament’s means of functioning] to “res” [the sacrament’s bringing its object into real presence] is viewed as extrinsic and formal, not as intrinsic and revealing. Rather than revealing through fulfilment, it guarantees the reality of the sacrament’s effect. Even if, as in the case of the Eucharist, the sign is completely identified with reality, it is experienced in terms of the sign’s annihilation rather than those of fulfilment. In this sense the doctrine of transubstantiation, in its Tridentine form, is truly the collapse, or rather the suicide, of sacramental theology.”

– Schmemann, A, “Sacrament and Symbol”, in For the Life of the World, p. 144.

This is where the role of signs gets interesting, and doubly so. Firstly, it’s clear that Schmemann requires real signification (i.e. that signs are not necessarily in one’s mind) in order to rehabilitate the experience of worship and the understanding of sacramentality, yet he appears not to have read the likes of Poinsot and Peirce on the topic, which would equip him with the means to achieve this. Secondly, Schmemann – mistakenly in my view – identifies the causal mode of sign action, extrinsic formal causality, as the heart of the problem, when in my view it’s precisely this that grounds the phenomenon of embodiment essential to the sacraments.

Schmemann’s project anchors my view on why signs are worth looking at, by identifying their significance to the history of Christianity and to the development of indigenous Western culture in general. He is certainly right about the effect of the alienation of signification from reality. The modern era is a tidal wave of nominalism and secularism. Signs have indeed been largely banished to the peripheries of intellectual discourse. What passes for “worship” today is a confused mess of merely subjective symbol-making, capitalist aspirational marketing, and a sort of squishy “charismatic” aura of feeling to be enveloped by (largely in the form of emotive musical clichés). I think that a recovery of “signum,” in the form of (a) a clear model of sign action, (b) the central role of semiosis in the sacraments, and (c) the pervading reality of semiosis, would make for a potent remedy to the above, and would recover what Schmemann hopes for – an understanding (and practice) of worship as a fulfilment of the world. As such, Schmemann’s project of rehabilitating the sacraments and sacramental theology is one I heartily support.

But I believe that the vindication of Schmemann’s project would require more than just an account of how the Church fathers thought, and why their approach avoids certain difficulties. It would require an account of how the sacramentality that the Church Fathers speak of vaguely and in terms of mystery really functions – and the account would, ideally, transcend their antinomical holding together of “symbol” and “reality” by providing a positive mechanism which is rationally coherent and empirically identifiable in the world. This is precisely what I believe an account of sign action can provide – and it is on the topic of “mechanism” that I believe it is necessary to depart from Schmemann’s understanding in order to support his own project.

While Schmemann is right that the effect of distinguishing “symbol” from reality has been to alienate signs from reality and to secularise the world, he is mistaken to identify the loss of the understanding of sacraments as “intrinsic and revealing” with the causality of signs as extrinsic and formal. The mistake, I think, lies at least partly in a misperception of how a theory of mechanism functions in accounts of experience. For example, let’s say I believe that when you see a glass of water in front of you, it is really and directly present to you. You might ask me why I believe that, to which I reply “because when you see the glass, it’s the result of a process by which light waves bounce off it, reach your eyes, after which you perceive its shape, colour, etc. and end up with an experience of the glass.”
To this you reply, “but that’s not a direct or immediate experience at all. That’s a mediated, indirect experience, because it’s mediated by my sensory and perceptual processes.”
To this I’d reply, “well, by “directly present” it doesn’t mean that no process or mechanism is involved, it means that the actual glass is really present, and not some sort of simulation or illusion. If you experience the real glass, it’s through a mechanism. After all, the experience has to happen somehow, right? So don’t let the presence of a mechanism confuse you as to the reality of the object of your experience or the fact that it’s really present to you.”

In the same way, I think Schmemann misconstrues the mechanism involved in sign action as an alienating effect, when in fact the opposite is the case. Signs function to bring (at least an aspect of) the nature of an object into being insofar as it can become present through a sign-vehicle. This is an explanation of the mechanism by which an object becomes present to us; it is not thereby an account of how we are alienated from the object, but of how it is present to us. In other words, the “mechanism” of sign action is precisely the means by which the object is revealed. Furthermore, if a revealing of any sort is to occur, this could not be by means of the revealed object only, but only through the presence of some intermediary sign, since, being empirical creatures composed of mechanisms and processes, we are not the kind of thing that experiences anything perfectly or without mediation.

As such, it is precisely by the extrinsic, separate object being experienced in (i.e. intrinsically to) the being of a sign-vehicle that the object is revealed. This is the case for all experience and not just the experience of sacraments, since the mechanism is one of sign action, and sign action is common to all experience at the very least. Furthermore, my particular theory of sign action is that it obtains not only for all experience, but also outside experience, applying to any way in which anything at all has an effect or determines an attribute of anything else. Under such a theory, Schmemann’s notion that the entire world is of a piece with sacramentality may be vindicated, since everything in reality operates by the same principle, namely one in which things embody other things.

The account may go further still, by undergirding Schmemann’s notion that the world finds its fulfilment in embodying God, due to the fact that sign action possesses an incipient normativity, which I will relate briefly in three stages. The first stage is that the extent to which a sign-vehicle faithfully represents its object reduces to the extent that its attributes can support its signifying the whole nature of the object. The second stage is that the world, as nothing but a web of signs, represents its creator faithfully to the extent that it embodies God fully. The third stage is any entity that comes to function as a sign-vehicle (and every entity does) does so by a “kenotic” change in which the nature and process that it has as a thing in itself is abandoned, modified, or, one might say, transfigured in the being it acquires when coming to function as a sign-vehicle that signifies an object. To be “kenotic,” though, is itself to signify God, who is kenotic in his very nature. In this way, the world, as a web of signs, is most deeply and fully a sign of God purely by being signs. As such, the world is one great “sacrament” in Schmemann’s sense, having its true nature as a sign of God and thus finding its perfection (and in this sense, fulfilment) in God.



old haunts

The sun rises, the rain falls, and this form acquires matter.

I was a ghost unable to find a body,

and haunted Joburg for years

until the buildings and streets

had enough and held an exorcism.

It felt like a hurricane;

I was blown high and cold.


But winter kicked up the haze of construction sites,

and the dust of footsteps that turns the sky white.

We met and I condensed, embodied at last,

and fell as raindrops.

The rasp of winter broke,

throats moistened and nosebleeds subsided,

and the storm drains gurgle gratitude,

overflow, gush the roads and pavements.

All is release and joy; all is good (even death).


The sun rises, the rain falls,

my expulsion the means to my being.

I was a ghost. I am a ghost no longer.



Of arity and relations

I’ve suffered under a kind of liminal confusion since I was taught to count.

I’ve finally realised what it is, expressed curtly in the Wikipedia entry on “arity,” abstracting away ~30 years of bafflement that’s never departed from the fringes of my consciousness.

Ever since I learned to count, it’s never been obvious to me whether I should start at 1 or at 0. For example, it’s clearly “right” to start at 1 with musical beats in a bar, and “right” to start at 0 when timing someone play those same bars, but why?

“A function of arity n thus has arity n+1 considered as a relation.” That is, if something is singular when considered in itself, when it’s considered relative to other things, it has two sides to itself (is binary).

Problem solved. Phew.

Most significantly though, this lifelong confusion, of which I’ve barely been aware, had the effect of spurring my mind on to struggle, to wrestle with problems. It’s been seeking resolution, but in the process got into the habit of enjoying a good intellectual wrestle. Hence all the philosophising.



Excerpt from an incipient diagrammatic language I’m working on.

A condition of deathlessness

Cedar greens and deep shade colour the garden.

Light, or on other days, mist, feels its way past the clerestory,

or on the fringes, negotiates pinholes

to puddle on grass cuttings and bric-a-brac.

Bicycle parts, picnic utensils,

an unidentifiable ball sport,

season upon season of plant matter,

the root vegetables of some

abject gardening project forgotten,

dreaming the memoryless sleep of a corner.


“No pattern in nature” he said –

a still green spell

dispels relation,

disenchants into heaps,

untouches charged inscape

and cuts ideas adrift

into eternity beyond the garden,

deathless, thus dead,

leaving days beyond counting

of trackless, placeless matter.


The undemarcated change of the nominalists

and the changeless dreaming spires –

Cedar or Cypress? –

compound history into a brute

transience or, which is the same,

a nothing of students,

the cycle of terms, colleges,

the grey damp of days and nights.

A cracked mirror moves against the treeline;

ducks in, and pervades our view.


_DSC9633 (5)

Knowability is a property of things, independently of mind

An anti-Kantian rationale:

“a thing is knowable prior to any operation of the understanding. For if it were rendered knowable by the operation of the understanding, it would be knowable through being known and so would not be knowable prior to cognition, which contradicts the fact that cognition in us is taken from what is knowable.”
– John Poinsot, Tractatus de Signis (1632), p. 138.

Though this line of thought is antithetical to the entire modern philosophical era, it also sounds rather obvious and commonsensical. After all, if there is a mind-independent world and if we do experience it, then of necessity it would have to be knowable, or else we could not experience it.

John PoinsotThere is, however, also a subtlety at work here. Things, construed as having knowability mind-independently, are thereby construed in terms of an attribute that necessarily pertains not only to mind-independent things, but also to a mind-dependent act of knowing – or, at a minimum, the possibility of one. As such, a thing is not construed simply as something absolute or self-determined, but as something with a relatively determined essence (in this case determined relative to a knower; in other cases, perhaps, determined relative to other things). Poinsot’s conception entails a fundamentally relational view of what makes things things – a relational ontology.

Following Peirce, I’d like to suggest extending fully the thrust behind the idea that knowability is mind-independent. That is, I’d suggest that the being of things is a matter of their being something to something else, where “something” designates any entity, mind-independent or -dependent, factual or fictive, possible, virtual or actual. The result is a relational metaphysics, and one established from the beginning according to the implications of sign action. (I sketched this out, somewhat incompletely, in a short paper last year.)

To get back to the commonsensicality of Poinsot’s view, it makes me wonder sometimes how the modern project got off the ground in the first place. Was it nominalism, which rendered relations merely mind-dependent and thereby implied that our relations to the external world are at best fictitious? Was it the gradual erosion of the role of sensation as a primarily passive, receptive function in experience, which made it possible to construe sensation as caught up in a process where the mind only perceives what the mind itself makes? Was it the doctrine of the “univocity of being,” which replaced an analogy-based model of the world and thus made it difficult draw relations between things unless they were relations of identity? Perhaps a bit of all three.

Atoms and the law of excluded middle: the case for rigorous vagueness

Here are three quotations from Peirce that succinctly express the need for a good theory about indeterminacy in the physical world and a good account of the role of vagueness in our understanding of the world:

“Unless we are to give up the theory of energy, finite positional attractions and repulsions between molecules must be admitted. Absolute impenetrability would amount to an infinite repulsion at a certain distance. No analogy of known phenomena exists to excuse such a wanton violation of the principle of continuity as such a hypothesis is. In short, we are logically bound to adopt the Boscovichian idea that an atom is simply a distribution of component potential energy throughout space (this distribution being absolutely rigid) combined with inertia.” (CP 6.242)

“The principle of excluded middle [that is, the rule that either x or not-x] only applies to an individual.” (CP 6.168 )

By definition, “the individual is determinate in regard to every possibility, or quality, either as possessing it or as not possessing it. This is the principle of excluded middle, which does not hold for anything general, because the general is partially indeterminate . . . ” (CP 1.434)

Now atoms are not “individuals,” since, as above, they cannot have determinate boundaries without exhibiting “infinite repulsion at a given distance.” This is to say that they are not “determinate in regard to every possibility.”

If atoms are not individuals, and only individuals obey the law of excluded middle, then atoms do not obey this law and are somewhat general. This is to say that they are indeterminate in certain respects, say x, such that atoms are both x and not-x.

It follows from this that unless we model (describe) atoms in ways that respect their indeterminacy, our modelling will not be faithful to its object. To model respecting indeterminacy is to model “vaguely.”

Unless our modelling is vague in exactly the respects that its object is indeterminate, the model will not be rigorous. This, of course, is not the meaning of “rigour” that one implicitly but chiefly finds in analytical philosophical writing, which aims to attain digital precision. On the other hand, like analytical rigour it is a robust method of aiming to capture truly what a thing is and to exclude anything that it is not. But in this scenario, a model that is more determinate than the object one is modelling would fail to express exactly what the object is. This would be a failure to be rigorous.

Rigour in all cases where one’s object is not an individual (which is to say, probably in all cases, except those of certain abstractions), requires not digital exactitude but a vaguer analogue correspondence between sign and object. And, like any good model, it requires a good method of ascertaining that the respects and degrees of vagueness of the model are proportioned to those in the object.

A juicy footnote on a pair of categories more fundamental than Aristotle’s

The reader should advert here to the entirely experiential claim Poinsot is making for his affirmation of relation as among the furnishings of the physical world. Note too that he is saying that the modes of being classified as “accidents” in the Aristotelian scheme of “categories” (see below, Book I, Question 1, note 10) are not what sense attains, as opposed to “substance,” but are analyzed out of what sense directly attains: “cognitio externa propter sui imperfectionem et materialitatem non potest seipsam attingere neque accidentia, quae in se sunt, sed obiecta corporeo modo sibi applicata” (Phil. nat. 4. p. q. 6. art. 4., Reiser ed. HI. 195b21-25). “External sense cognition, on account of its imperfection and materiality, can attain neither itself nor [even] the accidents that are independent of sensation, but only objects as here and now physically acting upon the sense.” There are thus for Poinsot two levels at work in Aristotle’s categorial scheme: the effects of the diverse “accidental” characteristics of bodies which are directly given in experience without any distinction from the individuals (“substances”) possessing those characteristics, and in which direct experience is given the contrast between two different sorts of relativity; and a second level on which we distinguish by a further analysis between the characteristics directly given in experience and the individuals as such possessing those characteristics. It is only on this second level of analysis, once removed from the directly givens of experience, that we can speak of a contrast between “substance” and “accidents.” See further (inter alia) ibid.: 116a26-117b20, esp. 117a24-27.

The importance of this for the doctrine of signs is considerable, for it means that semiotic analysis begins at a point prior to the classical ontology of “substance” and “accident” (cf . Poinsot, Phil. nat. 1. p. q. 1. art. 3., Reiser ed. II. 20al-33b8; discussion in Powell 1983: 28-29), with the immediately experienced contrast of subjective and intersubjective elements of experience, wherein “substance” is only implied. We do not experience the distinction of substance from accidents, whence substance is not known by experience as a distinct reality; but we do directly experience relations secundum dici and secundum esse, whence substance and the scheme of accidents are alike derived by further analysis. Hence the two “categories” fundamental to the doctrine of signs the starting point of the Treatise (Book I, Question 1, 117/18-23) include all reality that can be directly experienced in what will be called ‘accidents’ once substance has been rationally, i.e., analytically, further distinguished among the secundum dici relatives. What is decisive here is that this way of conceptualizing the matter affords in effect and in principle an alternative categorial scheme to Aristotle’s own, equally comprehensive of all reality, but more fundamental, being unlike Aristotle’s scheme, wherein the most basic reality, substance, is not directly experienced or experienceable as such, but only as characterized thus and so (i.e., in its accidents) entirely reducible to what can be directly experienced, namely, the contrast between what is and what is not purely relative, the relative secundum esse (order among elements or units making up a system) and the relative secundum did (the elements or units ordered).

– Poinsot, J., Tractatus de Signis, (1632), Deely, J (ed), University of California Press. 1985: pp. 86-87.