The Limits of Natural Law

The Limits of Natural Law December 19, 2018

John Milbank currently has a series of essays on natural law running a Church Life Journal. It’s a “revisionist” account of natural law. And one of the revisions is Milbank’s post-Kantian conception of the relation of nature and culture, something he lays out in his essay, “Only Theology Saves Metaphysics.”

Milbank begins, as he is wont to do, with the linguistic turn in philosophy, which he sees as a theological turn. It is not, he insists, merely a linguistic form of Kantianism: “the linguistic turn, most radically understood, is not a ‘linguistic idealism’ which merely treats the fundamental grammar of human language (whether cultural or universal) as though it were a linguistification of the Kantian a priori categories of pre-linguistic thought. In terms of the latter, we ‘inwardly’ construct a human world by theoretically and imaginatively organising sensory information according to permanently constrained norms. In the linguistified version of this, the constraints of language force us to construct within the space of interpersonal culture our human version of pre-given nature.”

He rejects this because he rejects the Kantian conception of inwardness: “language belongs surely within our primary artisanal interaction with the external world, such that we only reflexively possess an ‘interiority’ as a result of this interaction – this was perhaps the later Wittgenstein’s most crucial message.” Because this interaction “is always both receptive and externally constructive (as of matter by the moulding of the hand, not of sensation by mind),” it becomes “impossible to disentangle the two components.”

That is, language is both receptive and constructive in relation to the world. We can’t peel off the linguistic layer of our interaction to get to the sheerly natural reality behind it. We can’t get to a pure nature in order to test our language by it. Because language is “within our primary artisanal interaction with the external world,” it is always already there. And thus culture doesn’t simply intervene between me and the world; it is entangled with the very possibility of me knowing the world at all.

Thus, Milbank argues, the “world is how we take it, yet what we take and modify is always the real world and always involves us in real relations to that world.” For instance: “Trees are seen and are at once seen as shelter; they are buildings before buildings, while wooden buildings allow us to see both trees anew, and shelter anew, and then to observe the trees now more for themselves and for the other relations in which they stand. . . . water observed is already water drunk and traversed and channelled, while fountains show us new and symbolic aspects of this liquid foundation for our lives.” Our interaction with the world is our interaction, and our interests in the world are foundational to that interaction.

To put this otherwise, “any word at once denotes a fact and an interpretation, in such a fashion as to render both empiricism and even a Kantian, critical idealism impossible.” As a result, “we always arrive too late to disentangle what we have received from what we have constructed or what we have constructed from what we have stumbled upon.” We have contact with reality, but that contact is linguistically, which is to say, culturally formed.

In sum, “if the natural is always already for us cultural, the cultural never exits the natural and what is ‘fundamental’ for culture remains an attempt to discern what is ‘fundamental’ for nature.” And if the natural is always already cultural, then we can never measure nature by culture. We simply measure some nature-culture hybrids in comparison to other nature-culture hybrids.

Natural law theories that require contact with nature that is unmediated by culture are impossible.

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  • I wish that Leithart, Milbank, and others would interact more often with Charles Sanders Peirce’s broader semiotic philosophy, rather than Wittgenstein’s more narrowly linguistic approach. For example, Leithart quotes Milbank as stating that “any word at once denotes a fact and an interpretation”; but Peirce would correct and generalize this by saying that any sign at once denotes an object or signifies an interpretant, and any proposition purports to represent a fact–i.e., both denote something and signify something about it that is true. Leithart adds, “We have contact with reality, but that contact is linguistically, which is to say, culturally formed”; but Peirce would argue instead that our contact with reality is semiotically mediated, which is not equivalent to being culturally formed, even while acknowledging that our habits of interpretation are heavily influenced by our culture.