The Holidays and What is Given, Mark D. West

Author Information: Mark D. West, University of North Carolina, Asheville,

West, Mark D. “The Holidays and What is Given.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 12 (2016): 17-19.

Editor’s Note: As we near the end of an eventful 2016, the SERRC will publish reflections considering broadly the immediate future of social epistemology as an intellectual and political endeavor.

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Image credit: geir tønnessen, via flickr

We have reached the holidays, and for some of us, these are happy times. The media, at least, treat these days as if the merriment and cheer are givens; decorations festoon stores and public places, and music about Christmas cheer permeates any space; where two or more are gathered; there “Jingle Bell Rock” is in their midst.

In the Jewish tradition, winter season means a hanukkiah will make its yearly appearance, with the story of how one’s family came to own it. A normal menorah has seven branches, each with a candle holder; a hanukkiah has an eighth helper candle, which is out of line with the others. The hanukkiah is used only on Hanukkah, with its light serving no function other than to recall the miracle of Hanukkah.

Every hanukkiah brings with it a story, and every hanukkiah is itself a gift of memory. Our hanukkiah was carried by my cousin through the streets of Jerusalem, down the crowded streets, and across the United States, finally coming to rest in our home, a gift after many years of travel. Other families tell stories of hanukkiah smuggled from foreign countries under the glare of repressive regimes, carried in suitcases through customs at Ellis Island, bought for pennies in shtetls in lands long fled. The hanukkiah is a given of the holiday, and is, often, itself, a given. Like a menorah, it gives light; but the light is for only one purpose—a ‘given’ purpose.

Gift and Given

Considering that the root of both ‘gift’ and ‘given’ is the Proto-Indo-European root *ghabh-, “to give or receive”, I don’t think it is too far afield, in this season of giving and receiving, to consider not only gifts but givens, which, after all, to be givens must have been given by someone or something. As such, we might ask ourselves as social epistemologists what are the givens of our field, and what does it mean, in Jean-Luc Marion’s pregnant formulation, to exist in the realm of the “étant donné,” the “being given?”

What I mean by that is that we (the rational ‘cogita’ who operate as the members of the SERRC) take ourselves as ‘givens,’ as ‘données.’ From our own existence, we bootstrap the existence of groups (if I can exist, then I must, as a good agent of the Enlightenment, grant such agency to others, who as aggregates, are groups). Once we assume our own existence as a ‘given,’ we can take as our ‘given’ the group; and our ‘gift’ to the world of the philosophical is the notion of group epistemology. Particularly in this age of the Internet, and of electronic publications and forums, the disembodied res cogitans of Descartes is closer to our felt sense of what we are, as a group, than we might wish.

The cogito, and various discussions of it such as Hintikka’s (1962, reprinted in 1967), are familiar to all. But, as Williams (2014) suggests, the Cartesian argument (“cogito, ergo sum”) is posed in a more complex manner than the familiar formulation has it; Descartes imagines first the existence of a deity, then (implicitly) a self thinking of that deity and the qualities of that deity including benevolence; then he imagines that some malicious entity might cause him to perceive the world and its qualities in some way that does not accurately reflect the real. But, reasons Descartes, he himself is thinking, and from that he bootstraps that he exists; hence “cogito, ergo sum” is the endpoint, not the beginning, of a thought process; and that thought process is more akin to an intuition than to a proof, one which Stone (1993) argues is best understood as an enthymeme. Boos (1983) argues that the cogito’s ‘thoughtless thinking’ must be about something; and that the Cartesian formulation ends up as a metalogical formulation something like “If I doubt that I am, I am,” with the “I am” serving as the “point ferme” of Gueroult (1953) and the Archimedian fixed point of the cogito’s Gödelian diagonal lemma.

As Boos suggests, the implication of this is clear; this sounds suspiciously like a variant of the Hintikka’s Positive Introspection Axiom (the KK-thesis), which argues that agents know that they know what they know. The debate concerning this thesis is substantial (see, for example, Williamson 2000; Ginet 1970; Carrier 1974). But our theorizing must begin somewhere; we must accept some sort of metatheoretic notion if we are to devise theories at all. In our case, if we are to speak of groups, there must be individuals, and the first individual of all is “I.” That is our given, if we are to avoid the endless cycle of “no more this than that” of the Pyrrhonian skeptics.

Assumptions and Limitations

This is not to say that a domain of study can not function with a fully negative conceptualization of its object of study. Jean-Luc Marion, in his book God Without Being (1995), considers the limiting case of an apophatic theology; if we can, as Maimonides (Benor 1995) argued, make only negative assertions as to the attributions of a divine entity, are we not at some point forced to suggest that even being is an attribute which the divine entity does not possess?

As Marion (2002) suggests, the givenness of the existence of a divine entity is not the predicate of theology, but the existence of those searching for the divine entity is; as Kaplan (2010) argued, it is possible to have Judaism without a deity, but not without Jews. In a philosophical vein, how does one privilege Husserl’s Gegebenheit (Leask 2003) without merely assuming it as a given? How do we understand Being without taking it as given, and without somehow making that ‘given’ into a ‘Given,’ with a somehow transcendental ‘Giver?’

We, as social epistemologists, are in an interesting position with such questions. We, at some level, are can-kickers par excellence; in our struggle to explain knowledge structures as arising from groups, we are indeed situated in a local struggle, with its own give and take. But sometimes, perhaps, we should look up from our regional debates, and consider the larger issues afield; the “not yet” of Hegel’s “tarrying with the negative” (Foshay 2002) of these limits of the Given, and of the gifts we receive, and give, as a result of this struggle.


Benor, Ehud Z. “Meaning and Reference in Maimonides’ Negative Theology.” Harvard Theological Review 88, no. 3 (1995): 339-360.

Boos, William. “A Self-Referential ‘Cogito’.” Philosophical Studies 44, no. 2 (1983): 269-290.

Carrier, L. S. “Skepticism Made Certain.” The Journal of Philosophy 71, no 5 (1974): 140-150.

Foshay, Raphael. “‘Tarrying with the Negative’: Bataille and Derrida’s Reading of Negation in Hegel’s Phenomenology.” The Heythrop Journal 43, no. 3 (2002): 295-310.

Ginet, Carl. “What Must be Added to Knowing to Obtain Knowing That One Knows?” Synthese 21 no. 2 (1970): 163-186.

Gueroult, Martial. Descartes Selon L’ordre des Raisons, 2 vols. (Descartes’ Philosophy Interpreted according to the Order of Reasons). Paris: Aubier, 1953.

Hintikka, Jaakko. “Cogito, Ergo Sum: Inference or Performance?” In Descartes – A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Willis Doney, 108-139. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 1967.

Kaplan, Mordecai M. Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life. Jewish Publication Society, 2010.

Leask, Ian. “Husserl, Givenness, and the Priority of the Self.” International Journal of Philosophical Studies 11, no. 2 (2003): 141-156.

Marion, Jean-Luc. God Without Being: Hors-Texte. University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Marion, Jean-Luc. Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness. Stanford University Press, 2002.

Stone, Jim. “Cogito Ergo Sum.” The Journal of Philosophy 90, no. 9 (1993): 462-468.

Williams, Bernard. Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Williamson, Timothy. Knowledge and Its Limits. Oxford University Press, 2000.

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8 replies

  1. This article dropped 18 names in just over 800 words. Impressive. Not sure though if that makes philosophy appear ‘social’ or just esoteric.

    “it is possible to have Judaism without a deity, but not without Jews.” – Mark West

    It depends if one treats the Jewish religion as an ideology or not. As a religion, without a deity, there is no Judaism. No amount of secular philosophistry will ever change that, even while a few people still try. Also take into account that about 60% of the world’s Jews currently consider themselves ‘non-religious’ (2014) and more than 50% of USAmerican Jews (2011) don’t believe in God. This helps contextualise the way the article starts, as Jews give survey answers that show they are by far the ‘least religious’ among the major world religions – as if simply having a story of a Hanukiah supposedly makes Hanukkah ‘religious’ rather than just a ‘secular custom’?

    A ‘tradition’ that socially celebrates a Temple ‘dedication’ on a particular day has a quite significantly different ‘religious’ meaning from the religious claim of ‘incarnation.’ Indeed, ‘social epistemology’ focussed on this particular ‘dedication’ being celebrated links as a ‘gift’ directly to politics in the Middle East today, whether Mark West wanted to go there or not. Judaic social epistemology, for example, plays out much differently in the occupied Palestinian territories than West’s sugary ‘gift’ (maybe) without a ‘Giver’ message makes his ‘social epistemology’ sound. Philosophy itself is of course merely a bit player in such discussions compared with other fields, including economics, law, politics, etc. and of course religion too.

    The term ‘atheist Jew’ ‘Jewish atheist’ is rather common enough nowadays. But ‘atheist Christian’, ‘atheist Muslim’ or ‘atheist Baha’i’ makes no sense (some might be called ‘culturally religious’ but not ‘religiously religious’). Any ‘social epistemology’ attempting truthfulness will openly acknowledge this, just like a ‘gift’.

    Adding to West’s suggestiveness, ‘apophatic’ theology contrasts with ‘kataphatic’ theology, most easily shown in USAmerican evangelical Protestantism, which is what ‘social epistemology’ in USA must face that most other members of SERRC outside of USA thankfully needn’t do.

    “our ‘gift’ to the world of the philosophical is the notion of group epistemology” – Mark West

    That is not my preferred ‘gift’; I prefer alternative terminology. The term ‘group epistemology’ is neither popular nor has much unique power compared to sociology, which already studies group features, including knowledge.

    “the disembodied res cogitans of Descartes is closer to our felt sense of what we are, as a group, than we might wish” – Mark West

    Again, I disagree with this reading of philosophy and history. We are dealing more with ‘res extensa’ (Descartes’ contrast with ‘res cogitans’, unmentioned by West) now than ever before. West deals with less than half of the story. McLuhan is both more valuable and needed much more than Descartes in the “Internet Age.”

    Let us pause to carefully reflect this holiday season and be clear at least at SERRC that atheist ‘social epistemology’ (search for ‘being’ without a ‘Giver’) sure differs from what Steve Fuller is promoting.

    p.s. Jingle-Bell Rock – that’s supposed to be ‘social epistemology’ about “Christmas cheer”?! Rather than “What Child Is This?”, “O Holy Night” or “Joy to the World”, etc.?

    • I read Dr. Sandstrom’s comments with some interest; as James M. Cain said when he was the editor of the New Yorker, a reviewer who utterly missed the point was at least someone who had read one’s writing, and so deserved gratitude. Sandstrom comes to his understanding of religion from a profoundly Christian point of view, whether he will acknowledge it or not; “belief,” in his understanding, makes religion. An orthopraxy, like Judaism or Buddhism, is not really a religion unless it is transformed into an orthodoxy, in the minds of those whose religious horizon is encompassed by Calvary. As such, Sandstrom would, like most Christians, make of Buddhism “believing in Buddha,” Judaism “believing in HaShem,” and the like. One would have wished that ecumenical learning would have progressed farther, but clearly it has not. It is possible to constitute religions where belief is not the center of things.

      And of course, “O Holy Night” is _not_ ‘Christmas cheer’ for the Jew, reminded of the pogroms of the ‘holy night;’ Christmas eve is a reminder of hiding and waiting for the dreaded knock at the door. Such cheer is for the privileged few, and you are welcome to such wassail.

      To the point of the article itself, then. Where did I suggest an ‘atheist[ic]‘social epistemology’?’ To spell things out, I think that arguments for the existence of the _agent_ (the self, or the ‘cogito’) are as weak as arguments for or against the Deity. What can we say about the First Mover? It is not my tradition, but one thinker in the Christian mode said “idea enim infiniti, ut sit vera, nullo modo debet comprehendi, quoniam ipsa incomprehensibilitas in ratione formali infiniti continetur.” (No footnote, lest I be thought pedantic. ) If the Deity is incomprehensible (this is one of your Church Fathers, I remind you), then how are we to speak sensibly thereunto? Let all mortal flesh keep silence, as _your_ liturgy has it, taking a cue from Habakkuk. And that is the point of an apophatic theology.

      The upshot of that argument was, in fact, that the original formation of the cogito made better sense than the later; I was here arguing _for_ a Giver, an unknowable First Mover. Apophasis is not apostacy.

      And then Sandstrom brings into things that weakest of modern intellectuals, McLuhan. McLuhan (and I won’t footnote this, since Sandstrom objects to such impedimentia) was well-known among his colleagues at Fordham for his amazing habit of looking at page 69 of books to determine if they were worth reading; for his colossal misreadings of Walter Ong, of Aquinas; for his inexplicable description of the telephone as a ‘hot’ medium, of light bulbs as pure information, and so forth. McLuhan, on his best day, was an aphorist, not fit to be in the same (intellectual) room as Descartes; and my point was that Descartes’ starting point for the ‘cogito’ was that of a medieval, not a modern — and hence his ‘proof’ is ill-suited for the uses to which it often put these days. Descartes starts with the Prime Mover, as do I; but everyone starts with _some sort_ of Given. Often that Given is the self, the ‘cogito.’

      Re ‘name dropping’ and what Steve Fuller intends for social epistemology to be: Sandstrom puts the poor author in a quandary. Too many notes, and the author name-drops; too few, and the author plagiarizes. And is our field of necessity to be what Steve Fuller wishes? If so, the rest of us are at best redundant, and at worst unnecessary; all that is needed is Fuller’s book, in the same way that the ‘sola Scriptura’ movement dispenses with theology in modern Fundamentalism.

      I realize, in reading this, that my tone is snippy. Dr. Sandstrom and I, despite our differences, are on the same side in many things; he is committed to an awareness and understanding of social groups and their workings, and I appreciate his efforts. He suggests that I come from a specific social milieu (the southern US) which shapes my awareness; I think he does, as well. But this is a fact for all of us. I wish him, and all reading this, peace, happiness and well-being.


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