Interpreting and Explaining Transcendence
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Interpreting and Explaining Transcendence

Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Beyond

Robert A. Yelle, Jenny Ponzo, Robert A. Yelle, Jenny Ponzo

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eBook - ePub

Interpreting and Explaining Transcendence

Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Beyond

Robert A. Yelle, Jenny Ponzo, Robert A. Yelle, Jenny Ponzo

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In this volume, an interdisciplinary group of scholars uses history, sociology, anthropology, and semiotics to approach Transcendence as a human phenomenon, and shows the unavoidability of thinking with and through the Beyond. Religious experience has often been defined as an encounter with a transcendent God. Yet humans arguably have always tried to get outside or beyond themselves and society. The drive to exceed some limit or condition of finitude is an eduring aspect of culture, even in a "disenchanted" society that may have cut off most paths of access to the Beyond. The contributors to this volume demonstrate the humanity of Transcendence in various ways: as an effort to get beyond our crass physical materiality; as spiritual entrepreneurship; as the ecstasy of rituals of possession; and as a literary, aesthetic, and semiotic event. These efforts build from a shared conviction that Transcendene is thoroughly human, and accordingly avoid purely confessional and parochial approches while taking seriously the various claims and behavioral expressions of traditions in which Transcendence has been understood in theological terms.

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De Gruyter

On the physiology of transcendence

Gustavo Benavides
Thinking and acting as if transcendence1 were a possibility—in other words, as if a condition unencumbered by the limitations that ail the world of which we are part were real—requires being capable of postponing the satisfaction of one’s needs, a deferral that presupposes, besides self-control, the capacity to anticipate being subject to future, presumably more intense, needs. To be sustainable, that anticipation must be combined with the ability to process and store that whose consumption or use has been postponed, in such a way that the ensuing consumption or use produces a satisfaction that is greater or more consequential than the immediate consumption or use would have been. Anticipation, in turn, has as its precondition being able to imagine oneself in the future, and, even more generally, presupposes being capable of imagining oneself as an entity that despite the temporal lag is the same as its present instantiation. It is this temporal difference that is the source of notions of self, which in turn contribute to the self-referentiality at which humans, for good or ill, excel. Transcendence, as we shall see, is born and grows in the interstices between need and satisfaction; between satisfaction and postponement; between present, past and future; between oneself now and oneself yesterday and tomorrow; between oneself now and an imagined self before one’s birth and after one’s death; between oneself now and a self that one may come to believe did not have to be at all; between needs satisfied and dreams of having no needs at all.

1 Deferral, anticipation

The understanding of transcendence outlined above is based on reflection on the role played by labor in the genesis of religion. What follows is an attempt to identify the biological processes that made possible the imagining, anticipating and postponing without which labor itself could not have arisen.2
In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759/1790) Adam Smith wrote about “discerning the remote consequences of all our actions, and of foreseeing the advantage or detriment which is likely to result from them,” as well as about “self-command, by which we are enabled to abstain from present pleasure or to endure present pain, in order to obtain greater pleasure or to avoid a greater pain in some future time” (Smith 1979 [1790]: 189). In an analogous manner, in his Theory of Political Economy (1871/1879), W. Stanley Jevons explored how “The intensity of present anticipated feeling must, to use a mathematical expression, be some function of the future actual feeling and of the intervening time, and it must increase as we approach the moment of realisation.” The power of anticipation, he writes, “must have a large influence in Economics; for upon it is based all accumulation of stocks to be consumed at a future time” (Jevons 1879: 37).3 Not long after Jevons, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk devoted a chapter of his Positive Theory of Capital to the study of “present and future in the economy.” In the second section of the third book, while referring to Jevons’ work in a way that oscillates between admiration and hyper-criticism,4 he explores how present goods appear as more valuable than similar future goods (Böhm-Bawerk 1902: 248, 261 – 262, 299), and, more generally, how economic activity (wirtschaften) has mostly to do with the future. Anticipating current work on mental time travel, to be discussed later, he goes on to consider how sensations of pleasure and pain that will be experienced only in the future determine present actions concerning goods and services.5 Earlier in the book, Böhm-Bawerk had distinguished between goods that immediately (unmittelbar) follow the expenditure of labor, and those that involve an intentional detour, whereby one’s labor focuses on the remote causes of the coming into being (entfernete Entstehungsursachen) of the good (perhaps including a number of intermediate steps), until the finished instrument of human satisfaction emerges (das fertige Befriedigungsmittel daraus hervorgeht).6 After providing a number of examples, Böhm-Bawerk concluded—as Mencius had done more than two millennia earlier7—that producing goods in a specialized, roundabout way (auf Umwegen) brings greater success than producing them directly.8
Along the paths laid out in the nineteenth century, contemporary economists and psychologists have continued studying the components of what have come to be known as intertemporal choices, such as time discounting and time preferences. Not going much beyond Böhm-Bawerk’s considerations on present and future in the economy, Frederick et al. define time discounting as “any reason for caring less about a future consequence,” while time preference is understood as “the preference for immediate utility over delayed utility” (Frederick et al. 2002: 352). Berns et al. (2007) have been more specific regarding time discounting, having shown that instead of discounting exponentially the utility of a future gain—which means that the desirability of the reward decreases at a constant rate according to the length of the delay—humans tend to discount it hyperbolically—in such a way that the desirability of the reward decreases at a fast rate in the short run and more slowly later on, while also, unlike animals, still being able to care about costs and benefits not just in the short term but in the distant future. Once again, not unlike Böhm-Bawerk, they have also analyzed other mechanisms that play a role in intertemporal choice, such as anticipation, self-control and representation, all of which will reappear in various forms as we examine the sources of transcendence.
Significant as the experimental findings of psychologists and economists are in terms of behavior that involves future outcomes, even more important from a bodily perspective are findings by neuroscientists who, going beyond experiments that involve the temporal choices made by people who are offered immediate and delayed rewards, have used magnetic resonance imaging to observe what areas of the brain are activated when such choices are made. McClure et al. (2004) have shown that decisions involving immediate rewards—known as system β—activate parts of the limbic and paralimbic cortical structures associated with the midbrain dopamine system, such as the ventral striatum, medial orbitofrontal cortex, and medial prefrontal cortex, which are consistently implicated in impulsive behavior; whereas longer term rewards—known as system δ—involve fronto-parietal activity. They have also shown that regions of the lateral prefrontal and posterior parietal cortex are activated by all types of intertemporal choices irrespective of delay.9 No less significant from an evolutionary perspective on the roots of transcendence is work on animal intertemporal choices, some of which will be referred to as we proceed.

2 From deferral to deference

While the capacity to take distance from the given may lead, when pushed to its extreme, to the systematic acts of self-denial that characterize asceticism, and may ultimately result in imagining a transcendental realm, that same capacity, when intensified by external imposition, gives rise to the kind of deferral that compels one to postpone indefinitely the assertion of one’s interests in the face of dispossession. It is this deferral under duress that, having become second nature, turns into deference, making possible the division of labor, so...


  1. Title Page
  2. Copyright
  3. Contents
  4. Figures
  5. Introduction: How to talk about transcendence
  6. On the physiology of transcendence
  7. Reconceptualizing the Axial Age as the re-emergence of transcendence: Why religio-cultural entrepreneurship matters
  8. Talking (and arguing) with transcendence
  9. Transcendence without difference? Reflections on the Vajracchedikā-prajñāpāramitā
  10. Transcendence and imagination: Some thoughts on two related concepts in the context of spirit possession
  11. Beyond meaning: Prospections of Suprematist semiotics
  12. The immanence/transcendence distinction at work: The case of the Apostles’ Creed
  13. Adveniat regnum tuum: Revolutionary paths toward religious transcendence in Italian contemporary narrative
  14. Contributors
  15. Index