Relations. Ontology And Philosophy Of Religion

Introduction of the book Relations. Ontology And Philosophy Of Religion
Edited by Daniele Bertini and Damiano Migliorini (1)




1. Once again: why relations?

‘The question of relations is one of the most important that arise in philosophy, as most other issues turn on it: monism and pluralism […]; idealism and realism, in some of their forms; perhaps the very existence of philosophy as subject distinct from science and possessing a method of its own’. (2)

This observation by Russell – which echoes his well-known discussion with the idealist Bradley (3) – is still fundamental in contemporary philosophical research, ontology and philosophy of religion(s). This clearly emerges from the papers collected in the volume and from its vast bibliography (another testimony to the great debate on relations and its implications for religious speculations). Here is an example: in order to avoid the aporias still present in theist speculations, some authors try to re-define the nature of God through a Relational-Trinitarian Ontology (4) that can help us understand the God-World relation in a way that allows the possibility of a “newness” in God (and in the World). This new understanding would be achieved precisely through the observation of a widespread (and infinitely growing) relationality in the creation. This perspective, called relationalism, postulates that only relations exists, and objects emerge from them.
However, Ayres complains,

‘In many of those who advocate for a relational Trinitarian ontology […] key terminology is used in an imprecise manner that ultimately reveals the lack of an appropriate account of analogy. Perhaps most importantly, it is unclear in what way “relationship” can function as a useful general descriptor of being – divine, human, and non-human. When it is said that relationship is fundamental to being, does this identify basic spatio-temporal features of things (e.g., discrete sensible realities in physical or temporal relationship), or does it identify the complex emotional and psychological content of human relationships as basic to the cosmos?’ (our italics) (5)

We agree with Ayres’ objection, to which we could add that every relationalist account risks to remain an illusion if it fails to clarify the ontological category of “relation”; if we accept that relationalism is metaphysically implausible, however, it is unlikely to establish an analogy for the divine.
This clarification effort, nevertheless, is only beginning, and is particularly arduous. For example, when underlining the importance of investigating relations (at least the thorny issue of internal relations), Rorty takes stock of the magnitude of the project:

‘The issues about internal relations are bound up with a whole range of other philosophical problems […]. It is perhaps not too much to say that a philosopher’s views on internal relations are themselves internally related to all his other philosophical views’ . (our italics) (6)

Clarifying the role and identity of “relations” thus becomes an architectural operation involving every other ontological premise.
Anyone who has reflected on relations will probably agree with the statements of Ayres and Rorty. This is certainly the case of this book, which aims to contribute to the debate by scrutinizing the questions formulated by Ayres – among many others – and by trying to show how scientific, ontological, theological (in an inter-religious sense) and anthropological speculations could jointly achieve a common general view and a deeper understanding of the category of relation. The terms highlighted in italics in Ayres’s quote (see above) are also the keywords of our volume, which is organized into four parts:

(1) History of philosophy. The section focuses on the “problem of relations” in its apical – or more known – philosophical context, i.e. the debate between British idealists (Bradley, Green) and analytical philosophers (Russell, Moore) (7), and in two other important contemporary theories developed by Karl Löwith and Alfred North Whitehead (and Hartshorne). The approaches of the last three authors have in common the effort ‘to think clearly and deeply about the obvious truth that our world and our lives are dynamic, interrelated processes and to challenge the apparently obvious, but fundamentally mistaken, idea that the world (including ourselves) is made of things that exist independently of such relationships’ (8).  As stated by Ayres, anthropology, i.e. the study of human being as a specific entity in the world, therefore cannot be left out (9) when rethinking a general worldview. Dasein (Being-in-the-world) is part of Sein (Being), and therefore an object of ontological investigation.

(2) Ontology. In this section, we will be guided by the following question: which kind of “relation” are we considering in the different levels of reality? The section is dedicated to a taxonomy of relations (trying to understand, for example, if there inevitably are external relations), to the controversial notion (relation?) of instantiation, and to whether recent scientific discussions in Quantum Physics and Relativity can be used (with due caution!) to build a new ontology.

(3) Philosophy of religion. The interaction between God and the World is a classic example of a problematic “relation”, whose interpretation has caused more or less substantial divisions among pantheists, panentheists, open theists, classical theists, dialectical theologians and other specific sub-cultures of Christian religion, including Feminism-inspired theism (where divine immanence is exalted against the patriarchal understanding of God as an “impassive and indifferent” masculine master). The interpretation is also conditioned by the speculation on the nature of God (be it Creativity, as in Process Theism, or Trinity, in Christian dogmatics), on the nature of fundamental entities (are they substances or processes-events?) and on the nature of time (is it able to influence the nature of divine knowledge, the main kind of God-World relation?). In turn, the same interpretation influences these speculations, in an hermeneutic circularity that necessarily involves religious language: are we correctly using the term “relation” when the relata (God, World, Trinity, Human Being) change considerably?

(4) History of religious doctrines. The interpretation of the category of “relation”, however, also differs (sometimes distinctively) among religions and, as mentioned above, among their numerous sub-systems. Although such variability may be more difficult to appreciate in traditions that are less familiar to us, it is not an exclusive trait of Christianity. This last section introduces us to this plurality, focusing on the notion of relation in various influential doctrinal systems: Jainism, some schools of classical South Asian philosophy, Jahwism, and Trinitarian speculation in the Byzantine period.

The partition of the volume follows the belief that defining the existence and ontological status of relations is essential to any philosophical speculation about the divine. The recent and lively discussions about structuralist ontologies (10), metaphysics of relations (11) as well as the development of a history of the concept of relation itself (12), show how the theme is not only topical, but also complex, engaging and constantly evolving. This is quite understandable, given the importance of what is at stake: placing “relation” on the same ontological level as “substance” would allow us to understand it as dynamic and in perpetual movement. However, what remains unclear is how we can imagine this relationality/processuality, this fundamental connection among all things, without falling into a monist or pantheist pitfall. If relations are ontologically primary and if everything is a network of relations, is there a real distinction between entities? If objects emerge from relations, are they “real”? Are we merely replacing objects with relations and calling the latter “objects”? How many and which kind of primitive relations and substances are there? If each kind of relation generates a kind of regress, how can we use the ontological category of relation in different speculations? Is there a correspondence (13) between the relational structure of reality and the nature of God? To what extent can we adopt this analogy and where do we meet apophatic barriers? What perspective does this “correspondence” between the nature of reality and the nature of God open for theisms and religions? Do we have strong arguments to affirm the reality of relations in God? (14) How should we think about them, philosophically (presuming they are still “relations”)? (15) If God is Ipsa Relationalitas (16), is He still a “substance”? Does this “new nature” of God affect the notion of Actus Purus, or can this nature be integrated in a non-trivial understanding of the notion? What analogy is possible to formulate between inner divine relations and the God-World relations? In what sense can we say that a “person” is a “subsistent relations”? And do intra-divine and intra-worldly relationalities allow us to think of “newness” (unpredictable events), and therefore to avoid (causal or theological) determinism?
This set of questions illustrates the extent to which both analytical ontology and philosophy of religion are involved in the work of re-categorizing reality through the analysis of the notion of “relations”. Our understanding of the world and of religious dilemmas requires this re-categorization with increasing urgency, and yet, after decades of discussions, it is still in its early stages and suspended between two extremes: the pole of “relationality” and that of “substantiality” (in their various forms). Is there a middle way, and how can this new ontological category be described? The contributions of this volume – detailed in the next paragraph – address one or more of the questions listed above. At first glance they may appear like difficult peaks to climb and, to some extent, they are. Guided by those who preceded us in this path, and with the humility required by the vastness of the themes at hand, this volume wants to take a step forward towards the peak, driven by authoritative voices and fresh ideas from different cultural backgrounds.
The concept of “relation” raises huge questions today, and, by the end of the volume, the reader may feel the need for some kind of synthesis – even a critical one – in order to delineate the possible developments of this investigation in connection with other disciplines. This would be an excellent result, as it would prompt a desire for a new metaphysics. But this is a different story and a matter for future debate.

2. Where does research on relations currently go?

The present collection originates from a conference held in November 2016 (17). People working within different disciplines convened there in order to investigate what role the notion of relation should play in understanding the epistemic dimension of religious traditions. The diversity of approaches enriched the dialogue, and caused a particular effort by participants — they were obliged to strictly clarifying their own views because of the difference of the frameworks adopted and the plurality of methodological assumptions. All of them agreed that they received insightful suggestions, challenging ideas, and thought-provoking sources for new research on the topic in their field. As a consequence, we believed a natural outcome of our meeting to be the publication of a volume that communicates our interdisciplinary way of investigating relations to a wider audience.
Our main concern is to provide the most comprehensive setting possible to the Babel of scholarly languages the book gives voice to. To that end, we invited then a few participating scholars to write essays encompassing relevant topics which remained outside the scope of the conference. All parts of the volume include invited chapters, but the ones which have particularly grown by reason of the aspiration to completeness are the second and the fourth. Naturally, there are important and interesting things that did not find space here. But we are persuaded that the final result of our collective enterprise provides the reader with an accurate cartography of present research on the topic, both on foundational and peripheral issues. This is plainly evident when considering that a good number of papers are exploratory, and develop something nearer to a research program than a definitive theorizing.
Naturally, a reader may ask: What can be learned from another collection on relations? I will briefly sketch the most powerful ideas supported by the contents of the chapters. The papers by Bonino and Perelda converge on the claim that the seminal debate on relations at the origin of analytic philosophy is not the focus of the theoretical worries of the leading intellectuals involved. Rather, both Bradley and Russell seem to be concerned with mereological issues in ontology. Such an approach follows the classic path which such well-known authors as Vallicella, although dissonant to the current vulgata, take. But, Bonino and Perelda give robust textual evidence of the soundness of the new interpretation of Bradley’s regress (18). Whether or not authors accept this new interpretation, most contributions clearly deal with relations in terms of ultimate intuitions towards the metaphysical nature of reality in respect to the problem of its parts and composition.
In light of these considerations, authors approach religious matters by addressing metaphysical options such as monism, dualism, and pluralism. Damonte is the only voice strongly critical of the opportunity to apply the outcomes of the ontological debate on relations to natural theology. He develops a powerful historical argument, by means of which he aims to show that the concerns of the debate are alien to the worries of the scholar in religious studies. This notwithstanding, most authors seem to think that making an exercise in relational thinking is a fruitful procedure. What I mean by relational thinking can be unpacked as follows: suppose you try accounting for items in reality by listing objects of study under taxonomical categories. Do you have a basic category for relations? If you answer in the affirmative, and you think that relational facts cannot be reduced, you are thinking relationally. That is to say, you hold prima facie that a theorist needs relations.
A good number of essays from different fields (history of philosophy, analytic philosophy of religion, feminist studies, metaphysics, history of religious thought, biblical scholarship, logic) choose here this strategy. For example, authors of the third part (among others) devote their argument to approaching God in terms of how God relates to the World. If you want to say something on either God or metaphysics, you must use relations, the relational thinker claims. The chapters display, then, a relational analysis of foundational religious and metaphysical notions: event by Vescovelli, microphysical state of affairs by Di Sia, transcendence by Micheletti and Tripodi, gunk by Migliorini, time by De Florio and Frigerio, substance by Freschi, God by Gericke, and Trinity by Lourie. Different as they are in their results, what is common in all these is that relations are used in conformity with the disciplined vocabulary of contemporary debates, and in view of arguments and difficulties which are clearly developed in the mainstream course of the logical analysis of concepts.
Behind our intention, a further motive can be detected, which is to make a fresh contribution to the study of relations through attention to sociality. (Philosophical) anthropology, social sciences, and the comparison of religious traditions are not traditional fields of application of the ontology of relations. Cera, a specialist in continental philosophy, provides a very useful presentation of a leading figure of post-Heideggerian philosophy, namely, Karl Löwith. This thinker develops a relational philosophy from the viewpoint that human nature consists of being-with-others (i.e., in relation to others). Bertini makes use of findings from ethology and social psychology in order to give an instance of the indispensability of relations in dealing with social phenomena. Long’s account of Jainism focuses on how intellectuals from this tradition apply their ontological commitments to the interpretation of interfaith relations.
Also, the more orthodox reader — I mean: a scholar whose interests in relations is based on the purely logico-conceptual approach to them – will find something of interest. The chapters by Hakkarainen, Keinänen and Keskinen, and that of Paolini Paoletti, deal with the core of current debates in analytic ontology. The former develops a taxonomy for relations, and accommodates a number of received proposals to handle problems in accounting for what a relation is. The latter analyzes Bradley’s regress once again, and points at a way out.
Such a multifaceted menu perhaps mixes too many diverse flavors, and requests for its reader an enthusiasm for diversity, plurality, and polysemy. Our hope is that the collection may give a testimony of the richness of relational thinking, and the indispensability of relations to a variety of future research agendsd. We cannot help thanking all the contributors for their lively engagement in the project, and the efforts they made in actively participating to our interdisciplinary exchange of views (19). We would also thank the Doctoral School in Humanities of the University of Verona for financial support to the present publication, and Mimesis International for help in editing it.


1  Damiano Migliorini wrote the first paragraph of the present introduction, Daniele Bertini wrote the second. 

2  Bertrand Russell, The Collected Papers, vol. 9: Essays on Language, Mind and Matter 1919–26 (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 170. 

3  Katarina Perovic, ‘Bradley’s Regress’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. by Edward N. Zalta, 2017. regress/ (last accessed 12 December 2017). 

4  According to Pinnock, the doctrine of Trinity ‘is relevant to the openness of God because the social Trinity is an open and dynamic structure. It does not portray God as solitary, domineering individual but as the essence of loving community. […] The Trinity points to a relational ontology in which God is more like a dynamic event than a simple substance and is essentially relational, ecstatic and alive. God exists as persons united in a communion of love and freedom’. Clark Pinnock et al., The Openness of God (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), p. 108.
5  Lewis Ayres, ‘(Mis)Adventures in Trinitarian Ontology’, in The Trinity and an Entangled World, ed. by J. Polkinghorne (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp. 130–45), pp. 131–32. 

6  Richard M. Rorty, ‘Relations, Internal and External’ [1967], in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. by Thomson Gale, 2006, humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/relations-internal- and-external (last accessed 12 December 2017).
7  This debate derives from a much older diatribe between monists and pluralists: see Pauline Phemister, ‘Leibnizian pluralism and Bradleian monism: a question of relations’, Studia Leibnitiana 45 (2016), 61–79. 

8  Robert C. Mesle, Process-Relational Philosophy (West Conshohocken: Templeton Press, 2008), p. 8. 

9  Among the recurring attempts to interpret the human being as a “subsistent relation” see in particular: Gloria L. Schaab, ‘Human Being as Relation’, in Id., Trinity in Relation (Winona: Anselm Academic, 2012), pp. 86–119; Collin E. Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1991), chap. 5; for a more critical approach: Harriet A. Harris, ‘Should We Say That Personhood Is Relational?’, Scottish Journal of Theology 51 (1998), 214–34; Eudaldo Forment, ‘Relaciones Subsistentes y personas creadas’, Doctor Communis (2006), 97–128. Cf. Co ey’s interpretation of ‘person’ as relatio subsistens: ‘What is ontologically prior, because constitutive of the person as such, is the transcendental relation to God’ (David Co ey, Deus Trinitas (Oxford: OUP, 1999), pp. 81–82). 

10  Elaine Landry, Dean Rickles, Structural Realism (Dordrecht: Springer, 2012); Carlo Rovelli, La realtà non è come ci appare (Milano: Cortina, 2014). The basic problem of these ontologies is that they ‘are not developing a new system of categories and thereby are not o ering a new vision of nature. Arguably, they are merely attempting to switch the roles of two traditional categories – substance and relation – and without a su ciently developed account of the nature of relations’ (Sebastian Briceño, Stephen Mumford, ‘Relations All the Way Down? Against Ontic Structural Realism’, in The Metaphysics of Relations, ed. by Anna Marmodoro, David Yates (Oxford: OUP, 2016, pp. 198–217), p. 206). 

11  Marmodoro and Yates, The Metaphysics of Relations; John Heil, ‘Relations’, in The Routledge companion to Metaphysics, ed. by Robin Le Poidevin (New York: Routledge, 2009), pp. 310–21. 

12  In addition to the contributions in Marmodoro and Yates’s volume, see: Je rey E. Brower, ‘Medieval Theory of Relations’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. by E.N. Zalta (2015), relations-medieval/ (last accessed 12 December 2017); Massimo Mugnai, Leibniz’s Theory of Relations (Franz Steiner: Leibniziana, Supplement, 1992); Giovanni Ventimiglia, ‘La relazione trascendentale nella Neoscolastica’, Rivista di Filoso a Neo-Scolastica, 81 (1989), 416–65; Julius R. Weinberg, Abstraction, Relation, and Induction (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965). 

13  Or a “consonance”. See John Polkinghorne, Science and the Trinity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), p. 75.
14  Is the Trinity a consistent conceptualization of this Relational God? See Daniele Bertini, ‘Against Trinitarian Enthusiasm’, Reportata (2015), https:// (last accessed 12 December 2017). 

15  Are God’s internal subsistent relations di erent from any other kind of relations? Does He have a “privilege”? (see A. Krempel, in Ventimiglia, La relazione trascendentale, p. 437). 

16  See Mauro Mantovani, ‘Persona e relazione, tra teologia e loso a’, Path 10 (2011) 5–18, here p. 16, footnote 38. The Trinity could be a regulative Idea which generates a list of transcendentals where relationality (and multiplicity) can nd place, beside Oneness (see Collin E. Gunton, The One, The Three and The Many (Cambridge: CUP, 1993) chap. 5; Id., The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, chap. 8).
17 The title of the conference is Relatio subsistens. L’ontologia delle relazioni e la loso a analitica della religione. The institutions which organized the conference are Fondazione Centro Studi Campostrini, Verona and Scuola di Dottorato in Scienze Umanistiche, Università di Verona.
18 William F. Vallicella, ‘Relations, Monism, and the Vindication of Bradley’s Regress’, Dialectica, 56 (2002), 3-35.

19 A special mention to all the native proof-readers which help us in revising the english form of the chapters – Daniela Almansi, Laurie Jane Anderson, Royston James, Jennifer Cooke, Valentina Cuminale, Richard Davies, Charlotte Anne Gericke, Natalia Iacobelli, Fedor Yu. Korkin, Marco Lauri, Anna Viglione, Je ery Wyss, and, nally, the anonymous revisers of the web based services Scribendi.