Perspectives in Continental Philosophy
Fordham University Press
Reviewed by: Owen Earnshaw (Durham University)
This remarkable book deals with the border between philosophy and theology and asks a question that Stephen Mulhall (2001) also poses at the end of his book Inheritance and Originality and leaves unanswered, namely, “[C]an philosophy acknowledge religion and still have faith in itself?” Falque argues very much in the affirmative and a repeated slogan of the text is “the more we theologize, the better we philosophise”, that is, philosophy finds its rightful place when it engages with theology and then returns to its own land of ‘the human per se’. In this book Falque is dealing mainly with the theological ‘turn’ in French phenomenology and what we are to make of it, but it will be of interest in this review to see if his arguments hold for the wider terrain of philosophy.
He starts out reviewing hermeneutics and its relation to phenomenology and examines how Ricoeur and Levinas both allow their confessional faith to help determine their hermeneutic approach; Protestant faith’s reliance on scripture alone for Ricoeur and Judaism’s trace of God in the letter of scripture for Levinas. In contrast to these approaches Falque puts forward his own Catholic hermeneutic of the body and the voice, which highlights that in the liturgy the Word of God nourishes the faithful both in the aspect of Scripture and in the Eucharist. This leads to the idea that phenomenology should engage with lived experience and the Catholic hermeneutic that he has expounded allows us to do this by making us aware of the body that speaks (the original form of the text) and should allow us to appropriate the text or be appropriated by the text in a bodily way that he calls ‘intercorporeality’. He then moves on to an analysis of what faith is and states that there is a common human faith in the reality of the world that he calls ‘philosophical faith’ that we attempt to suspend in Descartes method of doubt or in the phenomenological reduction and argues that confessional faith must be a transformation of this faith rather than a further step on from this faith. This is based on the theological foundation that God became man to transform humanity not to supercede it. Confessional faith is a transformation of the natural trust in the world all humanity shares. This leads on to the idea that philosophers who have taken the decision to believe need to produce not so much a philosophy of religion but rather a philosophy of religious experience as he claims Kierkegaard, Edith Stein and Simone Weil all worked on. This involves elucidating the reasons from within the faith that led to their decision ‘while not renouncing philosophy, conceive its activity quite otherwise’ (Falque 2016: 104). Falque then carries out such a philosophical investigation by looking at the choice of believing and concludes that it involves community, that I believe through a ‘we’. The next part looks at the relation between Theology and Philosophy and the final section is called ‘finally theology’ and reiterates Aquinas’ phrase that ‘philosophy is the servant of theology’. At this point I will quote Falque to make his position clear:
Finitude, or the human per se…are indeed starting points for philosophy and under the jurisdiction of the philosopher. But only as this finitude is then rejoined and transformed in the recited and assumed act of the Resurrection, is it made known that we were actually within the realm of true humanity and thus of philosophy-not of divinity concealed under the cover of humanity –that is, theology…This position can be summarized as the principle of ‘the philosopher before all else’ which should be adopted today not against theology but, on the contrary, for it, in order to dwell otherwise and situated within it. (Falque 2016: 148-149)
In what follows I shall look at Falque’s contestation that philosophy can be transformed by a confessional faith and still remain philosophy.
‘First live then philosophize’
The first point we shall look at is how a confessional faith can impact on the work of a philosopher. Mulhall (1994) in Faith and Reason gives a Wittgensteinian take on the limits of philosophy’s foraging into the territory of theology and I shall quote it at length in order to contrast it with Falque’s position:
Is there really room here for an exercise of reason that is not an employment of it on one side or another of the existential choice with which Christianity faces us?
Only if the following distinction can be made and observed: the distinction between a description and a defence of (or an attack upon) a form of life. For what can then follow is a distribution of duties, a division of intellectual labour. On this understanding, philosophy can spell out the features of the forms of life that face one another across the divide between religious and other modes of existence, and bring us to see how each will inevitably appear to the other…But it neither can, nor should, attempt to engage in those arguments with, let alone to make that choice for, its readers. The latter is always an error; the former is the business of edification, engagement, substantive discussion. It is, of course, neither an intellectually nor an ethically illegitimate enterprise – it is a perfectly valid use to which reason might be put, and forms a central part of any individual’s life; but it is not a philosophical use of reason, and it should form no part of a philosopher’s life qua philosopher. A philosopher should never forget that she is a human being, but not everything that a human being may do should be done in philosophy’s name. As Climacus might say, philosophy is not an edifying business. (Mulhall 1994: 76-77)
What seems to be missing here, and what Falque is very much aware of is that philosophy is never done in a vacuum. To take a hermeneutic approach for a moment, there is always, as Heidegger (1962) states, a fore-concept before the analysis begins and this is then where the enquiry starts from. If this is the case then the most intellectually honest way of proceeding is to make this fore-conception transparent. And so if you are philosophizing from the standpoint of someone with a confessional faith it is best if this faith is given an airing at the start to make the reader aware of the type of human life you envision and are trying to elucidate. Falque makes this point by looking at the Protestant hermeneutics of Ricoeur and the Judaic hermeneutics of Levinas before positing his own Catholic hermeneutic and what this allows us to see is how a confessional faith can help to make salient certain aspects of the philosophical enterprise that may be obscured from a primarily secular starting point. The life a person leads undoubtedly permeates their philosophy and although philosophy should be solely based on reason, the experiential ‘content’ given through a lived faith and the motivation, in terms of the mission of the philosopher will transform the subject matter and methodologies employed. This does not mean the resulting philosophy will necessarily be edificatory, but rather certain evidence, premises, topics and intuitions will have salience above others in the work of a philosopher with a confessional faith and this will not invalidate the philosophy by itself, but a self-aware philosopher would do well to make transparent how her faith informs her practice.
‘The more we theologize, the better we philosophise’
To make clear how a faith can inform a philosophical practice I would like to set out one particular practice in philosophy that is evident in philosophers such as Cavell, Mulhall, Wittgenstein and arguably Falque and argue that it is a legitimate philosophical practice. This practice might be called ‘transfiguring the ordinary’ and I will present a version of it developed elsewhere (Earnshaw 2011). A quote from Simone Weil sums up a way of understanding the interconnection of philosophy, ethics and aesthetics focused on the everyday:
The beautiful: that which we do not want to change. The good: not to want to change it, in fact (non-intervention). The true: not to want to change it in one’s mind (by means of illusion). The good — not to want to change what? My place, my importance in the world, limited by my body and by the existence of other souls, my equals (Weil 2004: 38).
The experience of beauty is of something that strikes us in such a way that we do not want to change it; the apprehension of it as beautiful just is seeing the object of our attention as perfect just as it is. Such an experience is articulated in McCarthy’s book The Road:
He remembered waking once on such a night to the clatter of crabs in the pan where he’d left steakbones from the night before. Faint coals of the driftwood fire pulsing in the onshore wind. Lying under such a myriad of stars. The seas black horizon. He rose and walked out and stood barefoot in the sand and watched the pale surf appear all down the shore and roll and crash and darken again. When he went back to the fire he knelt and smoothed her hair as she slept and he said if he were God he would have made the world just so and no different (McCarthy 2007: 234).
Here the character describes an experience through which he is willing to affirm the whole world as it is. In such experiences we are able to ‘see’ the world as ‘good’, as God is said to have done in Genesis. These experiences allow us to affirm that there is a value to life and living, and, indeed, we are able to affirm the value of our own existence because it is only due to the fact that we exist that this consummation experience (of perceiving the goodness of the world) is possible.
So what is it about ourselves that leads us to want to escape the real and live in fantasy? One line of thought (developed by Cavell in The Claim of Reason (1979)) is that we become entangled in philosophical problems (in the widest sense) because of the tendency for humans to want to overcome what they see as the limitations of finitude. This is one way of understanding what Weil is responding to in the quote above when she talks about the true as not wanting to change the world by means of illusion. The work of philosophy can then be understood as getting the person to see that the facts about our lives that can seem like obstacles or limitations should instead be perceived as limits to our lives. Their overcoming does not make any sense as they are the conditions for the possibility of the intelligibility of the world and other people. Scepticism can be seen as a desire to know the world in a more secure way than through our human faculties, as if there were a means of arriving at a more direct access to the world than through our everyday procedures for finding things out and to other people than through the means provided by language. Ordinary language philosophy tackles scepticism by reminding us of ‘what we say when’ in order to bring the conditions for knowledge of the world and others to the fore. However, this can seem like a very deflationary account of what is possible for philosophy. Wittgenstein sums this feeling up when he says:
Where does our investigation get its importance from, since it seems only to destroy everything interesting, that is, all that is great and important? (As it were all the buildings, leaving behind only bits of stone and rubble) (Wittgenstein 1963: §118).
If ‘the destruction of anything interesting’ is all this methodology of philosophy can achieve, why should it claim any of our attention? Wittgenstein’s answer is that ‘the aspect of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity’ (Wittgenstein 1963: §129). The disappointment we feel at the humble task of philosophy is a hankering after the facility and seeming profundity found in fantasy. In order for us to see ‘the aspect of things most important for us’ it is necessary to find ways of exalting in the ordinary and recovering the hidden beauty therein.
One way of tackling this problem of familiarity can be found in art, but also in religion. In Catholicism, the sacraments involve taking some everyday activity and relating it to the divine. For instance, in the sacrament of Communion the value of sharing a meal is celebrated with all the related values of family and friendship. In Confession the process of repairing a relationship is connected with our relation to the divine. In all religions the life of the community is understood as bound up with the eternal. In this way everyday practices are transfigured and thereby their value as part of a life is re-presented (reflected back to the community) in a new light and reaffirmed. This reaffirming of the everyday is found in Wittgenstein’s philosophy where we are invited to pay careful attention to our life with words and how this is inextricably bound up with our form of life (thereby taking our anxieties about language and showing how they express anxieties about our lives). Wittgenstein’s writings focus our attention on the conditions of the human relationship to the world and others, and help us to recognise that the wish for depth in our understanding of things is inherently empty. Such a recognition is one way in which we can overcome artificial craving to go beyond the everyday. The words of this philosopher allow the familiar to become strange and enticing and thereby reignite our interest in the ordinary. Through the ordering of his words the ordinary is transfigured and our poor substitute fantasies can be left behind for a time.
The idea that ‘transfiguring the ordinary’ is a respectable aim of philosophy is given backing in the writings of Victor Shklovsky who takes the methodology of art as involving what he calls an ‘enstrangement’ of objects and forms of life. I will quote at length from Shklovsky’s book and then comment briefly afterwards:
If we examine the general laws of perception, we see that as it becomes habitual, it also becomes automatic. So eventually all of our skills and experiences function unconsciously – automatically. If someone were to compare the sensation of holding a pen in his hand or speaking a foreign tongue for the first time with the sensation of performing this same operation for the ten thousandth time, then he would no doubt agree with us. It is this process of automatization that explains the laws of our prose speech with its fragmentary phrases and half-articulated words…If the complex life of many people takes place entirely on the level of the unconscious, then it’s as if this life had never been.
And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By ‘enstranging’ objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and ‘laborious. (Shklovsky 1991: 5-6).
It is by creating a space in our workaday activity (by making the task ‘harder’ than it might normally be) that can release us from ‘enslavement’ to habitual practices. This disruption enables us to carry out projects in ways that interweave spontaneity into the rhythm of the task we are engaged in. This practice in philosophy of trying to ‘transfigure the ordinary’ for the reader can be seen as a practice adopted from a perspective of a confessional faith without overstepping the boundaries of the ‘human per se’. I believe this is what Falque is aiming towards and if it seems an important practice is worth defending.
Conclusion: ‘I am first of all a philosopher and want to remain one’
Mixing theology and philosophy can be seen as a path inherent with dangers that may mean that others convict you of not doing philosophy at all. Crossing the Rubicon is an important book in that Falque attempts to cross the stream between these two disciplines to eventually return and know philosophy better. It would seem his crossing is successful and that he does remain a philosopher in the end and I have tried to outline the practice within philosophy that he follows that has confessional roots but conforms to the boundaries of philosophy. The book is a testament to being honest about your motivations and trying to find a way to carry on in a discipline bound by the ‘human per se’ while being inspired by the divine and highlights an overwhelming need in philosophy for the recognition and the acknowledgement of the personal as an necessary partner of the rational.
Cavell, S. 1979. The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality and Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Earnshaw, O. 2011. Recovering the Voice of Insanity: A Phenomenology of Delusions. (Doctoral dissertation). Available at: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/3225/
Falque, E. 2016. Crossing the Rubicon: The Borderlands of Philosophy and Theology. trans. R. Shank. New York: Fordham University Press.
Heidegger, M. 1962. Being and Time. trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell.
McCarthy, C. 2007. The Road. London: Pan Mcmillan Ltd.
Mulhall, S. 1994. Faith and Reason. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd.
Mulhall, S. 2001. Inheritance and Originality: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Kierkegaard. Oxford: OUP.
Shklovsky, V. 1991. Theory of Prose. trans. B. Sher. London: Dalkey Archive Press.
Weil, S. 2004. The Notebooks of Simone Weil. trans. A. Wills. London: Routledge.
Wittgenstein, L. 1963. Philosophical Investigations. trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.