Steven DeLay: Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity

Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity Book Cover Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity
Steven DeLay
Rowman & Littlefield International
Hardback $120.00

Reviewed by: Walter D Hopp (Boston University)

“It is,” writes Steven DeLay, “a serious responsibility to be human” (125). Whatever else one thinks philosophy is, one of its tasks is undoubtedly to figure out what our human responsibility is. And that responsibility must be connected in intelligible ways to the reality of what we are, the nature of the world at large, and what, given our powers, we are supposed to achieve. If goods and evils do exist, and if it lies within our powers to introduce or eliminate them, philosophy should have something to say about what those goods and evils are, and how to do that. As Augustine puts it, “to obtain the supreme good and avoid the supreme evil–such has been the aim and effort of all who have professed a zeal for wisdom in this world of shadows” (Augustine 1958, XIX.1, 428).

DeLay certainly has a “zeal for wisdom,” and his book is, ultimately, about how to identify and obtain the “supreme good.” The short answer lies in the title: we should live our lives “before God.” The long answer can only be acquired by reading the book. For what DeLay offers is a series of powerfully written and insightful reflections on what a life lived before God looks like for the one who lives it. It is an “exercise in subjectivity,” not in the Cartesian sense, but in the phenomenological sense—an exercise in how human life and its responsibilities manifest themselves for one who lives in the confidence of the immense value of the human person and in God’s redemptive plan for us. It is phenomenological in a further sense, insofar as it spells out intelligible and in many cases essential connections among the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of one who lives their life before God. DeLay’s analyses draw heavily on the phenomenological and existential traditions, and his insights into some of the classics of those traditions are genuinely eye-opening. Many of DeLay’s insights are novel, especially those he applies to contemporary life. And many are knowingly part of a long spiritual and philosophical tradition, whose central point can be expressed by saying that to live before God is to repudiate the values and the invidious distinctions lying at the basis of nearly all worldly life and its political, social, and institutional expressions and manifestations. It is to take up a radically different form of life, one in which selfless love extends beyond one’s family and friends to one’s neighbors and even one’s enemies. At the same time, it is to look to God, and not to power, pleasure, prestige, or group membership for redemption. It is to “grow in doing good,” which is “to want what is good for others” (62), even those who do us wrong. It is to regard God as “the living One to whom we owe all” (3).

At the heart of DeLay’s exercises lies a contrast that hearkens back to Kierkegaard’s contrast between being a self and being part of a crowd, Augustine’s contrast between the City of God and the City of Man, and, of course, Paul’s contrast between a life of the spirit and a life of the flesh. “We are most defined,” DeLay writes, “by our capacity to decide whether we will an existence of being-in-the-world, or one instead of being-before-God” (124). The choice of being-in-the-world has a familiar outline, and DeLay allows the existentialists to describe much of it. It is, as Heidegger says, in large measure the customary, conformist, inauthentic way of doing what “one” does, thinking what “one” thinks, and feeling what “one” feels. On this point Kierkegaard agrees. This world is, moreover, widely agreed to be a place of immense pain and disappointment and despair, most of it caused by humans themselves. Here too Kierkegaard agrees.

But against Kierkegaard, and DeLay, the atheist existentialists more or less agree that the natural and human world is all there is and, most critically, that whatever redemption we can fashion must come from willing or resolving upon a certain order of values for and by ourselves. Our lives are essentially bound up with those of others and their self-centered projects, and our relations with them are for the most part instrumental or adversarial. From the point of view of being-before-God, others are made in God’s image, and we are required to treat them as such (see 76). From the point of view of being-in-the-world, as Sartre famously characterizes the matter, other people are hell with the magical power of defining, in their total freedom, who and what we are, and the best we can hope for is to stop serving them and to fashion and define ourselves. The task for the atheist existentialists remains what it was for Kierkegaard: to become a self rather than a crowd. But whereas Kierkegaard says in a thousand different ways that one can only be a self in relation to God, the atheist existentialists hand what they can of God’s powers over to us. At its height (or depth, as the case may be) this involves becoming creators of value or, perhaps even more absurdly, of our own essence or nature. Failing that, it is to at least live “authentically.” In any event, there is little recognition that anything we have, including life itself but also our powers of mind and body, is a gift, or any acknowledgment that these gifts are to be received in gratitude, held with humility, and employed in a life of service and love.

Does this mode of thinking and living exemplify a “zeal for wisdom”? If DeLay is right, it is the opposite, a view that “leads whomever follows it badly astray” (6). All of its proponents declare God to be dead far too hastily and, in many cases, too eagerly. For Heidegger, with whom DeLay engages most closely on this point, the reason is putatively methodological: the philosopher must practice “methodological atheism.” DeLay has a great deal to say about the questionableness of that methodological choice. But, more importantly, as DeLay notes, it is obviously quite more than a methodological choice. Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein as being-in-the-world is not supposed to be an account of what we would be if there were no God, but what we are. As DeLay puts it, Heidegger’s decision to characterize Dasein as “anxious fundamentally” is “not at all to bracket the question of God, but to reject directly the idea that we are made in the image of God” (6).

For DeLay, this is both catastrophic and philosophically irresponsible. Indeed, in the very first page DeLay rejects the traditional distinction between philosophy and theology. “Are philosophy and theology really so distinct” (1)? To affirm that they are, for DeLay, is to carve up disciplinary boundaries that do not correspond with the things themselves or the structure of our concern about them. “If it is impossible for any individual life to evade the question of God entirely forever …, how could a philosophy that aims to understand human existence do so itself” (3)? Well, quite simply, it can’t. One must, in one fashion or another, come to terms with the question of God. If philosophy is to speak to our condition, to aid us in identifying and seeking the highest good, it cannot simply bracket God as beyond or beneath its concern.

That philosophy cannot responsibly evade the question of God through mere methodological means seems rather clear. So what are the alternatives? DeLay writes: “where Heidegger recommended methodological atheism as philosophically crucial to transcendental phenomenology, why cannot we claim the opposite and insist on a methodological theism” (27)? Well, I think there may be an answer to that, and one that rules out both methodological atheism and theism. In transcendental phenomenology, we are concerned with essential relations among acts, their objects, and their contents. “To elucidate [the] connections between veritable being and knowing and so in general to investigate the correlations between act, meaning, object is the task of transcendental phenomenology” (Husserl 2008, 434). We bracket the factual existence of the world, for instance, not in order to doubt it, but just to prevent irrelevant premises from being imported into an eidetic investigation. It’s really no different from bracketing propositions about empirically real shapes when doing geometry, a procedure compatible with the absolute certainty that such shapes exist. Comparing the two disciplines, Husserl writes: “Geometry and phenomenology as sciences of pure essence make note of no determinations about real existence” (Husserl 2014, 147).

Now it would be objectionable to bracket God if that meant that in phenomenology we can say nothing about God or the consciousness of God. If phenomenology deals with what we are conscious of and the nature of our consciousness of it, then “by what authority can God’s phenomenality be discarded as illegitimate, as unimportant to phenomenological philosophy’s concern” (27)? That’s a great question, whose answer is, I think, just what DeLay thinks it is: by no authority whatsoever. This does not, however, amount to methodological theism. Nor is it methodological agnosticism. It is, well, bracketing—simply not considering the matter within the context of phenomenology, in the same way that a geometer brackets the color of shapes without thereby confirming, denying, or even remaining neutral on the question of whether shapes have colors. Bracketing the existence of God is compatible with phenomenological inquiries into the nature of the consciousness of God and the form of a life lived before God. We can talk about God and a conscious life lived before God all we want in phenomenology, as DeLay insists. And—here I think I may disagree with him—we can do so without violating any of Husserl’s strictures regarding the phenomenological method. The reason is that provided there is a consciousness of something, the nature of that consciousness is fair game for phenomenology. And you cannot discuss the nature of the consciousness of something without saying quite a bit about the nature of that very something: “the description of the essence of consciousness leads back to what, in consciousness, one is conscious of” (Husserl 2014, 254). (And I hasten to add that “what … one is conscious of” when one is conscious of God is God, and not, say, a God-noema.) Since people, including methodological atheists, are obviously conscious of God, that consciousness is a suitable topic for phenomenology, in all of its various forms of love, hate, and indifference. In the same way, phenomenology can talk about the nature of perceiving a physical thing, even without positing the actual existence of a single physical thing. The reason to bracket God—or trees, tables, or anything else—isn’t because their existence is dubitable. It’s because phenomenology is an eidetic discipline that posits the existence of no actualities at all.

From the beginning, as at all later stages, its scientific statements involve not the slightest reference to real existence: no metaphysical, scientific, and, above all, no psychological assertions can therefore occur among its premises (Husserl 1970, 265).

This—and the whole process of bracketing—has exactly nothing to do with epistemic caution. It has to do with the fact that phenomenology does not posit the existence of a single real thing. Indeed, among the things we don’t posit in phenomenology are individual acts of consciousness themselves (see Husserl 2014, 102). This partly explains why believers and unbelievers alike can learn a great deal from works like DeLay’s. Even without positing God, one can grasp, in some fashion, the nature of a subjective life lived in the consciousness of being before God.

Clearly, however, DeLay is right that philosophy as a whole cannot simply proceed on the assumption that God does not exist, or go on bracketing God’s existence indefinitely. Not, at least, if its task is to provide a metaphysics, an ethics, a proper ontology of the human person, and, finally, a path toward a good life. Now I don’t think this quite means that philosophy and theology are not distinct or even that they overlap—though, of course, they might. But in any case, I think this division is not what’s really at stake in DeLay’s view. For there are reasons to think that, at least on one conception of what those disciplines are about and what they require in terms of our wills, and despite the fact that both disciplines must address the question of God and the nature of a life lived before God, they cannot lead us all the way to God anyway. The reason is that knowing God is not principally a matter of how smart one is. As Delay puts it, “if God will be known, he must be loved” (18). Since a love of God is necessary for a knowledge of God, but is not necessary for doing philosophy or even theology, doing philosophy and theology cannot be sufficient for knowing God.

Before moving on, I should point out at once that DeLay addresses the worry that this is circular. His response is that the kind of knowledge at stake is knowledge by acquaintance rather than a deductive proof (18-19). A life lived before God is not the same thing as a life lived with a convincing argument for God. I think the point could be summed up by saying that surely one must have some conception of God in order to love and desire to encounter God, but that this conception and love does not presuppose the knowledge of God that it itself makes possible. Simply put, we all have some conception of God as an all-powerful and morally perfect spiritual being, one who meets human wrongdoing with mercy. Some of us love and desire to know God, and hope that this world could somehow be redeemed by him. Some of us, by contrast, would be quite relieved if God did not exist, since his ways and our ways do not agree. In fact DeLay very artfully turns the tables on those who charge the believer with “wish-fulfillment.” As he puts it, “the denial of God’s existence might equivalently be interpreted as someone’s not wanting to love what is there” (19). The prelude to acquaintance is loving, or at least not resenting and hating, the object of this conception. The principal problem for the atheist, on DeLay’s view, is that “he persists looking in a way that guarantees he will come up empty-handed inevitably, so long as he wants to” (19).

But why should a love of God be required to know God? Might we at least secure an argument for his existence if an encounter is out of the question? Part of DeLay’s answer seems to be that this is just a special case of a more general principle. It is, as DeLay points out, a familiar fact that while ordinary physical objects show up to anyone with properly functioning senses, many things do not. A hardened heart will not detect kindness or love when others exhibit them, or the beauty that lies in a piece of art or music (17). Nor is our will inoperative when we grasp arguments outside the “terrain of certainty” (19). “Knowing is entwined with what we want to know, or want to be. In a very subtle yet relevant way, just affirming an argument’s conclusion takes an exercise of love” (19).

I am not confident that this last claim is quite right. Many scientific theories, for instance, are uncertain, but we affirm them without any detectable exercises of love. But even if it is right, there may be a different reason why God, in particular, will only show up for those willing to encounter him. It is that God “does not impose an encounter with himself, because to do so would be incompatible with the love defining him” (18). And here, I think, DeLay’s work can be profitably supplemented with insights from, among others, Max Scheler and Paul Moser. God is a person, and as Scheler points out, persons, and only persons, can be silent (Scheler 1960, 335). Now Scheler is quick to add that it would be incompatible with the goodness of God to remain silent for all people and forever. But he may well decide to be silent for some people some of the time. And as Moser points out, his reasons for doing so would be motivated by and intelligible in the light of his perfect moral goodness. As he puts it, “God typically would hide God’s existence from people ill disposed toward it, in order not to antagonize these people in a way that diminishes their ultimate receptivity toward God’s character and purposes” (Moser 2013, 200). That is, the issue isn’t that certain spectacles will only appear to those favorably inclined. Rather, it is that God isn’t available via “spectator evidence” at all. Because he is a person, and a person primarily concerned with our moral characters rather than our beliefs, “God would not use spectator evidence for self-authentication” (Moser 2013, 105).

All of that seems perfectly in line with DeLay’s own claims about the conditions for encountering God. Like appreciating a work of art or recognizing nobility and excellence in another, it requires a certain loving attitude on our part. But unlike those cases, it also requires that God voluntarily reveal himself in ways suitable for our moral development. If we persist in the “wisdom” that characterizes being-in-the-world, we can expect God, out of love for us, to remain out of reach, just as DeLay says (19). But it does put pressure on DeLay’s framing of the relation of philosophy to theology. Much of the content of those disciplines is available to “spectator evidence.” They call upon powers primarily of intellect rather than of character. But the encounter with God does not. He will hide from the wise and manifest himself to children (Matthew 11:25). And given God’s personal prerogative to remain silent, and his reasons, grounded in love, for doing so, establishing the reality of God is quite possibly where both philosophy and theology stop short. I think that almost certainly follows from Moser’s position, and I suspect that it follows from DeLay’s as well. The alternative is that philosophy and theology do require a love of God to be done properly—a position that, I think, DeLay might endorse when he favorably characterizes the “ancient schools” of philosophical thinking for regarding philosophy as a partially “therapeutic” activity designed to “elevate[] those who pursued it above the quotidian life,” and which “requires more than conceptual clarity” (33). In either case, the important point of DeLay’s work stands: not just anybody is going to encounter God, and there are powerful reasons lying in both the subject and the object why that is so.

Whether that is so, a further and related point is amply substantiated by DeLay’s book, and that is that philosophy conducted “before God” can arrive at insights that would escape a philosophy of being-in-the-world. Or, more precisely, actions and attitudes that might look absurd from the perspective of being-in-the-world take on a whole new character of obviousness when viewed from the perspective of being before God. “A faithful life, led by its distinctive form of evidence, involves a comprehensively new way of seeing things in their totality, one with wide-reaching implications for how we grasp everything…” (28). So, for instance, Nietzsche accuses Christians of denying life, and bills his own philosophy of will to power as an affirmation of life. But what is being affirmed here is not life per se, nor a good life on any defensible understanding of it, but being-in-the-world with all of its brutality, arrogance, egoism, exploitation, and needless suffering. From the perspective of being-before-God, hatred of “the world,” so construed, is the very opposite of a hatred of life. “To the contrary, hatred of the world affirms life” (159). DeLay’s book is full of such insights.

Here is another example that, I think, goes straight to the heart of contemporary life. Being-in-the-world is marked by conflict at every level of human interaction, from the personal on up. That conflict often erupts into violence. And it always involves an enemy. One’s attitude toward an enemy might involve “rancor, resentment, hatred or even wrath” (103). But that, typically, is not how enemies are made. Enmity is normally, rather, the “bad fruit of egoism” (103). My enemy is my enemy because, originally, “he simply stood in the way of my desires” (103). Once this opposition is established, the “bad fruit” of enmity begins to grow. Far too often, the result is violence, followed by more violence, in a brutal cycle of retaliation and revenge. Hence the religious prohibitions on lust (103), which, judging by the widespread efforts to provoke it, much of the contemporary world seems to find arbitrary. Political solutions to these problems often simply substitute personal violence with institutional violence which, again, is typically born of people trying to get what they want, and coming to hate and oppress those who stand in their way. “Violence, when it concerns the lack of peace with others, originates in the strife produced by the desire to get what we want, sometimes at any cost, even should the cost mean the horrific suffering of others” (109). Following Dostoevski, DeLay insists that political solutions to violence do not get to the root of the problem: “true change would require everyone first beginning by revolutionizing themselves” (112).

For DeLay, this personal revolution means living before God. When I regard others as made in God’s image, I will never consent to harm someone for the gratification of my desires, or especially for vengeance. And, given the normal way in which enmity arises, this means that I simply won’t have enemies. As DeLay puts it, “There can be no peace until we learn to live without enemies” (110). Now of course DeLay knows and insists that enmity is not always reciprocal (102). We cannot control whether others regard us as their enemies. And, of course, we might all have unwilled enemies, otherwise the commandment to love one’s enemies would make no sense. But we can control whether we regard others as enemies, whether we are the ones who will the harm or destruction of another. When we love others, we would never want that. Alice von Hildebrand writes:

A fundamental characteristic of love is that all the good qualities of the beloved are considered to be a valid expression of his true self; whereas his faults are interpreted as an unfaithfulness towards his true self (Hildebrand 1965, 57).

And that is exactly the vision that DeLay shares. From the point of view of living before God, not only will we not regard others as enemies, but it will be obvious that we cannot so regard them. Defense of self and others might be called for in certain dire circumstances. But mowing down others or destroying what in their lives is precious in the pursuit of pleasure, power, or revenge for past harms would be out of the question. What is natural and obvious from the point of view of being-in-the-world, namely the genesis of violence in uncontrolled desire and its perpetuation through hatred and retaliation, is nearly unimaginable from the point of view of being before God.

It is in this light, I suggest, that we read one of the more puzzling features of DeLay’s view. In his discussion of lying, DeLay claims that there is no explanation for why people lie (129). And that is because, like Kierkegaard and Henry, DeLay thinks that this is true of all sin and evil (129). Now I admit that lying often involves a kind of bad faith, that “To lie is to trust that I, and not it, am in control. But I am not, and so to breathe it into being is to make myself its dupe” (131). But it is rather implausible, for instance, that there is no explanation for why a criminal on the stand would lie. He doesn’t want to suffer. Lying to avoid great suffering or death is about as intelligible as things come in the sphere of human motivations. Maybe such a liar wrongly thinks that he is in control of the consequences of his lie. But more likely, the explanation is more mundane: telling the truth means certain suffering, and lying means, well, maybe not.

More worrying, though, is that the claim that sin and evil are without explanation entails that the repeated and depressingly similar patterns of wrongdoing that we find in the world have no explanation, that it is a gigantically improbable and horrendous miracle. But DeLay’s own book succeeds in showing, again and again, that being-in-the-world has an inner logic of its own that makes wrongdoing almost inescapable. Equip some very finite but rather clever beings with pride and lust and the will to power, give them contingently limited physical resources and essentially limited funds of prestige and social status, and one might hazard a guess at how things will unfold. And so they do unfold, much as DeLay describes and explains in each chapter of his book, and as other insightful people (Plato, Paul, Hobbes, Nietzsche, Veblen, Murdoch, to name just a few) have described in theirs.

How are we to reconcile DeLay’s position that evil does not make sense with the fact that it does make sense, and that he himself makes sense of it? The answer, I think, refers us again to the contrast between being-in-the-world and being before God. Evil might make sense from the perspective of abandonment, despair, and self-sufficiency that characterizes being-in-the-world. In fact, it makes enough sense that with minimal premises we could deduce it a priori. But from DeLay’s own perspective, that of being before God, doing the right thing is not only possible, but natural and obvious—so much so that evil must, from this outlook, genuinely be unintelligible.

But DeLay makes, and repeatedly illustrates, a further point about evil. Not only is it profoundly irrational from the point of view of living before God, but is so even from the perspective of being-in-the-world. The reason lies in its typically self-undermining character. To return to the lie, the lie has, as part of its own nature, something paradoxical about it. “A lie,” DeLay writes, “is something one assumes will not be identified for what it is … yet what makes it what it is (a lie!) is precisely that it deceives, first and above all else, the one that it has assured it cannot (or probably will not) be discovered” (130). This is the “existential” paradox characteristic of the act of lying. A lie has logical and practical consequences that exceed our intentions, our grasp, and our control. To utter one is to lose control in an attempt to exercise control.

We find the same internal tension in other cases too. Evil, as DeLay points out, is often silent, both in point of fact and more broadly by way of a life shrouded in “a fog of evasions and obscurities” (118). The absentee father, to give one of examples, becomes increasingly silent in this way as his failure at parenting becomes increasingly conspicuous. “Phone calls are left unmade, birthday cards unsent” (118). But the silence intended to cover over this failure makes it all the more evident. “As with the adulterer, the conman, or the spy, the silence required to conceal the double life eventually becomes bizarre; in turn, it only arouses the suspicion of guile it was meant to dispel” (119). Or again: “Undermining itself, the silence not only has failed to hide what it hoped it would. It has disclosed that it has something to hide” (121).

Another, but by no means the final, example is violence itself. Its goal, ultimately, is to put an end to conflict. But it almost never manages to do this. Not only does retaliation typically provoke further acts of retaliation, but the act of violence nearly always leaves the perpetrator of it damaged—especially, we might add, when retaliation amounts to annihilation. Even in those cases which seem most obviously justifiable—the United States’ role in World War II, for example—violence harms everyone, including the victors. This isn’t just because, say, it led to the horrors of Nagasaki or Dresden, in which “to do violence to others is also to have done harm to ourselves” (104). It’s also because the many consequences, both seen and unforeseen, of that conflict. Now DeLay does say that “A purely philosophical justification for unconditional pacificism is admittedly elusive” (106). At the same time, his chapter on “Making Peace” reminds us of the horrific consequences of violence, quite contrary to whatever legitimacy might appear to characterize violence in the first place. Furthermore, according to DeLay, violence is exacerbated by the very worldly attitude of regarding the individual as unimportant and viewing political entities as the really important agents of power and change in the world. This perspective is itself self-undermining because “It worsens the violence it hopes to ameliorate by ignoring the depths of the problem’s source” (109). It is a recurring feature of DeLay’s book how often self-defeating the world’s solutions to its own problems are.

This brings me to an important point about DeLay’s method of philosophizing. In the examples above, DeLay provides empirical evidence for his assertions. But he does not characterize his claims to be empirical only. Regarding the consequences of war, for example, he writes that “empirical reality concerning historic facts confirms the original claim of phenomenological essence” (106). And so it is with each of his analyses. I can imagine some readers being suspicious of these claims of “phenomenological essence.” DeLay does not employ the familiar strategy in philosophy of wandering to the remotest of all allegedly “possible worlds” to see if his claims don’t hold up in some of them. Might there not be some possible world where violence succeeds in putting everything right, where the proud and the self-centered never become enemies, where the power of the State puts an end to all conflict while leaving our inner lives untouched, and where the lie and its offspring have all been tamed by the liar? Well, maybe such worlds are “conceivable,” at least in some empty or inauthentic way. So construed, maybe these aren’t claims of “essence.” But between what is true in every far-fetched possible (or, more often, inauthentically conceivable) world and mere contingency there is intelligibility. The connections among evil and its consequences, and between living before God and its consequences, are not brutely empirical. They make sense, including phenomenological, motivational sense. And DeLay’s method is to make sense of them, within the constraints that reasonable people will probably recognize as framing human life. I imagine that some readers will find this realism to be a refreshing aspect of DeLay’s work. I know I did.

This leads to one final point, however, one where my own doubts run deepest. A strong interpretation of DeLay’s position is that living a life before God is both sufficient and necessary for genuine moral goodness, the kind of robust moral goodness needed to transform human life in the ways so desperately needed. I will leave to the side the question of whether it is sufficient, in part because I think DeLay makes a very strong case that it is—though, and as I suspect DeLay would agree, learning to live before God might be a long road that cannot be travelled by a mere change in belief. But is it necessary? There are, after all, more sober conceptions of a godless and finite life than the being-in-the-world of the existentialists, and it would have been helpful to see DeLay exercise his considerable philosophical skills against some more credible opponents. Iris Murdoch’s philosophy, for example, presents a diagnosis of human wrongdoing very much in line with that of the Christian tradition, and recommends a partially similar and non-legalistic cure of selfless love, “attention” to the real, and humility (see Murdoch 1970). And even when the similarities don’t run as deep, there is a considerable overlap between many secular and religious conceptions of the good person and right action. Seeing the other as treasured by God, for instance, is certainly helpful to seeing the other as a bearer of dignity and rights. But it does not seem to be essential to doing so. Furthermore, as flawed as we and our world may be, normal human life contains goodness too. Love, care, mercy, honesty, courage, self-sacrifice, and mutual respect are familiar aspects of human life which, again, might be strengthened by faith in God, but do not seem to require it. Is there an alternative, then, on which people could be genuinely and profoundly good without faith in God?

DeLay addresses this issue directly, but rather briefly:

…if living a maximally upright life without faith is possible, if caring for the well-being of others is one’s real priority, and if one hates suffering and evil, how does one exist in a world so broken and not die of grief? If anyone can live a comfortable life, relatively apathetic in the face of the supposed knowledge that this is the only world there will be, that there will be no judgment in which good is rewarded and evil punished: can we take this attitude’s declarations of sensitivity and clean-heartedness seriously (144)?

Well, maybe we couldn’t take such claims seriously from the comfortable and the apathetic. But between them and those who die of grief, there remains room for those who do hurt, who do care, but who find that there’s enough goodness in the world—including the intrinsic goodness of doing good—to get by. Perhaps such people would not allow themselves to die of grief, because that would constitute an additional triumph of evil. They might, additionally, recognize in humility that their own powers of healing the world are profoundly restricted, and that they are—like, I suspect, all of us—simply psychologically limited in how widely they can distribute their heartfelt care. I just don’t think anyone has the psychological or spiritual resources to shed a tear for every act of injustice on their block, let alone in the world, no matter how much each one of them warrants it. Extending effective love and care to our “neighbor”—who may also be our enemy—is as much as we can normally do, whether or not we have faith. In any case, I not only think that deeply moral agnostics or atheists are possible, but I am rather confident (one can never know for sure) that I know such people. Many of them are sincere, and their unbelief is founded in genuine difficulties, especially the problem of evil. I don’t pretend to know what resources they draw upon to sustain themselves—perhaps it is God and they don’t even know it—but virtue and unbelief do not seem incompatible. As Dallas Willard puts it, God’s kingdom is wherever his will is done, “the domain where what he prefers is actually what happens” (Willard 1998, 259). And I am confident that there are many more participants in this kingdom than the faithful alone.

That being said, I do think that DeLay’s account of a life lived before God succeeds in its task of shedding light on the world from the perspective of faith. This is in part because while the existence of God might not be a matter to be settled by description or argument, DeLay does provide a rich phenomenological characterization of what living with a secure faith and trust in God involves. It is a work of immense wisdom, compelling arguments, and rich phenomenological descriptions. It is, finally, a refreshing reminder of what draws most of us to philosophy in the first place: to grapple with ultimate questions of human existence, with clarity of thought and expression, and without methodological evasions.

Works Cited

Augustine. 1958. City of God. Translated by Gerald G. Walsh, Demetrius B. Zema, Grace Monahan, and Daniel J. Honan. New York: Image Books.

DeLay, Steven. 2020. Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity. New York: Rowman & Littlefield International.

Hildebrand, Alice. 2017. “Hope.” In Dietrich von Hildebrand with Alice von Hildebrand. The Art of Living, 61-77. Steubenville, OH: Hildebrand Press.

Husserl, Edmund. 1970. Logical Investigations. Two volumes. Translated by J.N. Findlay. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Husserl, Edmund. 2008. Introduction to Logic and Theory of Knowledge: Lectures 1906/07. Translated by Claire Ortiz Hill. Dordrecht: Springer.

Husserl, Edmund. 2014. Ideas I: Ideas for a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy. Translated by Daniel O. Dahlstrom. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Moser, Paul K. 2013. The Severity of God: Religion and Philosophy Reconceived. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Murdoch, Iris. 2001. The Sovereignty of Good. New York: Routledge.

Scheler, Max. 1960. On the Eternal in Man. Translated by Bernard Noble. London: SCM Press Ltd.

Willard, Dallas. 1998. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.

Steven DeLay: Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity, Rowman & Littlefield, 2019

Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity Book Cover Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity
Steven DeLay
Rowman & Littlefield International
Hardback $120.00 £80.00

Marguerite La Caze (Ed.): Phenomenology and Forgiveness

Phenomenology and Forgiveness Book Cover Phenomenology and Forgiveness
Marguerite La Caze (Ed.)
Rowman & Littlefield International
Paperback $39.95 / £24.95

Reviewed by: Rhonda Siu (University of New South Wales)

Marguerite La Caze’s aim as editor of the volume, Phenomenology and Forgiveness (2018), is to enhance phenomenology by investigating ways that it could examine forgiveness as an experience (La Caze 2018, vii). Forgiveness, she claims, has become an increasingly important issue in philosophy given recent developments such as the global reconciliation commissions in South Africa and the Solomon Islands (vii). Moreover, La Caze believes that phenomenologists can offer insightful analyses of first-person experiences of forgiveness, not least because many of them have struggled intensely with the issue of forgiveness themselves (e.g. Husserl, Sartre and Stein) (vii).

Two key aspects inform the approach to phenomenology adopted in this volume. First, the volume features an open-ended, comprehensive view of phenomenology that La Caze terms “wild phenomenology”; this view explains why thinkers not typically associated with phenomenology (e.g. Jankélévitch, Camus, Arendt and Derrida) have also been included (x). Second, the volume features “critical phenomenology”, continuing a tradition established by philosophers like Simone de Beauvoir, Frantz Fanon and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and developed by more contemporary thinkers like Matthew Ratcliffe, Havi Carel and Jill Stauffer (La Caze 2018, xiv; Murphy 2018, 199). While adherents of critical phenomenology retain phenomenology’s traditional emphasis on first-person experience, they also diverge from its emphasis on subjectivity by focusing instead on intersubjectivity (Murphy 2018, 199). Here, La Caze refers to Lisa Guenther’s notion that critical phenomenology is not simply a theory but a “practice of liberation”; that is, it conceives of phenomenology as a philosophy that is constantly transforming, and which, in turn, transforms the world (Guenther 2017, 203, cited in La Caze 2018, xiv). Hence, contrary to the common view that phenomenology is purely “descriptive” (Murphy 2018, 199), this volume insightfully demonstrates how it has real-world application through its capacity to inform and motivate action. The volume has a facilitative tripartite structure encompassing: (1) “Experiences of forgiveness”, (2) “Paradoxes of forgiveness”, and (3) “Ethics and politics of forgiveness”. Before evaluating the volume further, I will discuss the key claims posited by the writers of each section. 

  1. Experiences of Forgiveness

The writers of section one reveal how the complexities of forgiveness are accentuated when it is examined in terms of the lived experiences of individuals and collectivities. They also reveal how the specificity of these experiences may prompt us to question those conventional notions of morality and religion that are intended to have universal application. In chapter one, Shannon Hoff examines what constitutes a morally “good” action in relation to Hegel’s account of conscience, confession and forgiveness in Phenomenology of Spirit (Hoff 2018, 4). According to her interpretation, this complex issue of moral action is staged as a confrontation between a moral agent who performs what she considers a “good” act and a judge who assesses its morality (or lack thereof) (4). Importantly, this confrontation embodies a necessary contradiction. Theoretically-speaking, applying moral standards is meant to be universal, unambiguous and objective (7). However, in actuality, realising a moral law through action is necessarily performed from a biased standpoint because a specific agent must devise her own understanding of this law in a highly distinctive situation (4-5). In this situation, both the agent and judge are human and thus imperfect; lacking omniscience, they can only view things from their own perspectives, perspectives that are necessarily shaped by their own experiences, projects and interests (4-6). Rather than self-righteously reproaching an agent for her biased standpoint, Hoff argues that we should assess an action’s moral value through intersubjective means, that is, by simultaneously empathising with others’ situations and being open to their criticisms, and vice versa (15).

Importantly, Hoff offers valuable insights into how Hegel’s account of forgiveness can be applied to tackle controversial political issues. Her analysis is particularly relevant to a political environment increasingly characterised firstly by “intersectionality” (17), wherein multifaceted and often conflicting notions of identity render pursuing justice even more complex. Secondly, the political terrain has also been significantly altered by the rise of social media (12), whereby the “public naming and shaming” that occur, for example, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram often only permit a reductive response to complex political issues. Consequently, productive public discourse is stifled; one is either praised or condemned for supporting or dismissing a viewpoint. By contrast, Hoff demonstrates how one could respond constructively to sensitive socio-political issues like adopting another’s perceived oppression as one’s own cause (12). She provides the example of a Westerner (e.g. a “middle-class, white, Canadian man”) combatting what he perceives as the mistreatment of women in a manifestly different cultural environment (e.g. a “specific, conservative, Muslim culture”) (11). Hoff claims that such an individual’s desire to perform a “good” act should neither be ridiculed nor dismissed (8 and 14), for instance, by claiming that he is not equipped to help just because he is neither Muslim nor a woman. Rather, she argues that we should view his pursuit in a positive light as his chance for further education, self-interrogation and change; ideally, he would seek to learn more about the other’s situation (from the other) and critique his own actions based on any newly-acquired knowledge (14).

In chapter two, Nicolas De Warren explores how Arendt’s phenomenological approach to forgiveness emphasises its temporal, intersubjective and ontological dimensions (De Warren 2018, 25). Understanding Arendt’s conception of forgiveness, de Warren claims, requires an understanding of how it is bound up with two other key concepts in her philosophy: “natality” and “plurality” (25). Forgiveness, for Arendt, firstly entails plurality because the act of forgiving requires at least two people (the forgiver and the forgiven); one cannot forgive one’s own act of harming the other (33). Secondly, Arendt grounds her concept of natality in the interrelated notions of “respect” and “distance” (37-38). For De Warren, Arendt’s emphasis on respect means that she thereby departs from traditional moral or religious conceptions of forgiveness. Rather than emphasising conventional concepts like “salvation, charity” and “intimacy”, Arendt highlights the gap that respect (re)institutes in the self-other relationship that allows the other (whom one has forgiven) to appear “unequal to her appearance” (38-39, emphasis in original). That is, the other is thereupon presented as different from her past self; her identity no longer coincides with her misdeed/s (34). This reinstitution of distance, de Warren claims, is essential to natality as it allows the self-other relationship to begin anew; the other reacquires her “agency” and capacity for action, aspects she effectively gave up by doing us wrong (33-34 and 39). By thus freeing us (or in Arendt’s terms, “redeeming us”) from the immutability of the past, forgiveness brings about the “re-temporaliz[ation]” of interpersonal relationships (25-26, 30 and 34). As will become apparent, many writers in the volume also draw explicitly or implicitly on this concept of forgiveness as renewal; indeed, Arendt’s philosophy seems to form the volume’s undercurrent. 

In chapter three, Simone Drichel draws on Emmanuel Levinas’ writings to explore how forgiveness is experienced during and after trauma. Drichel finds it curious that forgiveness does not feature more prominently in Levinas’ philosophy, given its relevance to his account of “traumatic subject constitution” in more mature works like Otherwise than Being (Drichel 2018, 43-44). Importantly, she challenges what she views as Levinas’ “‘counter-intuitive’” claim in his notion of “ethical relationality” that one’s “vulnerable exposure” to others is always experienced as a “‘good trauma’” (44 and 55). Indeed, Levinas even suggests that this vulnerability should be embraced instead of dreaded or evaded (46). In her challenge to Levinas, Drichel investigates the links between his later idea of the “traumatic force of the il y a” (in Otherwise than Being) and psychoanalytic accounts of trauma (44 and 52). While acknowledging that Levinas himself was unsympathetic towards psychoanalysis, she also argues that there are key similarities between Levinas’ conception of the “il y a” and the psychoanalyst, D. W. Winnicott’s conception of “early infantile traumatization” (50-51). In both notions, Drichel claims, the reaction to trauma is a “flight into monadic existence” or a defence mechanism that the individual employs to protect herself against trauma (52).

Such a reaction, Drichel claims, is problematic because it is damaging to both ethics and relationality. By fleeing into a state of “invulnerability”, the traumatised individual thereby becomes insusceptible to the other’s “ethical demand”, rendering her effectively “‘ethically impaired’” (50 and 52, emphasis in original). Drichel argues that this “unethical ‘inversion’” undermines Levinas’ ethical framework and is thus something to which he should have paid more attention (52-53). To increase its robustness, Drichel suggests that Levinas’ trauma-based ethics needs to be supplemented by a psychoanalytic interpretation of trauma’s devastating impact (51). She draws on the Hungarian psychoanalyst, Sandor Ferenczi and the Austrian author and Holocaust survivor, Jean Améry’s suggestions that forgiveness is only possible through restoring ethical relationality, that is, by restoring the self’s capacity and willingness to leave its fortress of invulnerability and be rendered vulnerable to the other once again (54-57). As with Arendt, forgiveness for Drichel thus involves the renewal and transformation of the self-other relationship, which she conceives broadly as reinstituting an “ethical” relation with the “world of others” (58). Moreover, for Drichel, this willingness to re-experience vulnerability in turn relies on the community’s establishment of a secure, “‘holding environment’” around the individual (an expression she borrows from Winnicott) which tempers the sense of isolation that follows the traumatic event (45 and 55).

In chapter four, Peter Banki takes up this theme of trauma by examining how a devastating event like the Holocaust can dramatically change one’s views of forgiveness. To do this, Banki investigates the contradiction between Vladimir Jankélévitch’s position on forgiveness in Forgiveness (Le Pardon) (1967) and his later work, Pardonner? (1971), a contradiction acknowledged by Jankélévitch himself (Banki 2018, 66 and 72). In his earlier work Forgiveness, Jankélévitch argues for a “hyperbolical ethics of forgiveness” based on love, whereby even the unforgivable must be forgiven (66). However, later in Pardonner?, Jankélévitch claims instead that the unforgivable cannot be forgiven; indeed, for him, the mass murder of Jews (the Shoah) marked forgiveness’ demise (72). Banki, however, does not view this contradiction as a weakness of Jankélévitch’s philosophy, claiming instead that it is an appropriate response to the “hyper-ethical” nature of the Holocaust (66). The inhumane crimes of the Shoah cannot be forgiven because neither proportionate punishments nor specific offenders can be attributed to them (73).

For Banki, if forgiveness can be said to be found in such circumstances, it involves acknowledging Jankélévitch’s contradiction for what it is rather than trying to resolve it (66). This form of forgiveness, Banki suggests, is apparent in Jankélévitch’s decision to reject a young German’s invitation to visit him in Germany (74-75). In his letter, the German expressed feelings of accountability for the events of the Holocaust but challenged the idea that he himself was guilty for crimes he had not committed (74). Partly responsible for Jankélévitch’s refusal of the invitation was his radical view that virtually all Germans and Austrians were “Nazi perpetrators and collaborators” (72). Banki approves of Derrida’s interpretation of Jankélévitch’s refusal as the confrontation between two conflicting discourses: the reconcilable and the irreconcilable, whereby the unforgivable (e.g. mass murder) ultimately cannot be forgiven (75).

Interestingly, Banki also takes Jankélévitch’s thought even further by claiming that, in the context of forgiveness, lesser and more mundane wrongdoings can be viewed in the same way as inhumane crimes like the Shoah (77). This is because any wrongdoing cannot be entirely forgiven; a trace of the unforgivable will always remain. This leads Banki to the radical conclusion that forgiveness does not exist and may have never existed (77). In saying this, Banki’s reading of Jankélévitch departs from religious accounts of forgiveness (e.g. the Judeo-Christian account) which assume that forgiveness occurs whenever it is undertaken in the spirit of good will and magnanimity (77). Banki’s suggestion that forgiveness may have never existed is perhaps the most radical view of forgiveness or unforgiveness presented in the volume. While Banki does suggest that an “impure forgiveness” based in Jankélévitch’s thought may yet be created in the future, he does not really expand on what this might look like (77). His chapter thus ends with a promising suggestion for future research.

  1. Paradoxes of Forgiveness

The writers of section two take up the previous notion of contradiction as their overall theme when exploring collective forgiveness, self-forgiveness and the role of forgiveness in politics (or lack thereof). In chapter five, Gaëlle Fiasse demonstrates how Paul Ricoeur’s account of forgiveness, for example, in Memory, History and Forgetting, displays interesting points of similarity and difference to/from Derrida, Jankélévitch and Arendt’s (Fiasse 2018, 85 and 88). Like certain aspects of Jankélévitch and Derrida’s philosophies, Ricoeur conceives of forgiveness as an “unconditional gift” of love (91). As Fiasse explains it, Ricoeur’s innovative conception of forgiveness is represented by the intersection of two asymmetrical axes, with the asymmetrical aspect implying that a wrongdoing does not automatically imply forgiveness of it. The upper and lower poles of the vertical axis are occupied by the unconditional gift of forgiveness and the “depth of the fault of the wrongdoer”, respectively (87). Influenced by Jankélévitch, Ricoeur begins his account with the gravity of the misdeed rather than the unconditional gift of forgiveness to emphasise the magnitude of the wrongdoing and the need for the wrongdoer to be held accountable for his/her unjust actions (88). Moreover, like Arendt, forgiveness, for Ricoeur, implies a renewal of the self-other relationship through the reinstitution of agency and action to the wrongdoer (90).

On the one hand, Fiasse acknowledges Ricoeur’s claim that forgiveness can only be realised between people rather than political and juridical institutions (87 and 92). (In my later discussion of chapter seven, I will show that this specific view of Ricoeur’s is also shared by Edith Stein.) On the other hand, Fiasse also posits that the above-mentioned institutions may play a larger role in Ricoeur’s own philosophy than he sometimes suggests through his notion of the “incognito” (an expression she borrows from Klaus Kodalle) or “spirit of forgiveness” (87 and 93). She highlights how, in these institutions, the “incognito” of forgiveness tempers the violence involved in punishments, for instance, by allowing the wrongdoer a fair trial and access to rehabilitation, and also facilitates the resumption of regular interpersonal relationships voided of hatred and vengeance (87, 93 and 95). In emphasising this possibility of renewal, Ricoeur, Fiasse claims, thereby departs from Derrida’s belief that forgiveness is unattainable (85 and 87).

In chapter six, Jennifer Ang explores this key theme of renewal from the perspectives of both forgiveness and self-forgiveness. Like Banki, she investigates how experiencing a traumatic event like the Holocaust can prompt a serious reconsideration of one’s position on forgiveness. To do this, Ang draws on the Italian-Jewish writer, chemist and Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi’s notion of the “gray zone”, a notion she applies to challenge the supposedly clear-cut distinction between “innocent” victims and “morally reprehensible” collaborators under totalitarian regimes like Nazism (Ang 2018, 103). Levi, Ang claims, questions one’s right to morally condemn collaborators if one has not lived through the traumatic events of the Holocaust. Accounting for Levi’s disapproval of hasty moral condemnation, Ang is not interested in whether we could or should forgive the Nazis or collaborators. Rather, she uses key concepts in Sartre’s phenomenology such as bad faith, shame and guilt to explore how individuals responded to morally ambivalent situations during World War II (103).

Ang attributes different types of “bad faith” to different types of Holocaust collaborators, depending on the type and degree of their “collaboration, complicity and compromises” (108). Active collaborators who held privileged positions like the president of the Lodz ghetto, Chaim Rombowski, were in “bad faith” because they erroneously believed that they could act with absolute freedom, that is, completely unconstrained by their facticity (105-106). Ang claims that these collaborators engaged in self-deception; despite recognising that they were accountable for their immoral decisions, they chose to believe that they could not have acted otherwise (106). Turning to the other extreme, Ang claims that Holocaust survivors like Levi who were severely plagued by guilt and shame were also in “bad faith” because they erroneously believed that they were fully defined by their facticity, of which their past choices were a large part (106 and 108). They also mistakenly believed that those who died by suicide or other causes during the Holocaust were better and more courageous people than themselves (108 and 113). Recovery for these tormented survivors, Ang argues, entails realising that their past does not fully define them because they had been thrown into a “gray zone” wherein any decision would have been morally ambiguous (112). Acknowledging this would allow these survivors to reconfigure their perception of themselves at the end of the Other’s “look”; they would gradually be able to release their feelings of self-hatred and project themselves towards an open future (109-12). Viewed from this reconfigured perspective, survival, Ang suggests, could be perceived not as shameful but rather as an act of defiance against the anti-Semite’s machinations (113).

In chapter seven, Antonio Calcagno explores Edith Stein’s social ontology, redirecting the reader’s attention from how individuals experience forgiveness/self-forgiveness to the phenomenon of collective forgiveness (Calcagno 2018, 118). On the one hand, Stein concurs with Max Scheler that collective responsibility and forgiveness are possible (117). On the other hand, Stein disagrees with Scheler’s notion of the “collective person” whereby individual members “identify” and merge with each other to form a “super-individual”; these members genuinely “feel themselves as one person” (117 and 121). According to Calcagno, understanding Stein’s position on collective forgiveness requires understanding her distinction between two types of sociality: society and community (118). Societies are formed when their members come together to attain a specific objective whereas communities are characterised by a more potent lived experience of sociality whereby people are connected by a “shared sense or meaning”, such as grieving over a mutual friend’s passing (119-20 and 126). While acknowledging that forgiveness in a community can be similarly conceived as a shared sense or meaning, Stein, like Ricoeur, maintains that acts of extending and receiving forgiveness can only transpire between individuals, not groups (118). What prevents Stein from agreeing with Scheler’s notion of the “collective person”, Calcagno suggests, is her “strong sense of individuation” (121). This in turn arises from her view that the combination of “body [and affect], psyche and spirit” that is expressed in an individual’s “personality” is idiosyncratic to that individual (121), thereby implying the impossibility of attributing a singular combination of traits to multiple unique individuals.

Calcagno’s innovative move here is extending Stein’s account to consider how forgiveness can also feature within a society as a common goal (124). He provides the example of the Canadian government’s commitment to achieving reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals. This involved formulating, accepting and adhering to, the recommendations set forth by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the latter of which was responsible for investigating injustices within the residential school system (124-25). As my imminent discussion of chapter eight will demonstrate, Geoffrey Adelsberg, by contrast, views the Canadian government’s attempt at reconciliation with a more critical eye. Nevertheless, Calcagno’s overall suggestion about forgiveness’ role in a society highlights forgiveness’ potential contribution to socio-political change and thus warrants further investigation.

In chapter eight, Adelsberg’s analysis of forgiveness revolves around a real-world event, namely the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock, North Dakota (Adelsberg 2018, 131). Adelsberg uses this event as a case study to support his claim that causing enduring harm to others is damaging to, and defeats the purpose of, appeals for forgiveness. During the protests, a group of military veterans represented by Wes Clark, Jr., requested forgiveness for past injustices caused by settler colonialism in the Oceti Sakowin Territory (131). On the one hand, Adelsberg acknowledges the positive aspects of this request; it was a gesture of respect towards the natives and constituted the first steps towards showing regret and accountability for the settlers’ unjust actions (133 and 138). On the other hand, Adelsberg claims that Clark’s appeal for forgiveness ultimately fell short of its aim to renew the relationship between both parties (131-32). Justifying this claim, he refers to Glen Coulthard’s critique of the Canadian politics of reconciliation, drawing especially on Coulthard’s claim that the discourses of transitional justice had been misused therein. According to Coulthard, such discourses had been wrongfully mobilised to forgive past injustices rather than to recognise the devastating truth of present and continuing wrongdoings (134). Applying similar criticisms to the Standing Rock protests, Adelsberg claims that current issues like land rights, Native sovereignty and self-governance have been similarly overlooked (131 and 134). Taking a phenomenological perspective, Adelsberg concludes that Clark failed to achieve a “renewed moral relationship” between the parties because he neither recognised the gravity of continuing wrongs nor sought collective ways to rectify them (132).

Adelsberg makes his second main criticism of Clark by drawing on Leanne Simpson’s critique of Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau’s approach to reconciliation (138). Like the figure of Trudeau depicted in Simpson’s critique, Clark’s response, Adelsberg claims, failed to transcend a “gestural politics of juxtaposition”; that is, his appeal for forgiveness attained its significance mainly because it embodied a different and improved approach to reconciliation and forgiveness from the past (138-39). For Adelsberg, this entails that Clark’s message lacked real-world effect. It did little to advance the movement towards taking collective responsibility for injustices because Clark was not sanctioned by his peers to deliver his message of forgiveness; the views he expressed were thus mainly limited to his own (132 and 139-40).

  1. Ethics and Politics of Forgiveness

Further exploring themes already introduced in the volume, the writers of section three examine the role of forgiveness in morally and politically ambivalent situations created under totalitarian rule. In chapter nine, Matthew Sharpe examines Camus’ notion of forgiveness in works written after L’Homme Revolté (1951) that were influenced by the events of World War II (Sharpe 2018, 149). Sharpe identifies three key features of Camus’ account of forgiveness in these later works: (1) an emphasis on self-forgiveness, (2) the separation of forgiveness from notions of both “absolute innocence” and “objective guilt” or “original sin”, and (3) the important role of forgiveness in establishing and sustaining cohesion amongst people (160-61). Like Ang and Banki’s analyses, Sharpe’s interpretation of Camus features the perspective that the inhumane world created by totalitarian regimes like Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia significantly reconfigured how thinkers perceived forgiveness (153 and 155). In Camus’ own view, totalitarianism “institutes a world without innocents, and without innocence”, thereby rendering forgiveness impossible (153).

In chapter ten, David Brennan investigates how Václav Havel’s views of forgiveness were developed against the background of the turbulent post-Communist period in Czechoslovakia and were informed by his phenomenological conception of political morality (Brennan 2018, 166). Prior to its downfall in 1989, the Communist Government employed informants to uncover possible dissidence amongst its citizens to secure maximum control (165). Havel, a dissident himself, became President in 1990 and thus had to address the challenging issue of collaborators, some of whom had severely mistreated their fellow citizens (166 and 170-71). Brennan focuses on the ambivalence of Havel’s response to the collaborators. While Havel denounced the witch-hunt provoked by the newly instituted “lustration act” (1991), he nevertheless did not stop the “public naming and shaming” of those who had committed severe wrongdoings (170-71). According to Brennan, this is because Havel recognised that those who had been mistreated deserved justice and that he could therefore not mandate all citizens to forgive the collaborators (174). Nevertheless, influenced by Arendt, Havel was keenly aware of the centrality of forgiveness to renewal, both for individuals and within the wider political domain (170 and 173-75).

Havel’s inclusion of forgiveness in his response to the dilemma was heavily criticised by some (166 and 172). Brennan claims that Havel’s response was firstly influenced by his mentor, Jan Patočka’s notion of “living in truth”, that is, ensuring that our actions are governed by our relationships with, and accountability to, other humans rather than political exigencies. Under this view, politics is not the main determinant of action, but rather one consideration among many (167). Secondly, Havel, Brennan claims, was influenced by Tomáš Masaryk’s humanist philosophy and thus believed that morality could not be separated from politics (167-68). Accordingly, Havel was sceptical of passing hasty “guilty” or “not guilty” judgements on collaborators who had been placed in a morally compromising position by the government (169). Lastly, Brennan astutely points out that both Arendt and Havel recognised that many wrongdoings were committed unconsciously because collaboration was so deeply embedded within social relationships that it was hard to detect (174-75). Like Ang’s interpretation of Levi, then, Brennan’s analysis of Havel also raises the issue of whether one could be required to request forgiveness for wrongdoings over which one had little awareness and control.  

In chapter eleven, Karen Pagani, like Hoff, contextualises her Heideggerian analysis of collective, political forgiveness within the rise of information technology and social media (Pagani 2018, 181). Central to this development for Pagani is the ability for anyone to engage in public discourse, however informed their opinions may be (181-82). Pagani does not critique this development due to her belief that public discourse on political forgiveness must admit a diversity of views from various disciplines (182-83). Although recognising the challenge of trying to achieve agreement in this discourse, she, like political theorists such as Donald Shriver, stresses the need to establish “shared, conciliatory narratives” (181-82).

Pagani’s account nicely complements Ang’s analysis of individual self-forgiveness by demonstrating how self-forgiveness can also be collective. Pagani draws on Heidegger’s notions of “care, resoluteness, and the call of conscience” in Part II of Being and Time (1927) to explore the place of “self-reflexive ‘forgiveness’” in Dasein’s existence (181 and 190). Dasein, she claims, forgives itself when it accepts that it had diverged and will continue to diverge from its authentic self by being influenced by the “they-self” (190). Self-forgiveness is necessary to Dasein’s existence because Dasein can neither completely divorce itself from the world where the “they” reside nor remain permanently in an authentic state. For Pagani, forgiveness in Heidegger’s philosophy thus constitutes the path by which Dasein transitions between the “I-self” and the “they-self” (190). To advance her argument, Pagani extends this notion of self-forgiveness to the Dasein of a collectivity, arguing that a group of individuals can also be deceived by the “they-self” (191). Linking collective self-forgiveness to politics, Pagani, like other writers in the volume, emphasises renewal, which she conceives as the generation of new collectivities through the process of reconciliation (193).

In chapter twelve, Ann Murphy departs from the approach of other writers in the volume by not performing a phenomenological analysis of how forgiveness is experienced but concentrating instead on how forgiveness could enhance the phenomenological method (Murphy 2018, 197). While acknowledging the common view that the phenomenological method is primarily descriptive, Murphy is nevertheless more interested in how it could be carried out in a critical, “ameliorative” spirit to support and thereby advance ethical and political endeavours (197). Murphy begins her analysis by reminding us that even Edmund Husserl’s writings adopted this critical, ethical and political approach because he perceived the crisis in the European sciences as a wider “crisis of humanity” (197-98). Husserl, Murphy claims, thus endowed phenomenology with a “redemptive” power, an aspect shared by notions of restorative justice and forgiveness (198). Moreover, like Arendt, redemption for Husserl is achieved through renewal, which he conceives as critically examining the past to enhance the future (198).

For Murphy, the more contemporary practice of critical phenomenology draws further on this redemptive or “restorative spirit” that often remains concealed in phenomenology (199). Murphy claims that analysing shame as a “philosophical mood” is key to understanding how forgiveness can bring out phenomenology’s ameliorative potential (201-202). Drawing on the work of Michèle le Doeuff, Judith Butler and Levinas, she argues that philosophy’s shame stems from its misguided attempts to reject other disciplines by maintaining the illusion that it is the superior discipline (201-202). Furthermore, central to the redemptive potential of philosophical shame is its “ambivalence”; philosophy can either try to remain self-contained or it can engage in a constructive self-critique that acknowledges the merit of other disciplines (202). Influenced by Robert Bernasconi, Murphy concludes the volume on the hopeful note that this ameliorative approach will project phenomenology into an open future (204 and 206-207).

I conclude with some overall evaluative remarks about the volume that have been derived from the critical overview presented above. First, given its adoption of the “wild phenomenology” approach, this volume might be of more interest to readers with a similarly broad and open-ended understanding of phenomenology rather than those with a stricter understanding. Being sympathetic to the volume’s approach, I believe that the addition of thinkers not typically associated with phenomenology, especially Arendt and Derrida, produces an intricate, dialogical and consequently enriched discussion of forgiveness.

Second, while the volume covers both theory and practice (La Caze 2018, xv), its focus on critical phenomenology effectively highlights the practical implications of the phenomenological method in terms of how ideas of forgiveness are exemplified in, and can be applied to, real-world situations. Adelsberg’s phenomenological analysis of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests is a case in point. While critical phenomenology may not appeal to those interested in a primarily theoretical discussion of phenomenological ideas, I believe that this “practical” emphasis makes the volume highly accessible and engaging and provides promising openings for future research. (See, for example, my earlier comments on Banki and Calcagno’s chapters.)

Third, the volume offers important philosophical insights into the complexities of forgiveness by combining diverse and sometimes conflicting views of similar types or modes of forgiveness such as individual and collective forgiveness, and self-forgiveness. Diverse views of the same real-world events (e.g. the Holocaust and Canada’s attempts at reconciliation) are also provided, highlighting that there is rarely a clear-cut answer to how and when forgiveness might be given or not given. Indeed, the inclusion of an entire section on the “paradoxes of forgiveness” demonstrates La Caze’s appreciation of forgiveness’ complexities and nuances.

Lastly, despite the diversity of perspectives presented, continuity is maintained throughout the volume because central themes like trauma, conflict, renewal and futurity are regularly revisited. The choice of these themes is commendable in two main ways. First, and related to point three above, the writers’ analyses of trauma and conflict remind us that forgiveness is not a straightforward concept by directing our attention to situations where forgiveness’ limits are tested. Second, the focus on renewal and futurity highlights the important point that forgiveness is rarely an end in itself; rather, it is a pathway towards revitalised relationships and socio-political advancement. Overall, the volume provides an insightful, nuanced and frank exploration of forgiveness and was a pleasure to read.


La Caze, Marguerite. 2018. “Introduction: Situating Forgiveness within Phenomenology.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, vii-xxii. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Hoff, Shannon. 2018. “The Right and the Righteous: Hegel on Confession, Forgiveness, and the Necessary Imperfection of Political Action.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 3-24. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

De Warren, Nicolas. 2018. “For the Love of the World: Redemption and Forgiveness in Arendt.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 25-42. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Drichel, Simone. 2018. “’A forgiveness that remakes the world’: Trauma, Vulnerability, and Forgiveness in the Work of Emmanuel Levinas.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 43-64. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Banki, Peter. 2018. “Hyper-Ethical Forgiveness and the Inexpiable.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 65-82. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Fiasse, Gaëlle. 2018. “Forgiveness in Ricoeur.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 85-102. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Ang, Jennifer. 2018. “Self-Forgiveness in the Gray Zone.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 103-16. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Calcagno, Antonio. 2018. “Can a Community Forgive? Edith Stein on the Lived Experience of Communal Forgiveness.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 117-30. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Adelsberg, Geoffrey. 2018. “Collective Forgiveness in the Context of Ongoing Harms.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 131-46. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Sharpe, Matthew. 2018. “Camus and Forgiveness: After the Fall.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 149-64. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Brennan, David. 2018. “Václav Havel’s Call for Forgiveness.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 165-80. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Pagani, Karen A. 2018. “Toward a Heideggerian Approach to the Problem of Political Forgiveness, or the Dignity of a Question.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 181-96. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Murphy, Ann. V. 2018. “Phenomenology, Crisis, and Repair.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 197-208. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Thomas Szanto, Hilge Landweer (Eds.): The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Emotion, Routledge, 2020

The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Emotion Book Cover The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Emotion
Routledge Handbooks in Philosophy
Thomas Szanto, Hilge Landweer (Eds.)
Hardback £190.00