Edward Baring: Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy

Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy Book Cover Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy
Edward Baring
Harvard University Press
2019
Paperback
504

Reviewed by: Francesco Valerio Tommasi (Sapienza, Università di Roma)

Lo scopo di questo volume è di mostrare il ruolo nascosto giocato dal cattolicesimo nel successo e nella diffusione della fenomenologia. Le connessioni e i rapporti tra la corrente di pensiero inaugurata da Edmund Husserl e i pensatori e le istituzioni cattoliche del Novecento, infatti, sono molteplici e di diversi livelli. Si pensi a Martin Heidegger e ai suoi studi di filosofia medievale e di teologia, o a Edith Stein, protagonista di un percorso per certi aspetti speculare: il primo procede infatti dal cattolicesimo ad una fenomenologia metodologicamente atea – per cui l’espressione “filosofia cristiana” è notoriamente un “ferro ligneo”; la seconda muove invece dalla fenomenologia – orgogliosamente atea – al cattolicesimo. Ma si pensi anche, ovviamente, a Max Scheler, che contemporaneamente alle riflessioni sulla fenomenologia sviluppa le sue prospettive religiose, gravitanti attorno alla chiesa cattolica, di cui si fa promotore e da cui poi si allontana. Oppure, per risalire sino alle origini e alla preistoria della fenomenologia, si pensi a Franz Brentano, sacerdote e studioso di Tommaso d’Aquino, oltre che ispiratore e maestro di Edmund Husserl. Ma si pensi anche a Karol Wojtyła, formatosi allo studio di Max Scheler e su cui giocò un’influenza rilevante anche il pensiero di Roman Ingarden.

Il rapporto prevalente che la fenomenologia instaurò fu quello con la cosiddetta Neoscolastica, ossia con la corrente filosofica e teologica volta al recupero e alla riattualizzazione del pensiero medievale ed in particolare del tomismo, sostenuta con energia dalla chiesa cattolica nel corso del ventesimo secolo e rilanciata in particolare dall’enciclica Aeterni Patris di Leone XIII (1879). La vicinanza tra le due correnti può apparire a prima vista sorprendente: la fenomenologia infatti si presenta come un pensiero privo di riferimenti storici, rifiuta qualsiasi tipo di presupposto extra-razionale ed è costitutivamente contraria alla metafisica, tanto che “metafisico” e “fenomenologico” vengono talora ad essere aggettivi usati in modo antitetico; la Neoscolastica, all’opposto, trova appunto nel pensiero medievale un riferimento privilegiato, è orientata al dialogo con la teologia e con la fede rivelata, e sostiene una ripresa della metafisica.

A ben vedere, però, un orientamento marcatamente teoretico caratterizza anche la Neoscolastica, che si rivolge al passato medievale come ad una presunta “età dell’oro”, la cui validità teorica andrebbe riproposta con energia contro le derive e la crisi della modernità. Su questo piano dunque – ossia sul piano di un interesse speculativo scevro da pregiudizi – va compresa la possibilità di un primo, generico, punto di incontro. Un secondo, già più specifico, punto di contatto va rinvenuto nell’istanza fondativa con cui entrambe le correnti impostano il loro procedere, così che la fenomenologia, per quanto anti-metafisica, si presenta come una “scienza rigorosa” e come una “filosofia prima”. Ma il terzo e più preciso punto di incontro che ha condotto alla possibilità di dialogo tra queste due correnti va sicuramente individuato nell’approccio inaugurato da Husserl con le Logische Untersuchungen (1900-01): in quest’opera, infatti, si difende un‘impostazione che può essere compresa – ed è stato compresa effettivamente dai primi discepoli di Husserl – come realista. Husserl infatti propone una forte critica allo psicologismo, e molti allievi considereranno una svolta indebita da parte di Husserl l’impostazione idealista delle successive Ideen I (1913). Per la Neoscolastica era proprio lo psicologismo – e più in generale il soggettivismo – uno dei maggiori errori del pensiero moderno in generale, a partire da Cartesio e da Kant. La Neoscolastica proponeva quindi un ritorno al realismo metafisico che aveva caratterizzato l’epoca medievale. Così, il ritorno “alle cose stesse” propugnato da Husserl poteva certamente attrarre l’attenzione dei pensatori neoscolastici. La stessa fenomenologia, non a caso, venne accusata di essere una forma di “nuova Scolastica”. Proprio al realismo e alla necessità di “convertirsi” ad esso fa dunque riferimento il titolo del volume di Baring, che finalmente mette a tema questa importante relazione intellettuale tra due movimenti di pensiero protagonisti del secolo scorso.

Oltre alle figure più prominenti già menzionate in apertura, molti altri nomi sono emblematici del rapporto tra fenomenologia e cattolicesimo: Dietrich von Hildebrand, per esempio, altro giovane fenomenologo che conobbe la conversione al cattolicesimo in età adulta. Oppure Erich Przywara, che con curiosità di avvicinò allo studio del pensiero husserliano a partire da posizioni neoscolastiche. E poi, nelle generazioni successive di pensatori, si pensi all’importanza, per la diffusione della fenomenologia, di figure come Alphonse de Waelhens (Belgio), Sofia Vanni Rovighi (Italia), Joaquìn Xirau (Mesicco) o Herman Boelaars (Olanda). Fu un sacerdote cattolico, inoltre, Hermann Leo Van Breda, a porre in salvo i manoscritti husserliani e a fondare l’Archivio dedicato al padre della fenomenologia. E la diffusione attuale della fenomenologia in Francia – forse l’ultimo avamposto della corrente husserliana – è dovuta in buona misura a pensatori dichiaratamente ed esplicitamente cattolici, come Michel Henry o Jean-Luc Marion, ma anche Jean Greisch, Philippe Capelle-Dumont ed Emmanuel Falque: tanto che si è parlato, famigeratamente, di un “tournant théologique” della fenomenologia francese.

Mettere in luce questi rapporti rappresenta la mera esposizione di un fatto storico incontrovertibile. Tuttavia, a partire da ciò, prudentemente l’Autore non intende sostenere la tesi di un carattere cripticamente cattolico della fenomenologia – in quello che rappresenterebbe una sorta di ribaltamento della tesi di Janicaud sul “tournant théologique”. Infatti, egli scrive:

“By claiming that Catholics played an outsized role in the reception of phenomenology […], even in its atheistic versions, I don’t mean to argue that phenomenology is essentially Christian, and that the secular thinkers who have developed its claims in important and interesting ways were crypto-Catholics, blind to the true nature of their thought. First, the Catholic readings of phenomenology were in many ways expropriations. Husserl gave little encouragement to those who hoped to bend his philosophy to fit a Catholic agenda. Second, as we shall see, phenomenology’s compatibility with Catholicism was by no means assured, and it was the difficulty of aligning it with neo- scholasticism that made phenomenology attractive to other religious thinkers and, later, atheists. Finally, and most fundamentally, it is not clear on what basis one could declare phenomenology Christian or Catholic, because the concept of a ‘Christian philosophy’ is notoriously difficult to define. At almost precisely the moment when Catholics were shuttling phenomenological ideas around the continent, many of the same thinkers were also engaged in a Europe-wide debate about whether ‘Christian philosophy’ had any meaning at all” (11-12).

Il volume quindi procede prevalentemente su un terreno più solido e sicuro, che è il terreno storico. Tuttavia, con un’osservazione che può essere definita di “ispirazione” fenomenologica si deve rilevare come, evidentemente, non esistano “fatti” storici da poter cogliere in modo positivisticamente ingenuo e scevri da ogni carattere interpretativo. La buona “intenzionalità” dell’Autore, quindi, si perde almeno in parte nel corso del volume. Valutiamo come.

Nella prima parte vengono analizzati i rapporti di Husserl, Heidegger e Scheler con il cattolicesimo e la Neoscolastica, in quattro capitoli dedicati rispettivamente al rapporto, in senso generico, tra le due correnti di pensiero, e poi a ciascuna delle tre figure. La seconda parte si dedica a descrivere alcune influenze rilevanti che queste figure cardine giocarono sui rapporti con il cattolicesimo di alcuni pensatori al di fuori della Germania: nello specifico si analizzano sia figure quali Nicolai Berdyaev, Gabriel Marcel e Augusto Guzzo (definiti “esistenzialisti cristiani”); sia la corrente del tomismo qui denominato “cartesiano” – e definibile in senso più lato “trascendentale” – ossia Joseph Maréchal, Karl Rahner, ma anche Giuseppe Zamboni (nel meritorio ed informato ricordo di un dibattito molto interessante all’Università Cattolica di Milano); sia la ricezione teologica di Kierkegaard (soprattutto nella teologia dialettica); sia quella di Nietzsche nei fascismi, ed il loro controverso rapporto con il cattolicesimo impegnato socialmente e politicamente. La terza parte, infine, si dedica alla storia dell’Archivio Husserl e poi – ampliando la prospettiva al di là dei confini del cattolicesimo – prende in esame le vicende di Paul Ricoeur e di Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Proprio questo allargamento finale di prospettiva – così come, più in generale, la vastità di questioni, correnti ed autori presi in considerazione – mostra forse quella che è una prima difficoltà del volume, ossia la tesi per cui il ruolo del cattolicesimo, nella vicenda fenomenologica, viene forse in alcuni tratti sovrainterpretato. Rispetto a Ricoeur o a Merleau-Ponty, infatti, non sembra che il rapporto con l’ambito di pensiero Neoscolastico o con la storia del cattolicesimo abbia avuto un’influenza così decisiva. Ma, a ben vedere, ciò non vale solo per questo capitolo. La tesi dell’Autore pare, a giudizio di chi scrive, dover essere ridimensionata in senso complessivo.

In ciascun passaggio, forse, Baring dona troppa enfasi al ruolo del cattolicesimo, come si può evincere in questo passaggio in cui egli riassume la sua prospettiva generale e che il lettore potrà valutare analiticamente:

“I argue that the neo-scholastic reading provided the impetus and stakes for the realism/ idealism debate that engulfed Husserl’s students in the 1910s and 1920s (Chapter 2); I suggest that Catholic debates lend context to the development of an existential version of phenomenology, both in Heidegger’s work (Chapter 3) and elsewhere in Europe in the 1930s (Chapters 5, 6, and 7); I show how the conflicts between religious thinkers furnished the means for non-Catholics to craft atheistic versions of phenomenology and existentialism (Chapters 7, 8, and 10); and I explain how Catholic readings helped imprint phenomenology with political meaning both in Germany in the 1920s (Chapter 4) and outside of Germany in the 1930s (Chapter 8), in a way that foreshadowed and shaped the emergence of existential Marxism in the 1940s (Chapter 10). The Catholic reception of phenomenology was a subterranean but massive structure, linking many of the most important developments in the history of twentieth-century philosophy. It could play this role because, before existentialism and before phenomenology, the first continental philosophy of the twentieth century was Catholic.” (20).

Su ciascun aspetto, si potrebbero mettere in luce anche dibattiti e contributi non solo di provenienza cattolica: il dibattito tra idealismo e realismo coinvolge tutti gli allievi gottinghesi di Husserl e il rapporto con i monachesi, ben al di là dei confini confessionali; l’esistenzialismo – categoria peraltro difficilmente applicabile al pensiero di Martin Heidegger – conosce uno sviluppo non solo marcato da influenze cattoliche, così come un esistenzialismo marxista ha una traiettoria anche completamente indipendente da matrici confessionali etc…

Le ultime righe del brano appena citato, poi, chiamano in causa una seconda difficoltà che ci sembra mostrare il volume di Baring, ossia una certa tendenza a sovrapporre troppo velocemente categorie ed etichette storiografiche: cattolicesimo e Neoscolastica, ad esempio, non sono sinonimi, così come evidentemente non coincidono nemmeno con l’idea della “filosofia cristiana”. L’Autore ne è consapevole, come abbiamo visto e sottolineato anche con una citazione esplicita, in precedenza; ma allora il rapporto della fenomenologia con il cattolicesimo in senso generale appare chiamare in causa figure e contesti anche molto (troppo?) diversi tra loro. Sull’altro versante, poi, l’equiparazione della fenomenologia con la “filosofia continentale” appare ancora più forzata. Se è vero che l’ermeneutica o l’esistenzialismo derivano o non possono prescindere dalla fenomenologia, il marxismo, il neokantismo, il neoidealismo, lo spiritualismo e il personalismo sono tutte correnti “continentali” che – sia pur entrate in qualche rapporto con la fenomenologia – hanno avuto origini e sviluppi da essa indipendenti e autonomi. Se negli ultimi decenni quindi la filosofia continentale è stata in larga misura almeno di ispirazione fenomenologica, evidentemente non sempre è stato così nel corso del Novecento e le due categorie non sono sovrapponibili.

Ciò che sta a cuore all’Autore, d’altronde, emerge nell’Epilogo, in cui egli afferma – forse con eccesso di enfasi:

“Continental philosophy today is haunted by religion. Whether they consider religion as something that needs to be exorcised, conjured up, or—and this is where my sympathies lie—mined as an intellectual resource, philosophers across Europe have returned insistently to religious themes and questions” (343).

Anche in questo caso, si sostiene un giudizio dalla portata molto vasta – e per farlo ci si deve riferire al pensiero “religioso” in senso generale; per poi concludere invece rivolgendosi nello specifico al Tomismo e affermando:

“Thomism is not the power house it once was. Still taught in Catholic universities and seminaries around the world, it rarely enjoys philosophical attention outside the Church. Yet when assessing its influence, we should not restrict our attention to those few who continue to bear its name. Whether passed on as a positive inheritance, or persisting as a negative imprint on other forms of philosophy, neo-scholasticism’s greatest legacy is the international debate between non- Catholic philosophers over phenomenology. And though this would be cold comfort to a Mercier, a Gemelli, a Przywara, or a Maritain, Thomism continues to deserve the title philosophia perennis, thanks to its contradictory afterlives in secular thought.” (349).

Queste osservazioni critiche, comunque, nulla tolgono al valore di un volume che molto meritoriamente evidenzia finalmente in modo diffuso e analitico, e con una erudizione sorprendente, un rapporto macroscopico e sinora sorprendentemente sottaciuto. Così come nulla tolgono alla precisione del testo alcuni piccoli errori o refusi (chi scrive questa recensione, ad esempio, viene talora confuso con Roberto Tommasi). Impostare il rapporto in modo più stringente sul rapporto tra Neoscolastica e fenomenologia – piuttosto che tra cattolicesimo e pensiero continentale – avrebbe forse potuto essere una scelta più efficace, ma il lavoro di Baring resta in ogni caso decisivo per comprendere una vicenda rilevantissima della storia della filosofia del Novecento e dunque anche – “Herkunft bleibt stets Zukunft – i suoi sviluppi futuri.

Dietrich von Hildebrand: Morality and Situation Ethics

Morality and Situation Ethics Book Cover Morality and Situation Ethics
Dietrich von Hildebrand. With a new foreword by John Finnis
Hildebrand Project
2019
Paperback $ 16.99
220

Reviewed by: Norman Lillegard (The University of Tennessee at Martin)

This is an inquiry into a specifically Christian ethics, one that at first sight looks multiply parochial. It is an extended argument for quite traditional Roman Catholic positions on moral matters.  Moreover, it instances a more or less Augustinian approach to ethics and may thus represent a (large) minority position even within the Roman Catholic community, which has been dominated philosophically by Aquinas. And, its original polemical targets were particularly prominent a half century ago, and arguably reflected a zeitgeist that has withered on its own.  Nonetheless it still has some bearings on persisting issues germane to any Christian ethic, protestant or Catholic, as well as on some more or less secular ethical views, and applications to current culture are readily available.

The principal aim is to lay out some of those features of a Christian ethic that distinguish it from “situation ethics.” Hildebrand insists that Christian ethics requires moral commands or general moral principles that are non-negotiable, that must be observed in every case without any modification in the light of possible consequences, or in light of the peculiarities of a situation, or of the person in the situation, or some combination of these.  The prominence of “absolutism” or anti-consequentialism in specifically traditional Roman Catholic teaching is brought out in John Finnis’ introduction to this edition, where citations from papal encyclicals, most notably Veritatis Splendor, with its stress on intrinsically evil acts, figure prominently.  Moreover, this edition includes as an appendix an address by Pope Pius XII on “moral law and the new morality” dating from 1952. The notions of law and of intrinsic wrongness thus figure prominently throughout, but there is no attempt to argue for the superiority of a distinctly deontological ethics over more teleological approaches to ethics and natural law.  In fact there is no sharp distinction drawn in these terms; nonetheless the principal concern is with the idea that certain actions (or less commonly omissions) are always and everywhere impermissible. Although clearly wedded to Roman Catholic traditions and emphases, the analysis is deployed against a trend, againstthe creeping influence of situation ethics both in the culture at large and also among some Roman Catholic scholars and Catholic institutions.

That trend may have been particularly noticeable in the latter half of the last century, and it appeared to some as a capitulation to a more general spirit or trend, particularly prominent in the late 50’s and ‘60s, which opposed what was perceived to be a kind of legalism, a morally rigid stress on the letter of the law (the rule, the command, the principle), in favor of the idea that one should simply love or do what love, or some similarly strong pro attitude, required.    One important source of situation ethics was the wildly popular Situation Ethics: The New Morality (1956) by the protestant theologian Joseph Fletcher.  Many of that book’s readers, both devotees and critics, shared the sense that it summed up the antinomian sensibilities of the 60’s counterculture. Nonetheless it is not difficult to find applications of Hildebrand’s critique to the less optimistic and more ironical culture of today.

The notion of “situation ethics” is vague and some versions arguably contain inconsistent elements. Versions of relativism, non-cognitivism, and emotivism reside uneasily, not always with explicit acknowledgement, with act and rule utilitarianism in Fletcher’s work, to take one example. But clearly utilitarianism is cognitivist and rules out cultural or individual relativism.

However, Hildebrand is less interested in a direct analysis and critique of some version of situation ethics, than in an analysis of what it rules out, and why. There are I think no strawmen in his argument.  He attempts to show how some of the motivations of the situation ethicist deserve careful attention and respect.  In fact, he holds that by doing justice to some of the “valuable contributions” (p. 9) of situation ethics a clearer elaboration of Christian ethics becomes possible. Here the details are of general interest; Catholics, protestants, secularists, whether philosophers, theologians, or even novelists (sic!) may find in his detailed discussion of pharisaism,  self-righteous zealotry, self-righteous mediocrity, the self-righteous timorous person,  and the tragic sinner, significant distinctions and contrasts that are often mischaracterized or overlooked.

Situation ethics is sometimes motivated by an aversion to pharisaism, which may be construed as a thoughtless application of rules or principles to every morally fraught situation. But Hildebrand argues that the most essential ingredient in pharisaism is not a spiritless devotion to the letter of the law, but rather pride, the urge to judge others, the complete rejection of charity or mercy, and the use of moral principles as a means to self-glorification. The Pharisee is thus opposed to the spirit of the law, the spirit of repentance and self-abasement. The true pharisee (obviously an ideal type in Hildebrand’s taxonomy) is thus opposed to God as God, as infinitely above his creatures.   It is, arguably, those features of pharisaism, rather than reliance on rules or principles per se, that accounts for the negative connotations of “pharisee” which the situation ethicist responds to.

The pharisaism of “the pharisee” can be usefully contrasted with the mitigated pharisaism of the self-righteous zealot or the self-righteous mediocre individual. The self-righteous zealot does not oppose the spirit of the law, but she is primarily concerned with the violations of other persons.  She is a moralizer who focuses on moral wrong, the violation of a law, principle or code, rather than on the complexities of the situations within which all people choose, and regularly fail, when measured only by that law.  The law is a blunt instrument in her undiscerning hands, and its being so serves her purpose, since use of the law as a tool in sensitive self-evaluation would disable her focus on the violations of others.  Hildebrand mentions the main character in Mauriac’s Woman of the Pharisees as an instance of this type.  She tends to mix social improprieties with moral failings; moral rules are just further specifications of “what is commonly done.”  Thus she may even be suspicious of saints, since they seem to stand outside common norms. To the extent that the situation ethicist detects and rejects this banality and bluntness, he must get positive credit.

The self-righteous mediocre person, on the other hand, lacks the perverse focus on morality instanced by the self-righteous zealot. His principle concern is that he be morally secure, and his attempts to abide by the letter of the law enable the desired sense of security.  Once secure, he can get along with the ordinary business of life, business, politics, family etc. in a favorable state of mind. He is not overly focused on others or heedless of his own failings, but his attempts at external conformity suffice for him. He does not attempt to edit away any of the demands of the letter of law, but he does not heed its penitential function.  The important thing is to be correct, and he is, like the zealot or the true pharisee, intolerant of the failures of others with respect to the letter, and also tends, like the zealot, to mix moral with merely social correctness.

Both of these types of self-righteousness can be contrasted with what we find in a morally timorous man.  He uses conformity to the letter of the law to avoid risk taking. His primary concern is with safety. He does not have the pride of the Pharisee, or the hardness of the zealot or the mediocre man in judging others.  But the letter of the law shields him against any deep and sometimes risky investment in morally difficult circumstances.  Typical proponents of situation ethics are particularly likely to contrast this feature of the timorous man with the kind of risk taking and deep responsibility of the truly moral man who on their view must dare to act for the best without guidance or guarantee.

The situation ethicist contrasts the “tragic sinner” with all of the types mentioned so far; although the tragic sinner does not deny the relevance or importance of principles or laws, she does not advert to them to establish moral superiority, or retreat to them to avoid risk and conflict.  In fact she holds them in such high regard that a violation causes her great pain.  But we can imagine a situation in which she can only achieve a great life good (for example the fulfillment of a great love) by violating a moral requirement. Her capacity for love, her earnestness in the face of her situation and the impossibility of achieving a life of deep fulfillment and even nobility without the violation makes her a “tragic” figure. It is easy to sympathize with the claim that she is morally superior to the self-righteous or the timid, and to infer that “rule worship” would constitute a personal failure in her situation.

It is even possible to have a kind of moral admiration for those who feel no pressure from rules or moral laws, and thus are anything but tragic, but who act spontaneously from motives of kindness, generosity, or fellow feeling.  Tom Jones in Fielding’s novel may rightly get more admiration than the grim and judgmental legalists who surround him at church.

Finally, the situation ethicist may go so far as to accord some positive value to sin itself. There is a kind of sinning that expresses spiritual energy, a concerted rejection of self-righteousness, and may lead to various goods.  On the one hand it may lead to a deeper recognition of unworthiness, of the sort unknown to the “correct” but self-righteous person.  Or it may seem to function as a felix culpa, understood as calling forth of greater “soul benefits” than would otherwise have been possible. It is in relation to these ideas about the tragic sinner and the “happy fault” that Hildebrand’s discussion of situation ethics intersects with his account of “sin mysticism.” The two are logically distinct, but Hildebrand notes their confluence in the thinking of many, due to a shared detestadon of pharisaism in all its modalities and of spiritual sloth or merely conventional observance of moral principles, which figure prominently in both.

The foregoing summary does not, of course, do more than touch upon a few of the features of the detailed moral phenomenology explored by Hildebrand in his effort to credit the “valuable contributions” of situation ethics. It is easier to say briefly how situation ethics nonetheless fails to escape justified criticism from the absolutist.  The principal criticism is simple; none of the praiseworthy elements in human moral struggle highlighted by the situation ethicist depend for their existence on the exclusion from full ethical life and deliberation of fundamental laws, principles, divine commands or any other deontological elements. This point is quite clear; none of the positive traits of the tragic sinner (to take the case most favorable to the situation ethicist’s position), her passion and multiform depth of character, would necessarily be absent from a person who flatly refuses to contravene a moral rule. Arguably such a person exhibits even greater depth of character. The ability to sacrifice a kind of self-fulfillment in obedience to moral law can bespeak a remarkable personal development and energy that logically requires the hardness of the rule.  Variations in this basic critique are spread throughout the first nine chapters; though the basic critique here is worth emphasizing, and varies somewhat in sundry applications, this book ends up being somewhat repetitious .

There are other criticisms of situation ethics worth mentioning here. Consider Hildebrand’s attack on the relativism of situation ethics. Situation ethics is relativistic since it denies that there are any “values” that govern more than one case at a time. It thus endorses the most extreme form of relativism, individual relativism. A consistent statement of this view is very difficult to formulate, as the writings of Montaigne attest. It implies the claims that ideas of moral progress and moral advice are empty, and that there can be no moral exemplars or moral education (142). These claims arguably entail some version of non-cognitivism, but the situation ethicist does not endorse non-cognitivism.  He may insist that one can know some such general principle as “always follow conscience” but this principle is empty, or in Hildebrand’s terms, merely “formal.”

The individual relativism of situation ethics also requires a denial of common experiences of the differences between cruelty and kindness, generosity and selfish hoarding and the like, which Hildebrand regards as pre-theoretical “givens” (cf. Charles Taylor’s notion of “thick description”). In fact, Hildebrand argues that despite the situation ethicist’s emphasis on the contingent multiplicity of ethically charged “situations” he in fact fails to appreciate the full complexity of ethical life. He may miss the way judgement on evil is ideally, at least in the Christian vision, combined with an appreciation for the complexities of human lives and the universality of moral weakness. The Christian is well situated to assert, with St. Augustine, that “man’s heart [is] an abyss” (quoted on  118). The dominical admonitions to refrain from judging (in the sense of assuming a Godlike ability to see everything that is in a person) respect that abyss, and are combined with the sense that there, but for the grace of God, go I. Thus situation ethics may itself be subject to a kind of simple mindedness, when it is not simply confused.  These are not parochial criticisms.

Hildebrand also employs a tu quoque that has some force against the situation ethicist. A fundamental motive of situation ethics appears to be the desire to avoid judgementalism.  But the situation ethicist often seems eager to dismiss as legalists, slaves to convention, hypocrites, cowards, or insensitive to context those who take seriously rules or principles (understood as more than rules of thumb) or who believe that there are real distinctions among virtues and vices. Thus, he exhibits thoroughly judgmental attitudes towards much of humanity, perhaps especially those who take moral matters seriously.

In ch. 10 Hildebrand sets out what he considers to be three “basic errors” of situation ethics, at least in its more extreme forms.

First, the situation ethicist ignores or tends to discount the force of the moral “ought,” which he may view as a mistaken importation of juridical notions into ethics. He tends to contrast the person acting under obligation with the person (much to be preferred on his view) who spontaneously does what is right or good. This contrast, between duty and sentiment or inclination, so prominent in arguments between Kantians and “sentimentalists,” is irrelevant on Hildebrand’s view. He contends that each and every “moral value response” including those in which a person acts with passion and enthusiasm, is experienced as “something that should be;” each “contains an element of obedience” (128).

Hildebrand’s language here is (as is often the case in this book) vague or slippery. Is loving ones enemies “obedience” to a command or law, or not? At first sight Hildebrand seems to discount any contrast between the deontic and the axiological, as we might now put it. We might expect the result to be anti-supererogationism, a view characteristic of the protestant reformers.  Compare that to the contrast, found in Aquinas, between acting from principle or under a law, and acting for the good. Aquinas distinguished precepts, which are universal in their scope (like laws), from counsels, which are addressed to the few who have the capacity and inclination to pursue the life of perfection. For Thomas, the open-texture character of the counsels makes the morality of love superior to mere obedience to or conformity with divine law or commands. But Thomas does not draw a clear borderline between duty and supererogation. It is, for example, not clear whether “love thy enemy” is a precept or a supererogatory counsel. It is similarly unclear whether acts of charity (such as almsgiving) are duties or lie beyond duty, and so on for other cases. In view of the evident difficulty here we can appreciate Hildebrand’s apparent conflation of precepts and counsels and his treatment of the love commands (Mk 12: 29-31) as foundational for the entire “moral” (unexplained) domain. But there is a further related difficulty in this neighborhood.

The first edition of this book preceded the groundbreaking essay “Modern Moral Philosophy” (1958) by Gertrude Anscombe, who argued that the idea of a “moral ought” was a leftover from a time when divine law and divine commands were essential to ethics (metaethics).  She argued that since the belief in the divine has largely disappeared, the notion of a “moral” ought, which elicits so much philosophical puzzlement, should be abandoned. The notion of the moral, with its lingering hint of something demanded (and thus perhaps of “obedience”) is now meaningless. That being the case she advocates a return to a more or less Aristotelian virtue ethics for the purposes of contemporary debates on ethics. Hildebrand makes unexamined uses of “moral” quite central to his discussion; such expressions as “moral demand,” “moral value response,” “morally relevant values,” positively clutter this book. It is of course true that he has not abandoned theism. It does not follow that he is entitled to a continued use of these expressions, since he refuses to make a clear distinction between obedience to divine commands or divine law and any other “moral” (unexplained) responses (cf. the discussion on p. 132 of “general morally relevant” values vis a vis “general principles and laws” and “positive commandments of God.”) Some such distinction is back of Anscombe’s critique.  Otherwise put, he does not account for “moral obligation” by grounding it in a command issued by God or a standing obligation in natural law, but neither does he account for it some other way. Given his very heavy reliance on unexamined uses of “moral,” Hildebrand’s failure, in later (post 1958) editions, to respond in at least some minimal way to Anscombe’s critique will be considered a serious defect by many, including those who dissent from Anscombe’s view.

Secondly, situation ethics is criticized for eliminating the general (general principles or rules) from ethics.  The situation ethicist’s motivation for doing so resides in his belief, which is surely widely shared, that it is obvious that there are situations which not only permit, but require (“morally”), violation of such rules as “promises are to be kept” or “one must not swear falsely.” Hildebrand considers the case of swearing falsely to a tyrant, perhaps in order to save a life. Rather than insist (as Kant might have) that even in such a situation one must not swear falsely,  Hildebrand suggests that in some such situation the “oath” might lack “the intrinsic presuppositions” (131) for authenticity (and thus would not be a real oath) so that “swearing” falsely might be permissible or even required. Nowhere, however, does he say exactly what those presuppositions might be. This looks like mere evasion, and not just to a situation ethicist.

It of course does not follow that there can be no account of those “presuppositions.”  Nicholas Wolterstorff argues (in Justice: rights and wrongs, 2008) that commands, standing orders or laws obligate if and only if they are issued by agents who have standing and its associated potestas. A sergeant’s order obligates only where he has standing in relation to those he commands. He has no such standing in relation to those not in his platoon, so his production of the locutionary act of uttering an imperative sentence does not constitute the illocutionary act of issuing a command, when directed upon, say, the army’s commander-in-chief (or the writer of this review). There are very plausible arguments for the claim that tyrants lack standing to issue some commands, extract oaths, et al, so those commands are not real commands, those oaths not real oaths (Hildebrand: not “authentic”).  Hildebrand’s failure to respond to a quite compelling objection with little more than flat assertion will look serious to those seeking some philosophical illumination of the fundamental concepts in play here (obligation, command, duty, etc.).  Wolterstorff shows just one way to respond.

Hildebrand looks to be on firmer ground when he criticizes the situation ethicist’s use of “conscience” to do all the moral work.  The ability of conscience to warrant the very opposite of what morality requires is too well known (cf. Huck Finn’s misguided conscience, and “the Corsican Matteo Falconi” mentioned on p. 136). Conscience, Hildebrand rightly insists, only gets content by a struggle with precepts of some kind or other. But as already suggested, he does not give us an account of divine commands or natural law that shows how to sort the good precepts from the bad. Rather he alludes to features of a Christian life and Christian formation (the “imitation of Christ”, 142).  Practically that might suffice.  Philosophically it does not.

Thirdly, Hildebrand argues that the situation ethicist has a wrong conception of the relation of natural law to revealed law; he seems to assume that the latter invalidates the former. Hildebrand denies that natural law precepts can ever be invalidated.  But there are special cases where a revealed call supersedes natural law. St. Francis disobeyed his father.  His doing so was in response to a “call” which superseded, but did not invalidate, principles requiring filial obedience.  The specifically Christian sources of Hildebrand’s ethics become particularly evident here.  Once again someone who seeks philosophical illumination rather than Christian edification may feel shortchanged; are such natural law precepts as “parents are to be obeyed” binding always and everywhere, or not? If not, what considerations favor disobedience? Or are there cases of non-compliance that don’t amount to disobedience? Utilitarian or consequentalist reasonings would not be countenanced by Hildebrand. What then? Individual directives from the Holy Spirit? Is there some scale of higher and lower “moral values” that can in principle be accessed by any morally responsive person, or would specifically Christian formation be necessary to discern any exceptions or overriding factors?

In this book Hildebrand does not, so far as I can see, do what many Christian philosophers have tried to do, namely show in what ways an ethics devoid of theological reference must be defective, for example through failure to square with some widely shared ethical intuitions or beliefs. Hildebrand remarks that separation of morality from God causes it to lose the “breath of the eternal” (147). This idea from Kierkegaard challenges heart and mind when surrounded with the profound rhetoric and dialectic of his authorship. In Hildebrand it has only a faint appeal if any.

Thus the lingering parochialism of this work. Nevertheless, the detailed dissection of the moral simulacra that motivate some people to adopt situation ethics, or even attempt to abandon moral concerns altogether, will no doubt prove useful to many readers, and add to the substantial burden under which situation ethics already labors.

Rüdiger Zill (Hrsg.): Hans Blumenberg: Die nackte Wahrheit, Suhrkamp, 2019

Hans Blumenberg: Die nackte Wahrheit Book Cover Hans Blumenberg: Die nackte Wahrheit
Rüdiger Zill (Hrsg.)
Suhrkamp Verlag
2019
Paperback 20,00 €
199

Jean-Yves Lacoste: The Appearing of God

The Appearing of God Book Cover The Appearing of God
Jean-Yves Lacoste. Translated by Oliver O'Donovan
Oxford University Press
2018
Hardback £50.00

Reviewed by: Nikolaas Deketelaere (Balliol College, University of Oxford)

Kenosis and Transcendence

Below and Beyond the Appearing of God

Oliver O’Donovan deserves great credit for undertaking the painstaking work of translating Jean-Yves Lacoste’s La phénoménalité de Dieu: not only has relatively little of Lacoste’s work been translated into English compared to that of the other contemporary French authors working within the field of phenomenology of religion (e.g. Jean-Luc Marion, Michel Henry, even Jean-Louis Chrétien); it also appears that the French edition is currently out of print, making this translation the only way most of us can access Lacoste’s nine essays on the way in which God can be brought within the scope of phenomenology. The project Lacoste sets out in these pages can perhaps most easily be understood as an attempt at correlating (paradoxically) God’s divinity with his phenomenality, or indeed his mode of being with his mode of appearing, and is in turn executed by correlating four pairs of related notions: (1) philosophy and theology; (2) transcendence and reduction; (3) experience and eschatology; and, finally, (4) love and knowledge.

Starting with the issue of philosophy and theology. Much ink has been spilled over whether the developments within French phenomenology at the end of the last century constitute an unwarranted theologisation of phenomenology, or rather its careful execution; indeed, the polemic is well-known and still ongoing. In this regard, however, it is worth noting that we are dealing here with a somewhat sui generis figure: at the time of his initial diagnosis of French phenomenology as having taken a ‘theological turn’, Dominique Janicaud explicitly excluded Lacoste from the group of authors who allowed phenomenology to swerve off the road of philosophy until it ended up in the ditch of theology.[1] Nevertheless, Lacoste is not coy about the fact that his reflections do at least attempt “to surmount the division between philosophy and theology” (xi), or “to remove the boundary that has classically divided faith and reason, since its existence was always highly arbitrary” (82). Indeed, upon closer examination—one that is carried out in a sustained dialogue with Kierkegaard throughout the book—, that frontier appears to be missing altogether. As a result, Lacoste seeks to expose “the fluid character of philosophical work” (16), which it has in virtue of the fact that it can ask questions about anything, including divine realities. The point here is not, as Janicaud might put it, that philosophy is colonised or superseded by theology, for Lacoste too is weary of the ditch we risk ending up in if we leave behind philosophy altogether: “Disciplined conceptualization or description from which the philosophical element was eliminated would be bound to run aground” (16), he warns us. However, when a philosophical text, such as Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments, deals with divine realities, such as salvation and sin, “we are not,” or no longer at least, “dealing with a philosophy that is merely philosophy, but with a philosophy pushed to the limit of its range, making sense of an eclectic mix of descriptions, hypotheses, and games that make it impossible to say precisely what is going on” (17), whether it is philosophy or indeed theology. It is often in extreme situations, where we are pushed to our limits, that we gain an awareness of what exactly the limits are, and thus only as such do we fully come into our own. Such is equally the case for philosophy and theology, Lacoste suggests: “In the Fragments we find ourselves on the frontiers of philosophy, not only of theology. Precise labelling is simply not allowed at this point, and we had better make up our minds that it doesn’t matter very much. The fluidity of philosophy can be a theoretical advantage as well as a drawback. It is on the frontiers of philosophy, perhaps, that we can learn what is finally at issue in philosophy, and may we not say the same for the frontiers of theology, too?” (18).[2]

Despite Lacoste’s great emphasis on the question of the frontier demarcating philosophy from theology, he also declares that it ultimately does not matter. This is not as unintuitive as it may at first appear: precisely because the frontier is missing, the question of demarcation does not matter. We are simply free to proceed with thinking in all its fluidity, unencumbered by this methodological pseudo-question:

Here and there at the same time, or perhaps still here or already there, we can never be precise about our location. Dare we say that that is not a bad thing? (…) The present enquiries, pursued in ignorance of whether they are philosophical or theological, do not define themselves apart from the two methodological requirements of letting-appear and making-appear. (…) Whether philosophy or theology or both, our enquiry would not deserve the name of enquiry at all, if it did not make up its mind to ignore the frontiers and elicit appearances without prescribing them. To make frontiers is to break things up, and we do better not knowing where we are (x-xi).

This honesty is refreshing and certainly more dignified than, for example, Marion’s frantic but inevitably unsuccessful attempts at securing the exclusively philosophical status of his phenomenology. Essentially, the question of whether he is doing philosophy or theology is uninteresting to Lacoste; the point, rather, is that he is doing phenomenology: “From a phenomenological point of view there is no way of telling,” on what side of the frontier between philosophy and theology these studies fall, precisely because that frontier appears to be missing; yet, there is “probably no need to tell,” for, as phenomenologists, “all we want is a concept fit for the appearance” (ix). Whatever appears deserves to be described as such, without this being framed beforehand according to a frontier that itself does not. Hence, Lacoste concludes: “Phenomenology is frontier-free—it is one of its advantages” (xi).

So, the question for Lacoste then concerns the phenomenality of God, that is to say, the mode of his appearance. This brings us to our second pair of concepts in need of correlation: transcendence and reduction. Whenever one asks how God may be made the theme of phenomenology, someone is bound to pipe up and answer that he simply cannot be, precisely because the divine, as transcendent reality, falls under the reduction, and must thus be excluded from the phenomenologist’s field of view. The phenomenologist would be out of bounds, would have veered off the road and ended up in some kind of ditch, if he were to depend on anything that is not contained within the immanence of consciousness as delivered by phenomenological reduction. Lacoste tackles this challenge by starting from the observation that “a comprehensive experience of an object is possible only if an infinite experience is possible” (21), which of course means that a comprehensive experience is impossible since experience is precisely a function of finitude. It is the adumbrational character of sensory perception that Lacoste uses to argue that there is always already transcendence at the heart of every experience, namely the transcendence of what is not experienced in experience precisely in virtue of its character as experience: “Every perceptual experience,” he says, “invites us to recognize that it is fragmentary, and that what is presented here and now is transcended” (25). Indeed, this is not only true in exceptional cases, but forms a general “law of the logic of experience. Stated briefly, perceptual experience has to do with phenomena and non-phenomena at the same time. More economically still, perception has to do with the unperceived” (22-23). So, God’s transcendence need not, at least not a priori, exclude his phenomenality; for transcendence appears to be a characteristic of all appearing, which always transcends itself as appearance insofar as it appears. As such, “the appearing of God,” especially, “can only be understood in the light of his transcendence of appearing” (38). His mode of appearing involves a movement beyond appearing as such. As a result, Lacoste puts forward the concept of the irreducible, of which phenomenology “can offer no correct description (…) without recognizing its radical externality” (58), without knowing “that it cannot exclude the transcendent reality of what it describes” (60). In short, it forms “an experience that could not be described without acknowledging the irreducibility of everything to do with it: that is the sort of experience which the advent of God to consciousness would need to be” (63). God is such an experience, for he cannot be experienced without this experience being co-extensive with a belief in his existence, he cannot appear without this appearing being co-extensive with a love of God. As such, Lacoste tries to correlate divinity with phenomenality, God’s mode of being with his mode of appearing, and precisely this is a phenomenological question (indeed, strictly so). Hence, he concludes that “phenomenology cannot be faithful to its project without recognizing the irreducible” (58).

Precisely because a comprehensive experience is not possible in virtue of the fact that transcendence characterises all experience, because God transcends his appearing precisely insofar as he comes to appearance, because “experience is tied to inexperience” at all times (118); “we should be satisfied with a radically non-eschatological presence,” or, put differently, “presence is not parousia” (36).[3] This, Lacoste suggests, means we need to correlate experience to eschatology: for it implies, first of all, that the eschaton is not a question of experience, since experience cannot be completely realised by definition (“no experience is comprehensive, no presence can be taken for a parousia, enjoyment must not suppose itself in total possession” (131)); and, secondly, that phenomenology cannot be limited to the present now, for we do have meaningful experiences even if they are only partial (“experience may be wholly truthful without being whole and entire” (150)). The first is a crucial insight, according to Lacoste, for it leads us to “a conclusion of the greatest importance, implying an equally important imperative,” namely, that “God is never ‘given’” (150). It is hard not to read this as a profound critique of Marion’s “realized eschatology” (37) of intuitive givenness and it is worth quoting him at length on this: “But can the infinite be given? The suggestion seems preposterous,” for “‘seeing’ the infinite can only refer to vision of an inchoate character. No act of intuition could focus on infinity entire. Whatever we see, we know that our sight is at the same time and inescapably non-sight. Whatever is given us, we perceive only partially. But the interplay between sight and non-sight implies the promise of one day seeing differently and better. Perception may become richer, nearer to completion, but on no terms can a ‘vision’ of the infinite be thought of as actually complete. (…) Whatever the sense in which we ‘see’ the divine essence, it remains infinitely beyond sight” (148-149). Moreover, Lacoste continues, this thus means the following:

God cannot be given this side of death. If we are minded to stay with the language of vision, we can say that God ‘appears’ in the world without our intuition. There is nothing to be ‘seen.’ Giving makes its gift to faith, and faith cannot have the status of conclusive experience. Within the range of intuition visible things such as Christ’s historical body and his Eucharistic body are known as God’s self-giving only as we distinguish sensory intuition from the acquired intuition of faith. Sensory intuition on its own is misleading. Even when we have trained it to the evidences proper to objects of faith (which are not evidences of a theophany) the gift we perceive has the form of a promise, not to be taken as a last word. The appearance of the risen Christ to his disciples is a gift to sight, but not put at their disposal; it keeps its distance in conjunction with the promise of a definitive return. In the Eucharist Christ is seen through the medium of bread and wine, a medium that leaves us inevitably dissatisfied, desiring eschatological satisfaction which has no place in the world. (…) The infinite can be seen only in finite guise. But finite intuition of the infinite is no mere disappointment, and if we hold our experience of the gracious gift together with our experience of promise, we shall see why (149-150).[4]

This is not a disappointment for there is always the promise of fulfilment, and with promise comes anticipation. Moving on to the second point to be made in relation to eschatology and experience, Lacoste explains that anticipation does not give the eschaton, nor does it bring it to experience; rather, it “merely announces or adumbrates it, giving us no more than a predonation or pre-experience of it” (128). For, even though “experience of the end is ruled out,” since such an experience transcends itself; it is nevertheless as that transcending that “pre-experiences of the end are not. Everyone will agree that God cannot be known in history as he will be known finally, since the eschaton suspends the logic of sacramental presence. But eschatological desire and expectation may take on ‘pre-eschatological’ forms within the limits of the world, which is simply to say that they point us beyond the limits of being-in-the-world while making no pretence to be more than pre-eschatological. The sacrament does not bring the eschaton about; it does serve as a predonation of it” (132). In this context, “anticipation appears without the pretence of a fulfilment, and puts no end within our grasp. Yet it appears as anticipation, as experience uncompleted and promise that draws us on to further experience. So all talk of anticipation must have in view the horizon of an end. The end may be given, the event take place as we anticipated, or it may not; the eschaton is distant” (133). Since “we cannot attribute an eschatological character to any of our present experiences” (168), Lacoste uses his notion of anticipation to develop a reworked phenomenology of time-consciousness. This framework he subsequently applies, in an impressive dialogue with analytic philosophy, to the problem of personal identity, correctly removing it from the metaphysical questioning of substance and placing it firmly within the context of a phenomenological enquiry concerning time.

How must we then deal with this “eschatological reserve” (150), inhibiting us from having an actual and clear experience of God, leaving us with the pre-experience delivered by anticipation? Here, Lacoste suggests, faith comes in; or, for it is coextensive with it, this is where love plays its role. This brings us to our final pair of concepts in need of correlation: knowledge and love, which in this case refers to the knowledge and love of God. In particular, Lacoste wants to expose what he calls “the logic of love,” or its “paradoxical priority over knowledge” (37), when it comes to divine realities. Phenomenology, Lacoste suggests, has traditionally had a bias in favour for what we might call ‘objects of knowledge’, which he describes as “compelling phenomena” (78). These are phenomena that give themselves, and thus impose themselves intuitively: “the object of sight, the intelligible proposition, the reality that cannot be ignored.” However, God is not given, he does not appear as such, and therefore also does not impose himself. Thus, Lacoste suggests, “if there is one thing the object of belief and the object of love have in common, it is the power to go unnoticed” (78). When it comes to divine realities, which are “intelligible only as open to love,” their “appearance takes the form of solicitation or invitation, not coercion. (…) Love would contradict its essence or intention if it used constraint in making its appearance” (75). The phenomenality of love makes an appeal to our freedom: it does not dictate its meaning through the violent imposition of intuition, but instead demands to be loved, inviting us to take a position for or against. What is at stake is “a reality that offers itself without imposing itself, an experience formed in the element of non-self-evidence,” precisely because it requires “a decision to see it” in order to be perceived at all (79). Lacoste illustrates this elegantly as follows: “Nothing is more common than perceiving or understanding without making up our mind. I perceive the ashtray on my desk without making up my mind, I see the conclusion of a logical argument without making up my mind, except that the logic is valid. But when the absolute intervenes, we have to make up our minds,” precisely because its intervention is not of the order of an ordinary appearance, which it always transcends in intervening. Indeed, Lacoste continues, “God does not appear like the Alps, huge and undeniable. He does not appear as the conclusion of an argument we are compelled to admit (…). God appears in such a way that we can make up our mind about him, for or against” (87).

God, that is to say his divinity, does not appear except in love and indeed as love: “He does not appear to be described, since there is nothing to describe, only a man like other men. He does not appear to be thought about, since the aim of his appearance is simply and solely to win man’s love. To make an appearance in order to win love, and for no other reason, the god must be present kenotically. He wills to be loved, not to dazzle. There is appearance, for there is presence, but this is not presence for thought, or even belief” (72). The phenomenality of God is a kenotic phenomenality, one that empties itself out of appearing as appearing. God’s phenomenality is not a question of appearing, but of the decision that sits below (kenosis) and thus its movement beyond (transcendence) appearing. Precisely in this way does Lacoste correlate God’s mode of being (transcendence) with his mode of appearing (inexperience): “God appears in presenting himself to be loved; God appears among the phenomena not subject to Husserl’s ‘eidetic reduction’” (ix).

Before ending this review, a word needs to be said about O’Donovan’s English language rendering of Lacoste’s book, for some of the choices he has made in translating it seem at least worth questioning. I wonder, in particular, whether the phenomenological force of Lacoste’s argument is not somewhat blunted by this translation. To be fair to him, O’Donovan admits at the outset that “every translation must have its priorities, and I had better admit that tenderness towards the conventions of the phenomenological school has not been high among mine” (vii). As a result, he does not, for example, reprise the distinct adjectives which English translators of Heidegger have rendered as existential and existentiell, the French equivalents of which Lacoste uses, for he considers it “an inaudible distinction I take to be no more than a mark on paper, not language” (vii). As inelegant as these renderings may be, these concepts nevertheless circulate and are in use as such (as Jean-Luc Nancy might say, they make sense). O’Donovan’s refusal to stick to this convention for the sake of not letting phenomenological terminology get into the way of argumentative clarity then seems to fall over itself at times, for example in the following passage: “Since theology is an ontic science, the relation of man to God will be ontic/idiomorphic (existentiel), not ontological/existential” (98). Does the clarity of Lacoste’s summary of Heidegger’s position benefit from the choice for idiomorphic rather than the more commonplace existentiell? I highly doubt it. It could, perhaps, only do so to a reader who is entirely unfamiliar with Heidegger and thus with this conceptual (not merely semantic) distinction. However, that this book would have many such readers seems unlikely. Especially in this case, where the passage at issue comes from an essay on Heidegger, the Heideggerian terminology is not incidental to the argument, and thus abstracting from that terminology does not serve that argument. The same goes for the general phenomenological terminology found throughout the book: as I explained, Lacoste himself suggests that he is not concerned with classifying these essays as either philosophy or theology; the point, for him, is that they are works of phenomenology. As such, neither is the phenomenological vocabulary incidental to argument, for the argument is a distinctly and explicitly phenomenological one. O’Donovan’s choice not to prioritise this vocabulary in his translation therefore seems odd, not to say entirely unjustified. Perhaps the most significant example of what is lost when we pay insufficient attention to phenomenological terminology is the title: the phrase the appearing of God is by no means the most obvious translation of la phénoménalité de Dieu. The English language has a word for phénoménalité, it is phenomenality. This is, indeed, a piece of phenomenological jargon, but like all subject-specific terminology, it carries a very precise meaning: in this case, phenomenality denotes not so much appearing, but rather the mode of appearing; not the fact or the content, but the how of appearing. Or, as Lacoste puts it himself in the preliminary to the nine essays: “Our problem is simply to describe and distinguish their different ways of appearing” (ix, original emphasis). As such, the choice to present this book as a work on the appearing of God out of a noble desire to avoid overly technical language, does not allow the argument to shine with its true brilliance; rather, it obscures it.[5] In any case, this book is not so much about the appearing of God, for God cannot be said to appear but in a highly qualified sense; rather, it is about the way or the mode of his appearing, namely, kenotically, in and as love.


[1] Dominique Janicaud, ‘The Theological Turn in French Phenomenology’, trans. by B.G. Prusak in Phenomenology and the ‘Theological Turn’: The French Debate (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000), 1-103.

[2] The influence of Lacoste’s emphasis on the fluidity of thought when it comes to the missing frontier between philosophy and theology on Emmanuel Falque’s dictum that ‘the more we theologise, the better we philosophise’ seems unmistakable here. On this, see Falque’s Passer le Rubicon—Philosophie et théologie: Essai sur les frontiers (Bruxelles: Lessius, 2013); as well as his ‘Phénoménologie et théologie: Nouvelles frontières’ in Études, 404.2 (2006), 201-210.

[3] See also Jean-Yves Lacoste, Présence et parousie (Paris: Ad Solem, 2006).

[4] It is worth noting here that a similar critique of Marion is articulated by Falque and John Caputo. On this, see: Emmanuel Falque, ‘Phénoménologie de l’extraordinaire (J.-L. Marion)’ in Le Combat amoureux (Paris: Hermann, 2014), 137-193; John D. Caputo, ‘The Hyperbolization of Phenomenology: Two Possibilities for Religion in Recent Continental Philosophy’ in Counter-Experiences: Reading Jean-Luc Marion (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 67-93. For a commentary on these critiques, see my ‘Givenness and Existence: On the Possibility of a Phenomenological Philosophy of Religion’ in Palgrave Communications 4, Article number 127 (2018), 1-13.

[5] It is entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that the choice for appearing rather than phenomenality was motivated by concerns of the publisher, rather than the translator. One can indeed imagine that this version would sell better and be of interest to a wider audience (particularly in Britain, where phenomenology, insofar as it is practiced here at all today, bears little resemblance to contemporary styles, interests and debates in France). However, if this is indeed the case, one would expect the translator to make the reader aware of the crucial importance of this distinction in his foreword. However, O’Donovan does not do this and indeed seems to simply wash his hands of the entire issue by declaring phenomenological precision not to be a priority in this case.

Jean Wahl: Philosophies of Existence, Routledge, 2019

Philosophies of Existence: An Introduction to the Basic Thought of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers, Marcel, Sartre Book Cover Philosophies of Existence: An Introduction to the Basic Thought of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers, Marcel, Sartre
Routledge Library Editions: Existentialism
Jean Wahl
Routledge
2019
Hardback £80.00
132

Claude Romano: Être soi-même: Une autre histoire de la philosophie

Être soi-même: Une autre histoire de la philosophie Book Cover Être soi-même: Une autre histoire de la philosophie
Folio essais, n° 648
Claude Romano
Gallimard
2019
Paperback 15,90 €
768

Reviewed by: Grazia Grasso (University of Geneva)

Heureux qui comme Ulysse…

L’œuvre de Claude Romano qui vient de paraître chez Gallimard, consacré au thème de l’« être soi-même », est également « une autre histoire de la philosophie », comme il le dit dans le sous-titre ; à l’intention d’un large public, l’Auteur n’oublie pas la nécessité de définir les concepts philosophiques avec rigueur ; il ne s’adresse pas aux spécialistes, mais à quiconque s’est posé la question, dans quelques moments de sa vie, sur la signification d’être soi-même. Non pas, cependant, la question du sens de la vie en général, mais de sa propre existence particulière, de la direction qu’on lui a donnée, ou qu’elle-même a prise, comme souvent il arrive, sans qu’un choix vraiment conscient soit intervenu. Lorsque le bonheur que la société pousse à chercher dans un certain nombre de biens s’avère transitoire et illusoire, on se demande à qui l’on pourrait s’adresser afin qu’il soit plus durable et stable ; quelle attitude adopter : la première, qui émerge de cette œuvre, comme il est recommandé d’ailleurs dans la majeure partie des philosophies face aux illusionnes, c’est certainement celle de se détacher, de prendre de la distance par rapport au monde extérieur, et surtout à ses propres émotiones et illusions  ;  cette distance prise, il est nécessaire de chercher ce qui nous convient le mieux, mais sur la base de la connaissance de notre être personnel plus authentique, que l’Auteur indique comme notre « ipséité ». Dans cette recherche l’Auteur parcourt toute la philosophie occidentale, des classiques grecs à l’existentialisme, non sans quelques références aux philosophies de l’extrême orient, comme la doctrine zen, en passant par le concept de « nonchalance » en vogue à la Renaissance. Le mythe qui illustre bien le sujet est incarné par la figure emblématique d’Ulysse qui, ayant conclu la partie héroïque de sa vie, après avoir tout perdu, se présente comme « personne » devant Polyphème et regagne une identité propre seulement avec son retour à Ithaque. L’Auteur ne néglige pas de traiter le problème de la vérification de cette acquise authenticité qui,  si elle reste privée d’ancrage, ne devient qu’autoréférentielle et assujettie ainsi à de nouvelles erreurs et illusions. Après avoir introduit le thème d’Ulysse dans l’avant-propos, Claude Romano va cependant bien au-delà du schéma classique plotinien de l’exitus et du reditus qui a inspiré Augustin aussi bien que la théologie chrétienne, et dont l’ancrage est de nature divine.

Cette aspiration de l’homme à une « authenticité personnelle », à l’origine réservée à un nombre limité d’aristocrates, est devenue un phénomène de masse seulement en mai ’68 . Elle a finalement échappé au cercle restreint des penseurs, artistes, dirigeants politiques et ecclésiastiques, et s’est, pour ainsi dire, démocratisée. Cette étude est la première à en avoir cherché les racines les plus profondes – philosophiques, religieuses et esthétiques – et les origines les plus lointaines. Le rejet du mouvement de ’68 de vivre selon l’hypocrisie des coutumes, exigence déjà individuée par Rousseau, n’a pas trouvé qu’une réponse fragile et décevante chez les philosophes de l’existentialisme, dont l’Auteur expose et analyse tous les principaux courants de pensée, sans préjugés d’école philosophique ou d’orientation religieuse.

Rousseau, ou La révolution de l’authenticité qui donne le titre au premier des dix-sept chapitres du livre, est le philosophe qui le premier pose comme but primordial de l’homme d’être inconditionnellement soi-même et de lutter contre toute puissance d’oppression et d’aliénation ; car les regards des autres pèsent sur nous et nous réduisent en esclavage, préfigurant ainsi les célèbres analyses de Sartre. Critère de vérité n’est pas l’évidence, mais la sincérité du cœur, l’authenticité, la conviction subjective : l’idée d’une vérité purement subjective prend ainsi la place de celle objective et universelle ; cette distinction sera reprise, parmi d’autres, par Kierkegaard et Heidegger.

Après l’introduction, l’avant-propos et le chapitre sur la révolution de l’authenticité, la première partie de l’ouvrage porte le titre La vérité personnelle : sources antiques et tardo-antiques. Dans cette partie, composée des chapitres II-VI, l’Auteur trace une histoire du concept d’authenticité à partir du portrait qu’Aristote fourni du magnanime, première figure d’une vérité en personne et non en paroles, d’une vérité en actes et dans la vie elle-même. L’une des vertus principales du magnanime aristotélique est en effet l’être authekastos, c’est-à-dire sincère, franc, littéralement l’homme qui est lui-même et à qui la sincérité confère de l’estime et du respect de soi-même, condition de tout comportement vertueux. Le magnanime exerce cette qualité fondamentale d’une manière si naturelle et simple qu’elle lui donne une grâce et une distinction toute particulière : il n’aspire qu’à triompher dans l’ordre de la vertu négligeant ainsi soi-même.

L’Auteur ensuite décrit la magnanimité stoïque par rapport à l’aristotélique. L’idéal stoïque y est opposé à l’autonomie précaire du magnanime aristotélique, il consiste dans une maîtrise parfaite de soi, qui détache le sage des événements extérieurs. La stabilité du stoïque est liée à la nouvelle équivalence entre la vertu et le bonheur, sous l’influence d’un principe d’inspiration cynique. La magnanimité devient alors méprise du monde ; à la nonchalance et à la détente aristotéliques succède une présence constante à soi-même et une tension d’esprit continuelle sur soi-même et sur sa vie ; le bonheur est donc le fruit de ce travail sur soi et d’une ascèse : c’est-à-dire d’une stricte discipline non plus accessible seulement à un cercle restreint de sages, comme chez Aristote. Par rapport à l’être soi-même le magnanime cultive une complète sincérité car il ne dissimule rien : il est dans la vérité et dans la lumière ; un exemple d’un tel sage nous est offert par Marc Aurèle qui, dès son enfance était surnommé Verissimus. En philosophie, annote l’Auteur, il faudra attendre Rousseau, Kant et les pensées de l’authenticité pour retrouver des accents comparables. Après avoir complété le cadre de l’antiquité classique avec la pensée sur l’être soi-même de Cicéron, Quintilien et Fronton, l’Auteur examine la pensée chrétienne d’Ambroise et Augustin.

Ambroise soumet la rhétorique et la philosophie païennes à l’autorité des Écritures, en s’appuyant sur la conviction que les philosophes païens ont puisé, pour tracer le portait de leurs vertus, directement dans l’Ancien Testament, et il propose des exemples tirés des figures de Job, David, ou encore Abraham ; il ne s’agit donc pas tant de détourner des concepts païens vers une direction chrétienne, que de leur restituer leur sens d’origine. Ambroise définit l’idéal de sagesse en termes stoïciens : le but de toute vie éthique est d’arriver à vaincre les troubles de l’âme ; le modèle de cette tranquillité d’âme devient Abraham, obéissant sans se rebeller aux ordres de Dieu, avec une fermeté non différente de celle du stoïcisme. L’évêque de Milan donne aussi la première place à l’humilité et à la charité ; à la sincérité du stoïcien succède ainsi la simplicité chrétienne, vertu par excellence de Job et don de la grâce.

Avec Augustin la question de la vérité, qui avait été posée en termes généraux par Ambroise, est transposée sur le terrain des existences individuelles, et revêt ainsi le sens d’une vraie question existentielle. « Faire la vérité », comme le dit Augustin, consiste en premier lieu à cesser de nous flatter, à rompre avec l’amour propre et idolâtre de nous-même et à accepter de nous considérer dans notre nudité et notre misère ; et donc à confesser qu’on est pécheur et, par-là, à renoncer à l’orgueil, avec l’acte d’humilité de confesser nos péchés, acte par lequel l’homme se reconnaît faillible et reconnaît Dieu comme l’unique Bien. Pour devenir nous-même nous devons nous tourner vers Dieu. Nous sommes dans la vérité grâce à la confession à Dieu de nos péchés qui opère une transformation, où chacun peut expérimenter, pour ainsi dire, une sorte de seconde naissance. Cette conception trouve sa source dans le néo-platonisme, doctrine philosophique dont Augustin était imbibé avant sa conversion et son baptême et, notamment, dans la notion plotinienne de conversion, selon laquelle chaque être doit faire retour à la source d’où il procède ; cette conversion vers un Dieu qui n’est plus un être impersonnel, permet à l’homme de révéler en lui l’image de son créateur et de devenir par-là, authentiquement, celui qu’il est ; en se tournant vers Dieu l’homme reçoit de lui une illumination, de sorte que toutes ses œuvres en sont transformées ; il acquiert une stabilité existentielle car il réalise une pleine unité avec lui-même, sur le modèle de la simplicité divine, grâce au fait d’avoir retrouvé son centre de gravité, et donc son repos, en Dieu. C’est par la confiance en Dieu que chacun devient « lui-même » par excellence, ipse, comme Augustin le désigne.

Dans la deuxième partie intitulée L’être soi-même en tant que grâce, style et naturel à la Renaissance, composée des chapitres VII-X, l’Auteur introduit l’idée de « ipséité » en tant que grâce dans le sens mondain du terme, soutenue par Castiglione dans son Livre du Courtisan, grand succès dans les cours de la Renaissance italienne. Le courtisan de Castiglione incarne bien l’idéal renaissant de l’ « homme universel » par excellence, susceptible d’exceller dans tous les domaines avec une liberté nonchalante, car elle est le fruit de son détachement ; la qualité principale du courtisan doit être la grâce, qui harmonise son être intérieur et extérieur et lui permet de s’accorder avec soi-même, et par conséquence aux autres. La grâce reconduit l’homme à être soi véritablement, à une forme d’équilibre spirituel et existentiel ; elle est définie par l’auteur italien comme sprezzatura, expression de l’italien antique que Montaigne traduira avec nonchalance, et qui est opposé au studio, c’est à dire à l’application, au zèle ; la grâce est ainsi le contraire de l’affectation. Claudio Romano passe ensuite à appliquer le concept de grâce à l’art, où il correspond à l’aisance, à la facilité, à la simplicité et spontanéité du geste, enfin au style, qui ne peut pas être le produit direct d’une volonté. Voici la conception de l’ipséité : être soi, c’est ne rien faire pour l’être. L’Auteur procède alors à un intéressant excursus dans l’art de la Renaissance, en identifiant chez Raphaël et Titien de véritables exemples de style authentique.

Montaigne, continue l’Auteur, a sécularisé la notion de repos en Dieu d’Augustin ; il reprend ce concept dont l’exemple est l’assiette souple et aisée du chevalier, qui devient l’assiette de l’existence : c’est une assiette naturelle, qui se situe à l’opposé du rigide contrôle de soi des stoïciens, mais également différent du repos trop statique d’Augustin ; elle ne représente plus chez lui une qualité du courtisan, comme la grâce pour Castiglione, mais de l’homme en général. Montaigne appelle cette grâce, libérée de toute cérémonie et qu’il identifie à la simplicité et la vérité : le naturel ; et il propose Socrate comme modèle de simplicité de style dans les discours rapportés par Platon, dans lesquels s’exprime la simplicité de son être. Même si la simplicité de Montaigne présente souvent des nuances évangéliques, la source de son inspiration n’est pas la religion. C’est la question de l’unité avec soi qui prime chez Montaigne, et qui seule nous procure une assiette dans l’existence ; l’ipséité devient alors une forme de fidélité à soi et aux autres. La franchise s’exprime dans la liberté ; Claude Romano remarque combien cette union de nonchalance et de liberté chez Montaigne présente d’analogies avec la culture zen. Dans son fameux exemple de l’archer la tentative de contrôler consciemment le geste s’avère un obstacle au bon déroulement de l’action, tandis que le fait de laisser faire le corps se montre plus efficace.

Dans la troisième partie, Le déclin du naturel et l’essor de l’authenticité, chapitres XI-XVI, Claude Romano explique comment, à l’époque baroque, le naturel décline et la dissimulation devient alors un utile instrument d’auto-défense pour pouvoir survivre à la cour ; faudrait-il donc considérer licite toute sorte de dissimulation ? Le théâtre devient l’occupation préférée, appréciée aussi par Gracian, pour qui le paraître constitue l’être véritable et l’ostentation prend la place de la grâce chez Castiglione ; Gracian, jésuite casuiste, finit par plaider souvent pour le relativisme moral ; il sera apprécié par Nietzsche, pour qui les qualités d’acteur sont les caractéristiques des hommes de pouvoir. Dès le XVIIe siècle Gracian suscitera la violente réaction des jansénistes et, plus tard, celle de Rousseau.

Le jansénisme, avec son exigence de retour à l’orthodoxie, occupe une place importante dans l’œuvre de Claude Romano, car il fait action de démystification ; sa rigueur intransigeante va s’opposer au pragmatisme jésuite, finissant par gagner une large partie de France ; il va diffuser toute une sensibilité qui n’est plus favorable à la grande scène baroque et au théâtre. La vie intérieure prend la place du lustre et de l’ostentation. Fausseté et déguisement ne sont que tromperie pour Pascal ; la société humaine et ses institutions temporelles représentent la fausseté des vertus humaines et le jansénisme, selon la doctrine augustinienne des deux amours, demande de « haïr » soi-même pour aimer Dieu ; plusieurs traits la rapprochent du calvinisme. L’Auteur décrit ainsi, avec un soin tout particulier, les liens avec le jansénisme et les spécificités de la pensée de La Rochefoucault et de Mme de Lafayette.

Claude Romano ne quitte pas l’Âge classique sans avoir réfléchi à la contribution de Descartes qui propose sa propre conception de la magnanimité, appelée « générosité », dans des nuances néo-stoïciennes, surtout, avec son cogito ergo sum, qui traite du « moi ». Toutefois, ce sera seulement Locke qui fera de ce self l’objet d’une expérience interne qui n’est pas différente de celle des sens et qui ouvre la porte à toutes les égologies.

Rousseau considère que le guide et la source de toute bonté pour l’homme sont liés au problème de l’authenticité, qui se manifeste comme sentiment et témoignage intérieurs de sa propre conscience : idées chères au calvinisme ; la franchise et la totale transparence sont également une idée stoïque. Rousseau reprend ainsi les argumentations de Castellion et de Bayle sur le primat et l’obéissance à la conscience, et la peine pour ceux qui ne l’écoutent pas est le péché. C’est intéressant de remarquer comment pour Claude Romano cette attitude du philosophe genevois, qui n’hésite pas à dénoncer la fausseté de la société, peut être rapprochée en quelque sorte de celle du jansénisme ; toutefois, ajoutons-nous, la conviction que la malice de l’homme soit le fruit d’un système politique inique et d’une oppression économique, plutôt que la conséquence du péché originel n’est ni janséniste ni calviniste. Rousseau, remarque notre Auteur, est ici très proche du néo-protestantisme libéral qui se développe à Genève avec Turrettini, Vernet ou Vernes. Rousseau accuse la société d’hypocrisie et de mensonge, de conformisme et d’aliénation, où l’homme finit pour abdiquer à son être propre et, comme ce le sera pour Sartre, les regards que les uns portent sur les autres sont déjà servitude ; il conclut que l’essence de l’authenticité, et donc de la liberté, consiste dans l’autodétermination en vertu de laquelle chacun n’obéit plus qu’à la loi de sa conscience. La condition externe de cette liberté individuelle dépend d’un contrat social qui rétablit l’égalité des droits entre les citoyens. L’Auteur met en évidence les aspects utopiques et les contradictions de la pensée de Rousseau, mais il souligne aussi que l’authenticité de son paradigme a triomphé dans la philosophie moderne, au point de supplanter définitivement d’autres conceptions de la vérité personnelle.

L’Auteur s’emploie alors à exposer les pensées de Marivaux, Schiller et Kleist ; ces auteurs s’accordent dans la tentative de définir la naturalité du comportement humain faisant recours parfois à la grâce du geste involontaire et harmonieux, parfois « au se laisser aller » de la marionnette ou de l’animal. Il consacre enfin les derniers amples chapitres à l’exister en vérité de Kierkegaard et à l’authenticité radicale de Heidegger.

Pour le philosophe danois la vérité devient l’appropriation, l’intériorité et la subjectivité : la seule vérité sur laquelle une existence puisse se bâtir est celle que l’existant peut faire sienne ; ce n’est pas la vérité en soi et anonyme. La perspective de Kierkegaard est celle chrétienne d’une imitatio Christi ; il veut se rapprocher existentiellement de son idéal, en devenant un témoin de la vérité : car Christ est la vérité non comme une somme de propositions ou de concepts, mais comme une vie. On peut relever ici l’influence de Luther qui a souligné le caractère « subjectif » de la vérité du christianisme, en faisant de la sola fides le principe autour duquel se développe toute l’existence chrétienne ; mais Luther a été aussi, pour Kierkegaard celui qui a fait de la Réforme une institution, en trahissant le christianisme. Claude Romano explique ensuite la distinction des trois possibilités d’existence chez Kierkegaard :  l’existence esthétique, sous le signe de l’infinie possibilité et d’une vie sous un masque ; ensuite la vie éthique, symbolisée par l’engagement du mariage ; et enfin l’existence religieuse, selon le modèle du Christ. Dans le premier stade l’individu est enfermé dans une solitude désespérée qui présente des aspects « démoniaques » : il multiplie les conquêtes car il est incapable d’amour. Le stade éthique est représenté par la transformation de la fugacité de l’attrait pour une femme ou un homme dans un engagement éternel ; la valeur éthique de ce stade dépend d’un choix ferme et personnel, car la volonté est éveillée à soi-même et donne lieu à la personne morale. Dans le stade religieux l’homme est seul face à Dieu ; c’est la foi que lui permet, dans la crainte, dans le tremblement et dans l’angoisse de faire le saut vers la lumière : l’exemple est Abraham ; la subjectivité s’ouvre vers un Autre, elle trouve hors de soi un nouveau point d’appui : la vérité n’est plus à disposition du sujet. L’Auteur observe enfin que, pour Kierkegaard, le rapport avec Dieu est une relation personnelle, de seul à Seul : la foule déresponsabilise ; chacun doit donc éviter de se mêler aux autres, si non avec prudence.

Pour Heidegger enfin, l’angoisse de la solitude du Dasein devient l’équivalent d’un « solipsisme ». À Heidegger l’Auteur consacre autant de place qu’à Kierkegaard ; il observe immédiatement l’analogie de la pensée de Heidegger sur l’ « On », qui indique l’être impersonnel, avec la société des masques de Rousseau ; mais cet « On »  ne renvoie pas à la collectivité ou à la société humaine, mais à une manière d’être du Dasein, l’existant, lui-même ; l’aliénation, qui ne survient pas de l’extérieur mais du Dasein lui-même ne dérive pas d’une intention de tromper de manière volontaire, car la tentation de dissimulation et de déformation sont structurelles. Le Dasein s’aliène dans la foule pour échapper à l’angoisse existentielle et pour ne pas prendre de décision ; il s’appuie et se perd ainsi dans le « On » conformiste. L’être soi-même n’est qu’une modalité d’être du Dasein, comme l’est le Dasein perdu dans le « On » ; ainsi une structure triadique est créée : la différence entre les deux modalités du Dasein consiste dans le fait que dans le cas où il prend une décision, la modification dans son existence est produite de manière personnelle, par l’ipse et par conséquent elle est authentique ; dans le cas du « On » elle est produite de manière impersonnelle et inauthentique. Seulement face à l’angoisse de la mort le Dasein est finalement authentique, car il est seul.  Le concept de vérité de Heidegger devient alors, pour la première fois, radicalement subjectif, mais privé de tout contenu, car il est reconduit à une manière d’être, à la différence de Rousseau où le contenu consiste dans la sincérité envers soi-même, et de Kierkegaard, où le contenu est la foi. Chez Heidegger finalement c’est la volonté du Dasein de vouloir sa propre authenticité qui lui confère constance et fermeté ; ce sera ce rôle de la volonté qui permettra de mettre sa pensée au service de l’idéologie nazie.

Dans son court épilogue l’Auteur résume la question de l’adéquation à soi-même ou de l’être véritablement soi-même, qui n’est traitée que marginalement par la philosophie contemporaine, en deux tendances : dans la première, dont le stoïcisme est l’emblème, l’accord avec soi-même est réalisé par le moyen de la raison et de la maîtrise des passions de manière rigide ; dans la seconde, l’accord est obtenu par un mixte de contrôle et de laisser-aller négligent.

Dans l’apostille finale Claude Romano propose une sorte de monographie dans laquelle il suggère une série de pistes de réflexion et recherche au sujet du naturel ; par exemple : « Est-il possible de chercher à être naturel ? N’y aurait-il pas dans cet effort une contradiction avec la spontanéité liée à l’idée de naturel ? ».

En conclusion, le travail de Claude Romano est imposant et touche à une question peu traitée jusqu’à présent ; son style facilement accessible et ses descriptions claires le rendent un instrument indispensable pour tous ceux qui désirent lire ou relire l’histoire de la pensée occidentale concernant la recherche de l’authenticité.

Heureux qui comme Ulysse…

Jean-Yves Lacoste: The Appearing of God, Oxford University Press, 2018

The Appearing of God Book Cover The Appearing of God
Jean-Yves Lacoste. Translated by Oliver O'Donovan
Oxford University Press
2018
Hardback £50.00
224

Peter E. Gordon: Adorno and Existence

Adorno and Existence Book Cover Adorno and Existence
Peter E. Gordon
Harvard University Press
2016
Hardcover £23.95
272

Reviewed by: Jarno Hietalahti (University of Jyväskylä)

Peter E. Gordon has written a compelling book entitled Adorno and Existence about Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno’s relationship to existentialism. Gordon admits in the very first sentence of his book that Adorno was not an existentialist, however, according to Gordon’s analysis, Adorno was intrigued by existentialism and tantalized by phenomenology through his academic career. Gordon offers a new research perspective on Adorno’s work which has often been bypassed by secondary literature. He suggests that, although Adorno is renowned as one who challenges philosophies of existence, his position as a critic is not as straightforwardly negative as one might think.

The structure of the work begins with early ontological matters, it moves to The Jargon of Authenticity (1964), then towards Negative Dialectics (1966) and finally to salvaging metaphysics. The form and the content of the book intertwine in a spiral which lures the reader in its undertow. In a laudable manner, Gordon offers a comprehensive view of Adorno’s often forgotten and marginalized writings and lectures. All in all, the sources he refers to in support of his endeavour are well chosen for the task in hand.

Despite the complexity and depth of the subject matter, the book reads well thanks to Gordon’s skills as a writer and his philosophical acumen (for instance, his book Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos, 2010, won the Jacques Barzun Prize from the American Philosophical Society). It would have been prudent and useful to readers if an accessible list of references had been included, and not only a list of aberrations, as this would save the reader from searching through the endnotes for titles which have been referred to. This small criticism aside, Gordon conducts encompassing and convincing research to demonstrate the importance of key existentialist thinkers such as Søren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger from the beginning of Adorno’s academic career through to the final days of his life. Gordon builds the story eloquently; he starts and ends with Kierkegaard and the structure is insightful as Adorno wrote his Habilitationsschrift (a second dissertation) on Kierkegaard, and lectured on his work during the last years of his career (a 40 year timespan).

It is not surprising that Gordon presents Heidegger as the main opponent and counterpart to Adorno’s thought as Gordon has analysed Heidegger’s philosophy in his other books and in numerous articles (e.g. Gordon 2003; 2007; 2013). In this text he tries to situate Heidegger’s phenomenological philosophy alongside Adorno’s social criticism; a daring and respectable task. Gordon argues that Adorno’s central idea about the primacy of the object is an attempt to finish what existential philosophers had sought to accomplish before him. According to Gordon, Adorno’s relentless criticism of existentialists is a redemption of existence. When Adorno argues that Kierkegaard and Heidegger failed to overcome a lurking idealism, it is because he envisions his philosophy as “the overcoming of existentialism but also its fulfillment” (145).

Gordon is clearly aware of Adorno’s repeated criticism of existential philosophers as the book examines even the harshest parts of these writings, however, he claims this is a reversal recognition. For Gordon, as Adorno’s intensive interest in existentialism and phenomenology spans multiple decades, he must see a hidden potential in these philosophical systems despite the failings he makes explicit. This speculative claim gives ground to a deeper consideration and reframing of Adorno’s critical thinking. Gordon builds on the old and accepted truth about Adorno (that if he states something, he will denounce the very same thought just a couple of pages later) to point to some neglected ironies in Adorno’s works and reminds us that it is intellectually insincere to focus on isolated critical slogans. As Adorno writes in the Negative Dialectics; philosophy should not forget its clownish traits: “Philosophy is the most serious thing, but then again it is not all that serious.” (Adorno, 1966, 14)

Counting on the aforementioned trait in Adorno’s writings, Gordon is able to turn the tables around time and time again. For instance, he notes how Adorno criticizes époché (a method of phenomenological bracketing) which is supposed to help to catch the pure oneself; a method of understanding and seeing how the world exists for one. Adorno suggests that this method fails miserably, and is basically transcendental xenophobia. Despite this straightforward crushing, Gordon finds evidence on how Adorno goes beyond a mere superficial panning, and wants to seek truth in what he has just a moment ago considered to be phenomenological untruth. Adorno, according to Gordon, does not want to refute phenomenology through negation but, instead, he is on a quest to show how this “failure bears within itself a hidden philosophical insight.” (64)

As the text proceeds, it is easy to grasp Gordon’s primary objective; to show that Adorno has an intellectual bond with existentialism and phenomenology. Gordon takes the sheer number of references provided as proof of this. However, one cannot accept that Gordon necessarily gets it right when he suggests that Adorno did not specifically reject existential philosophy just because he returned to the same themes again and again over many decades. Adorno was always critical towards authoritarianism, for example, and he never ceased to question the socially shared insanity in the Western world but it would be wrong to suggest that, because Adorno wrote so much about authoritarianism he saw a hidden promise in authoritarian thinking and movements.

The text does contain some careless formulations occasionally, e.g. Gordon considers Adorno a satirical writer who tries to pop the balloons of rigid authority with his dry and poisonous wit and it could be argued that true satirists tend to offer something to replace their ridiculed targets but Adorno does not do this. Instead, he uses bitter humour to belittle shared cultural insanity, philosophical hypocrisy and individuals who are simply wrong (according to his perspective). In his mockery Adorno rarely offers sympathy for the target of his ridicule; instead, he is sarcastic and quite often smug in relation to the way he offends others. Interestingly, Gordon includes an extract of one of Adorno’s letters to Herbert Marcuse where he belittles Heidegger’s student Otto Friedrich Bollnow after the publication of The Jargon of Authenticity (December, 15, 1964): “Ernst Bloch phoned to say that because of the ‘Jargon’ Bollnow is having a nervous breakdown. Let him.” (88). Adorno does give a charitable rationalization for his so-called satirical technique when he tries to embarrass people; he thought that once an authority is ridiculed its fragile nature is revealed (through laughter), then the followers of that authority would be keen to stop worshipping their former hero. This is the very same sociological thought on which Henri Bergson’s Laughter (1911) is based. Bergson argues that laughter is a form of social control and a tool to straighten people up from their silly habits. Sadly for Adorno, this does not justify every kind of banter, and a mere rationalization hardly turns a ruthless mockery into a more constructive form of satire.

At times, Gordon makes questionable rhetorical choices and one can identify a subtle smugness in formulations such as “Those who come to critical theory burdened with customary opinion…” (6), or “Adorno’s critical orientation can appear relentlessly negative, and many readers fail to see that his negativity still flows, however faintly, with a rationalist’s hope for a better world.” (11) If these points are to be taken literally, Gordon is suggesting that merited Adorno scholars are taking a ‘wrong’ approach and one might ask, where does this leave those who are new to Adorno’s work?

Similar accusations are present throughout the text as Gordon suggests that Adorno scholars who interpret his written works on existentialism as sidesteps and meaningless aberrations from the philosophical core do so neglectfully. Despite such criticisms Gordon himself displays intellectual lapses in relation to Heidegger as, though he acknowledges the controversies about Heidegger’s relationship to National Socialism, he claims that this should not cloud our vision of his philosophy. However, for the critical theorist truth is always historical and social circumstances must play a significant role. A shrug of the shoulders is not enough to allow one to bypass Heidegger’s engagement with National Socialism; this is a major issue of debate which has recently resurfaced due to the publication of the so-called Black Notebooks (2014a, 2014b, 2014c).

Whilst Gordon agrees that philosophical texts are part of a social whole (at least in Adorno’s case), he also claims that they cannot be reduced to this whole. It is on these grounds that he seeks to excuse the omission of any treatment of Heidegger’s relation to fascism in this text. Unfortunately, the rationale behind this omission not entirely convincing. Gordon allows himself privileges that he denies to others; he regards dubious writings by Heidegger as mere deviations (though some scholars argue that they are essential), and at the same time he claims that certain works by Adorno should not be neglected as they allow one to trace the development of his critical thinking. It is not entirely consistent for Gordon to claim that Adorno’s marginal texts are important (as one may understand them as intellectual test laboratories), but Heidegger’s marginal texts (which several scholars consider as representative of his philosophical thinking) should be considered mere sidesteps.

Gordon describes how the political and economic situation forced Adorno to emigrate from Germany to England in the 1930s, and how racial laws resulted in the decommission of his professorship. The situation resulted in Adorno having to complete a second doctorate at the University of Oxford in an intellectual environment where his enthusiasm for social theory was not shared. Gordon claims “it is against this sombre background of exile and isolation that we must understand Adorno’s readiness to bury himself in the texts of classical phenomenology.” (59) He makes a valuable point, but it again raises the issue concerning the importance of taking the social-historical situation into account when analysing the work of Heidegger.

Let us consider what remains untreated by Adorno and Existence; e.g. Gordon mentions Karl Marx twice and Sigmund Freud only once, yet both are highly influential thinkers in relation to Adorno’s intellectual development. The text concerns Adorno and existentialism so there is no need for a comprehensive study of these two critical thinkers; even so, a comparison of their influence on Adorno with that of existentialists’ would have been a valuable addition. Also, Adorno’s concept of somatic impulse (which is based on psychoanalytical thinking) is completely neglected by this text. Through this concept Adorno presents an individual with the possibility to feel that there is something wrong with the world without giving positive answers to the problem. Somatic impulse comes close to what Erich Fromm (Adorno’s former colleague and rival) calls ‘existential needs’; as they offer a dialectic but normative standpoint for both philosophy and social criticism. It would have been interesting to read about whether Gordon finds any connection between somatic impulse and, e.g. the phenomenological idea of ‘being in the world’.

All in all, Adorno and Existence is an important and insightful book as it highlights previously untreated features of Adorno’s intellectual development and his academic career. Gordon’s work presents an interesting historical and biographical study; his style concerns an original method which requires one to assemble clues that are presented through a complex story (which has not been told or fully understood before). In the style of Adorno, Gordon reminds us; that if one is to criticize something, it means that one has to make a serious and rigorous attempt to analyse the target of the criticism, otherwise the enterprise engages in nothing more than cultural chatter (a point which is well formulated and taken into account throughout Gordon’s work). It is unclear if jury will be unanimous with their verdict on this particular book as both phenomenologists and critical theorists may find the book, eventually, not entirely convincing. That said, Gordon succeeds in giving food for thought and opening up new perspectives to Adorno scholars about Adorno’s intellectual relationship to existentialism and phenomenology.

The gravest problems with the book (discussed above) lie on the meta-level and, if a brief speculation is allowed, Adorno would probably not agree with Gordon’s analysis in relation to Heidegger. Adorno, one of the sharpest critics of fascism in the 20th century, is portrayed as the saviour of Heideggerian phenomenology. Many philosophers argue (especially after the publication of the Black Notebooks) that there is an intrinsic connection between Heidegger’s philosophy and anti-Semitism. If this is the case, then Adorno himself would be rather appalled by Gordon’s conclusion: that Adorno is the one who wants to save Heidegger’s philosophical project. It is difficult to couple Heidegger (a member of the Nazi party from 1933 until the end of Second World War), and Adorno (a persecuted Jew who had to leave his motherland because of the atrocities committed by the Nazis). The historical burden is so heavy that it cannot by bypassed with a mere statement that the author does not agree with Heidegger’s fascistic tendencies but is not going to treat the question of how they are present within his philosophical works. Some scholars (e.g. Rée 2014, Losurdo 2014) argue that Heidegger’s anti-Semitic ideas taint only his person and do not impact deeply on the core of his philosophy. However, critics such as Peter Trawny (editor of the Black Notebooks) argue that Heidegger actually processed his anti-Semitic ideas philosophically. The issue of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism and its presence in Heidegger’s works should be taken seriously when discussing a critical thinker like Adorno (from a Jewish background) as it is significant in relation to understanding Heidegger’s legacy. Unfortunately, Gordon does not make such an attempt.

Referred works

Adorno, T. W. 1964. The Jargon of Authenticity, trans. K. Tarnowski and F. Will, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.

Adorno, T. W. 1966. Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton, New York: Seabury Press, 1973.

Bergson, H. 1911. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, trans., Cloudsley Brereton and Fred Rothwell, Los Angeles: Green Integer, 1999.

Gordon, P. E. 2003. Rosenzweig and Heidegger: Between Judaism and German Philosophy. University of California Press.

Gordon, P. E. 2007. “Hammer without a Master: French Phenomenology and the Origins of Deconstruction (or, How Derrida read Heidegger).” In: Historicizing Postmodernism. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

Gordon, P. E. 2010. Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos. Harvard University Press.

Gordon, P. E. 2013. “The Empire of Signs: Heidegger’s Critique of Idealism in Being and Time.” In: The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger’s Being and Time. New York: Cambridge.

Heidegger, M. 2014a. Überlegungen II–VI (Schwarze Hefte 1931–1938) [Reflections II–VI (Black Notebooks 1931–1938)]. Edited by P. Trawny. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann.

Heidegger, M. 2014b. Überlegungen VII–XI (Schwarze Hefte 1938/39) [Reflections VII–XI (Black Notebooks 1938/39)]. Edited by P. Trawny. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann.

Heidegger, M. 2014c. Überlegungen XII–XV (Schwarze Hefte 1939–1941) [Reflections XII–XV (Black Notebooks 1939–1941)]. Edited by P. Trawny. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann.

Losurdo, D. 2014. “Heidegger’s black notebooks aren’t that surprising.” In: The Guardian. March 19, 2014.

Rée, J. 2014. “In defence of Heidegger”. In: Prospect. March 12, 2014.

Elad Lapidot, Micha Brumlik (Eds.): Heidegger and Jewish Thought: Difficult Others, Rowman & Littlefield, 2017

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2017
Paperback $44.95

Ursula Renz (Ed.): Self-Knowledge: A History, Oxford University Press, 2017

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Ursula Renz (Ed.)
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