Steven DeLay: Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity

Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity Book Cover Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity
Steven DeLay
Rowman & Littlefield International
2019
Hardback $120.00
200

Reviewed by: Walter D Hopp (Boston University)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DeLay addresses this issue directly, but rather briefly:

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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
Hardback $49.95
504

Reviewed by: Elad Lapidot (University of Bern)

Is Catholicism a Religion?

Over the last decades, scholars have increasingly called into question the universal validity of the category “religion” as referring to a supposed ahistorical constant domain of all human mind and civilization, the domain of faith. The claim has characteristically been that, even though nowadays we often speak and think of religion this way, both in everyday life and in scholarship, in fact our notion of religion is a historical construct. This conceptual construct, so the claim, is fashioned after a specific cultural tradition, the Christian West, which, as part of obtaining or preserving its global epistemic hegemony, has asserted its own culture – Christianity – as a universal and superior feature of human nature as such: religion. Consequently, all cultures would have their religions: the Jewish, the Greek, the Chinese, the Indian, the Aztec, which could therefore be compared and evaluated in view of the underlying paradigm – and ultimate paragon – of religion, Christianity.

This sort of critique of religion is commonly deployed in postcolonial-like discourses, which confront the Christian West with its non-Christian others. Could the same critique apply within Christianity itself (West vs. East) or even within the Western? Wouldn’t the construct “religion” arise not only from a geo-political bias, i.e. the West, but also from a chrono-political bias, i.e. Modernity? And if so, wouldn’t it give effect and perpetuate a bias within the Christian West, namely in favor of modern Christianity, marked by Protestantism and Secularism, so as to undermine premodern, Catholic forms of Christian civilization? Is Catholicism a religion?

There is much in Baring’s intriguing new book to suggest that Catholicism is in fact not primarily a religion, but a philosophy, or even – philosophy. The main theme of the book is continental philosophy, whose center according to Baring is phenomenology. Its explicit concern is intellectual and institutional genealogy, “the Making of Continental Philosophy”, namely how a specific direction in 20th century philosophy, phenomenology, has been able to transform “from a provincial philosophy in southwest Germany into a movement that spanned Europe” (2), and so to become “continental”. Here and elsewhere in the book, Baring highlights the political significance of epistemic constellations, underlying the transnational, pan-European character of phenomenology as “continental” philosophy. His own historiography performatively turns away from national narratives (phenomenology in France, Husserl in Spain, Heidegger in Italy etc.) in search of a more transnational, universal ground. The movement that spread Husserl’s word among the nations (“the single most important explanation for the international success of phenomenology in the twentieth century”, 5), Baring suggests, is the one that goes under the name of the universal itself, the catholicos, Catholicism. Catholicism is the principal agent in this continental, transnational, catholic historiography of philosophy.

It is somewhat paradoxical that Baring’s professed transnational perspective nonetheless preliminary features phenomenology as belonging to “southwest Germany”, namely as originally particular, which accordingly begs the question of its continental success. According to this logic, this transnational success can only be accounted for by something beyond phenomenology itself, something more European, more universal, which would be Catholicism. However, in what sense would phenomenological philosophy itself not be sufficiently universal to account for its own universal spread? In what sense is Catholicism more obviously universal, and what explains its own international success, beyond the province of Rome?

Be that as it may, the notion of success, namely the ability of philosophy or thought, the ability of ideas, to obtain and expand their hold on the world, on reality, is central to Baring’s project. The primary transnational feature of Catholicism that the book foregrounds is its global institutional presence. Next to the transnational and universal, “catholic” historiographic perspective, Baring’s study accommodates Catholicism also in focusing on the worldly reality of the Church. The Catholicism that, as the book suggests, carried phenomenology across the continent is first and foremost a “network of philosophers and theologians that stretched across Europe” (7); “we can speak of ‘continental philosophy’ because phenomenology could tap into the networks of a Church that already operated on a continental scale” (11).

The story of “making” continental philosophy, as told in the book, is indeed concerned less with conceptual genealogy of ideas and more with how they spread. It’s a story of thought as an inter-personal, inter-institutional happening, where events of thinking take place between works, between thinkers. The great individual names of phenomenology – Husserl, Heidegger, Scheler, the “phenomenological trinity” Baring calls them (6) – are there, but they function as basic coordinates for describing the real plot, which is scholarship. Primary and secondary literatures switch here places. The main protagonists of this book are neither the great names nor the great book, but their less known scholarly recipients, the clerics, who read, translate, introduce, interpret, discuss and institutionalize ideas, convene conferences and found archives, journals and schools. Most importantly, and this is one of the great achievements of this book, the history of thought is told through formative debates, such that polemics – and with it politics – is posited at the heart of epistemology, a real at the heart of the ideal. Could polemics too – next to transnationalism and institutionalism – count as Catholic heritage?

At any event, Baring tells continental philosophy’s church history, and according to him the early church of phenomenology was Catholic. To quote some impressive facts:

“self-professed Catholic philosophers produced more than 40 percent of all books and articles on Husserl, Heidegger, and Scheler written in French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch in the period before World War II, making Catholic phenomenology by far the largest constituent part of the early European reception” (8-9);

“Within Europe, phenomenology has been most successful in Catholic countries, while tending to skip, at least at first, the Protestant strongholds of Scandinavia and the United Kingdom. Across the Atlantic, it has flourished in Latin America and at Catholic universities in the United States, such as Notre Dame, Boston College, DePaul, and Duquesne. The geography of phenomenology is best described, not by the contours of mainland Europe, but by the reach of the ‘universal Church’.” (11).

What is certain, in Baring’s account Catholicism does not just function as a contingent carrier of phenomenological philosophy, a vessel which would remain external to the content that it spreads. The Church is not simply a vehicle for Husserl’s word. The network of catholic intellectuals and institutions does not feature in this book as a mere logistical structure, but as the institutional embodiment of its intellectual content, of thought. Is Catholicism a religion? In this book, the Catholic emerges primarily as a philosophy. Insofar as Catholicism accounts for making phenomenology the philosophy of the European continent, Baring argues, it is because “before existentialism and before phenomenology, the first continental philosophy of the twentieth century was Catholic.” (19)

What is Catholic philosophy? This question is not really developed in the book, which has a very clear answer: medieval scholastic philosophy as it has been oriented by the works of Thomas Aquinas, namely Thomism. In the relevant period for the book, the first decades of the 20th century, Catholic philosophy consisted in the attempt to renew Thomism, namely in neo-Thomism or neo-scholasticism, which according to Baring was in these decades “the largest and most influential philosophical movement in the world” (8). Neo-Thomism was global philosophy, which makes one wonder about the reason it was only able to turn phenomenology “continental”, but no more than that. Neo-Thomism, as Baring portrays it, had set to itself a daring task. It translated medieval philosophy into modern terms not in order to modernize this philosophy, but, on the contrary, in order to effect “a philosophical conversion of modernity, a movement from modern to medieval metaphysics” (14). Neo-Thomism was the Catholic mission to the Moderns, aiming to reconvert modernity “back to Catholicism” (ibid.).

“Conversion” is a key word in Baring’s book. It is the basic description of the intellectual event that it portrays, and the plot is articulated by the personal conversions – official or not – of the protagonists. What was the nature of the conversion “back to Catholicism”, which neo-Thomists were trying to generate? The answer to this question lies at the heart of Baring’s historiographic thesis: it designates the ultimate purpose of Catholic, neo-Thomist philosophy, explains why phenomenology was deemed useful for Catholic intellectuals to pursue this purpose and so would account for why Catholicism helped phenomenology to its continental and international success.

Were neo-Thomists interested in converting modernity, modern thought and philosophy, from secularism or atheism back to religion? Obviously, as already indicated, neo-scholasticism was not looking to promote “religion” in its modern, paradigmatically Protestant or secular sense. But furthermore, Baring most often does not describe Catholic thought in terms of religion or what is commonly – in modern discourse – associated with religion as a special domain, of faith, transcendent God, holiness, spirituality etc., in short, as a different domain than secular, atheological or even atheistic philosophy.

On the contrary: neo-Thomism was looking to renew Thomism, for which, as described by Baring, theology implied worldly thought. Catholic thinkers “were convinced that the world incarnated a divine order, and that the institution of the Catholic Church was the worldly locus of redemption” (14); God is present in “His effects in the world” (30), such that faith is deemed “the perfection of natural knowledge” (29). The goal of Neo-Thomists was accordingly, among others, to connect Catholicism to science, natural science: by going back to Aquinas they were trying to reconnect with Aristotle. In other words, whether or not Catholicism was interested, in the first decades of the 20th century, in renewing something like religion, in Baring’s book Catholic philosophy emerges as a powerful agent for the renewal of Aristotelian philosophy, which historically speaking is perhaps nothing but Western philosophy, or philosophy tout court. Just as philosophy’s first and ultimate concern is with Being, Baring’s Catholicism is concerned with “the Real”.

“The Real” is the central concept of Baring’s narrative, which thus connects the contemporary discourse on philosophy and religion with the contemporary philosophical conversation on realism. Explicating this connection may have been a useful way for Baring to provide a more precise explanation of what he understands by “the Real”. Considering the pivotal centrality of this concept for the book’s argument, it remains rather vague and sometimes ambivalent. In fact, its basic significance in this book seems to be above all polemic, in that it designates what neo-scholasticism, seeking to renew medieval, premodern philosophy, was asserting against modern thought. Indeed, throughout the book, Catholic positions are characterized in various ways as opposing the negation of realism by modern philosophy, namely as opposition to the idealism, relativism and subjectivism that would characterize modern thought.

That non-realism (a negation of or distance from the Real) is constitutive to modern philosophy, is a decisive presupposition of Baring’s project. The exact significance of this presupposed non-realism or idealism remains as much an open question as the exact meaning of “the Real”. If the supposed non-realism of modern philosophy means detachment from the worldly and natural order, in favor of some dimension of transcendence, of some supernatural or transcendental subjectivity, will or spirit, this would mean that modern thought, far from being secular and “worldly”, has rather become closer to religion, as a relation to the unworldly. This kind of analysis no doubt sits well with accounts of modernity, such as Hans Jonas’, as arising from man’s liberation from and subsequent domination of nature (NB: not against but precisely through modern, technological science), which would resemble or even be the avatar of ancient Gnosticism, religion of the Alien God. Neo-Thomism, working to effect on modernity a – as the title of Baring’s book reads – “Conversion to the Real”, which is actually a re-conversion, a movement back to the world, would accordingly be the modern permutation of the same anti-heresiological movement that for someone like Hans Blumenberg, for instance, accounted for the emergence of Christian doctrine. This movement may be described less as a conversion from philosophy to religion than as a conversion from religion back to philosophy, from faith back to reason.

Converting modern philosophy to the Real was in any case, so Baring, the missionary goal of neo-scholasticism in the first decades of the 20th century. It is for this mission that Catholic networks identified phenomenology as suitable and for this purpose they “made” it continental. The reason that phenomenology was found by neo-Thomist to be such a suitable discourse for deploying the conversion of non-realist modern philosophy to realism, Baring argues, is that phenomenological thought, to begin with Husserl’s notion of intentionality (consciousness is always of an object), was identified as an anti-idealist movement back to the Real within modern philosophy itself, so to speak a spontaneous movement of self-conversion: “phenomenological intentionality seemed to bypass the distortions of idealism and provide access to the mind-independent real. For neo-scholastics, phenomenology could help secular thinkers recognize God’s order in the world.” (14) How exactly neo-scholastic thinkers and institutions tried to achieve this goal, their more or less successful negotiations – and debates – among themselves, with phenomenology, as well as vis-à-vis other Catholic, Protestant and non-religious intellectual currents, and how all this contributed to the making of continental philosophy – this is the story told by Baring’s rich book.

One basic and far-reaching insight of Baring concerns the ambivalent nature of conversion: the shift from one conception to another at the same time connects both conceptions and thus opens the way to a counter-conversion, from the second conception to the first. Conversions work “in both directions” (16). This insight may be deemed as a structural principle that regulates – and complicates – basic dynamics in the history of thought, something like the Third Law of Intellectual Motion. It seems to be particularly significant in conversions that are not just spontaneous, but induced, namely in conversion projects, in missionary movements.With respect to the neo-Thomist mission to convert modern philosophy “back to Catholicism”, in order to do so it established “the Real” as a connection between modern phenomenology and medieval scholasticism, which would serve as a passage from the former to the latter. As Baring shows, however, this passage also facilitated the inverse movement, to the effect that the bridge built between Thomism and phenomenology also served Catholic thinkers to cross to the other side and to “break with Roman Catholicism” (15). The paradigmatic example discussed by Baring is Heidegger.

What is however the meaning of this counter-conversion, away from Catholicism, which according to Baring has become so prevalent in post-WWII phenomenology so as to completely obliterate its early Catholic years? Would it be that phenomenology, and continental philosophy, was moving away from religion, towards secular and atheistic thought? Is Catholicism religion? The question of religion, as already noted, interestingly does not explicitly frame the narrative of the book, which foregrounds instead the debate of realism vs. idealism. Catholicism is realism, but is it therefore more or less a religion?

It is only in the Epilog that Baring directly addresses the question of religion. “Continental philosophy today is haunted by religion” (343): the famous return to religion, a contemporary conversion – or perhaps even a contemporary mission? By whom – to whom? Is Baring’s book a part of this project, namely facilitating the passage from contemporary continental philosophy to religion by recalling how it was Catholicism that originally “made” phenomenology into continental philosophy? The “religious specters” that “haunt” continental philosophy today, Baring argues, indeed arise from its “family history”, namely phenomenology’s transmission to the world as it was “passed down through Catholic scholars” (344), so to speak phenomenology’s Catholic womb. The current return to religion in continental philosophy is connected to its Catholic heritage.

However, according to Baring’s further insight into the Third Law of Intellectual Movement, just as conversion is not only unidirectional, inheritance too is not simply linear. He points out that intellectual inheritance may pass on not just positive, affirmative doctrines, but also negative positions, what he terms “negative inheritance” (347). According to Baring’s analysis, it is by way of “negative inheritance” that phenomenology’s Catholic past, namely neo-Thomism, continues to operate within continental philosophy’s return to religion. In other words, Catholicism, as portrayed in Baring’s book, is present in this contemporary return to religion not as the positive agent, not as the agent of religion, but on the contrary in the negative, anti-religious positions – more specifically in their realism.

He brings the example of Quentin Meillassoux, who “presents himself as a rationalist ally to the natural sciences, seeking to reinvigorate realism after a period of idealist hegemony. Meillassoux is aware of his proximity to Thomism, which he defines as ‘the progressive rationalization of Judeo-Christianity under the influence of Greek philosophy’”. (348) Baring’s conclusion: “The atheist scourge of much contemporary continental philosophy appears as the inverted image of those Catholic thinkers who helped make philosophy continental in the first place.” (ibid.)  It is not in the return to religion but rather in the resistance to this return that current continental philosophy would be inspired by Catholicism, which consequently operates, at least in this context, not as a religion, but as anti-religion.

***

Synopsis of the Book:

Baring’s story is told in three chronological parts, which concern three different periods in the early history of phenomenology in its reception by Catholic scholars: 1900-1930, 1930-1940 and 1940-1950. The narrative is organized by another triad, three main figures of early German phenomenology, the “phenomenological trinity”: Husserl, Heidegger and Scheler, and the debates around them.

Part I, “Neo-Scholastic Conversion. 1900-1930” deals with the immediate Catholic reception of German phenomenology. Baring traces back the initial reception to a specific current within neo-Thomism, “progressive Thomism”, promoted by the Louvain School of Léon Noël, head of the Institut supérieur de Philosophie. Progressive Thomism was oriented by the work of Cardinal Désiré Mercier (Critériologie), who translated Thomist realism into the discourse of epistemology. This anti-Kantian epistemology was the site of early Catholic reception of Husserl, as told in Chapters 1 and 2. The first reception referred to The Logical Investigations of 1900-1901 and was enthusiastic, as Husserl’s anti-psychological notions, such as intentionality (which goes back through Brentano to scholasticism) and categorical intuition, appeared to secure epistemic access to “the objective order of the world” (40). “For Catholics around Europe, reading Husserl’s Logical Investigations was a revelation”, Baring writes (48). Modern philosophy’s “conversion to the Real” was celebrated by scholars such as Jospeh Geyser, Erich Przywara and the Milan School’s Agostino Gemelli, and even existentially performed through a personal conversion, such as by Edith Stein, to whom phenomenology has showen “the way into ‘the majestic temple of scholastic thought’” (75). All the more disappointing was Husserl’s return to the transcendental consciousness in his Ideen of 1913. The second reception identified in Husserl a second, reversed conversion, from realism back to idealism, which “was experienced by neo-scholastics as a betrayal— both of Husserl’s earlier work and, by implication, of their own project” (61).

Chapter 3 follows the intellectual development of early Heidegger, a phenomenological convert away from Catholicism. Influenced by Joseph Geyser, young Heidegger, “a progressive scholastic” (88), in his 1913 dissertation embraced Husserl’s anti-Psychologism, and in his 1916 Habilitaiton on Dun Scotus, the “pinnacle of Heidegger’s neo-scholastic period” (97), formulated a meaning-based realism. The disengagement is signaled in 1917, as Heidegger stated that Catholicism “forgot religion for theology and dogma” and looked for religious experience in Christian mysticism, Augustine and Protestants from Luther, Otto, Overbeck, Kierkegaard, Dilthey and Schleiermacher. Being and Time of 1927, so Baring’s perceptive analysis, features a curious atheism based on “two confessional strands” (113): Catholic ontology, but no longer perennis, and Protestant Dasein-analysis, but indifferent to faith.

Chapter 4 traces a similar dynamic with respect to Max Scheler, extending the plot from theory to ethics and politics. Scheler’s 1913 Formalism in Ethics provided a phenomenological access (Wert-nehmen, axiological intuition) to an “objective order of value” (140) and his personalism, the notion of Gesamtperson, gave this ethics a socio-political embodiment. Both combined offered practical philosophy to Catholic social revival and anti-liberal, anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist corporatism. Carl Muth’s influential Catholic magazine Hochland celebrated Scheler as “Black Nietzsche” (124) and intellectuals followed him in his early WWI patriotism, growing distance from nationalism and anti-republicanism in Weimar, such as Paul-Ludwig Landsberg’s “conservative revolution” (137). Disenchantment manifested itself, on the Catholic side, in doubts raised by neo-scholastics, such as Przywara, as to Scheler’s too heavy reliance on human intuition and emotional intentionality, and on Scheler’s side, in the pantheistic turn of his late work (1928, The Human Place in the Cosmos).

Part II, “Existential Journeys 1930-1940”, describes how, beyond its initial reception by neo-scholasticism, phenomenology “became a privileged battlefield in intra-Christian debates” (152). The central intra-Christian tension in Baring’s narrative is between neo-scholastics and existentialists. Chapter 5 tells about the rise of “Christian Existentialism across Europe” by portraying the tension between two converts to Catholicism, Gabriel Marcel and Jacques Maritain. Marcel (Metaphysical Journal, 1927; Being and Having, 1935), influence and mentor to existentialists such as Nicolai Berdyaev, René Le Senne, Jean Wahl as well as Simone de Beauvoir, Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Paul Ricoeur and Jean-Paul Sartre, criticized neo-Thomist intellectualism as “hubris”, and insisted on the “unintelligibility of existence”, its embodiment and “mystery”. Maritain claimed “existential philosophy” describes rather Thomism itself, which deals with esse and acknowledges its mystery, deems it nevertheless “open to intellectual understanding” (163).

Chapter 6 goes back to the Catholic reception of Husserl and how during the 1930s it was shaped by a division within neo-scholasticism, between progressive and strict Thomists. Baring portrays this division through the “Critical Realism Debate”, concerning the attempt of the Louvain School’s progressives, such as Léon Noël and René Kremer, to base realism on epistemology, namely on critique of subjective knowledge (leading to post-WII “transcendental Thomism”). “Strict” Thomists such as Étienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain rejected the notion of “critical” – Cartesian or Kantian – realism as self-contradictory, insisting on the primacy of metaphysics over epistemology. Baring shows how this debate pressed progressive intellectuals, such as Kremer, Kurt Reinhart and Sofia Vanni Rovighi, who initially embraced Husserl’s phenomenology, to reject and rectify his perceived idealistic tendencies, especially as manifested in the Cartesian Meditations of 1931.

Chapter 7 presents the 1930s’ reception of Heidegger as the battleground for the inter-confessional debate between neo-Scholastics (such as Przywara, Alfred Delp and Hans Urs von Balthasar) and Protestants, in particular Karl Barth’s Kierkegaard-inspired Dialectical Theology. Baring describes this debate as arising from “two diametrically opposed, if symmetrical, accounts of Heidegger’s atheism: Thomists explained it by the restrictions placed upon Heidegger’s ontology by his (Protestant) prioritization of human subjectivity; Protestant theologians understood it through his attempt to ground the analysis of human finitude in an ontology, which arose from an excessive and Catholic faith in our rational capacities.” (213) In other words, both (dialectical theology’s) emphasis on the unintelligible and (neo-Thomist) emphasis on intelligibility could be construed, from the opposite  perspective, as subjectivist and so proto-atheistic. This leads Baring to the brilliant observation whereby “religious notes” of atheistic conceptions (he speaks of existentialism) may arise not from “uncomplicated inheritance of a believing antecedent, but rather as the reflection of a more distant voice, directed toward and bouncing of a common religious foe” (240), i.e. “negative inheritance”.

Chapter 8 returns to the reception of Scheler, “The Black Nietzsche”, in Catholic political thought. Baring shows how the Schelerian notion of social corpora as embodying spiritual order of values could support to conflicting conceptions of Catholic anti-liberal politics. Luigi Stefanini drew on Scheler to affirm a “hierarchical order of values” enacted by an authoritarian and totalitarian state, which led him to collaborate with the Fascist regime and even acknowledge “racial defense” as “an act of the sovereignty and transcendence of the spirit” (259). In contrast, for Paul-Louis Landsberg, as Paul Ludwig Landsberg was known in his French exile and anti-Fascist resistance, “the divine order is always to come and can never be fully worked out. For that reason, authoritarianism runs the risk of shutting down the process by which the true order is revealed” (263), which led him to reject Nazism and Communism. Baring exemplifies the same ambivalence in Scheler in the development of Emmanuel Mounier’s Catholic-Nietzschean magazine Esprit, from support of Vichy to Resistance and post-WII negotiations of Thomism and Marxism.

Part III, “Catholic Legacies 1940-1950”, discusses how after “the Catholics who had helped promote phenomenological ideas around Europe withdrew from the stage”, “[t[he script that they had written […] persisted, to be picked up and adapted by new actors.” (276) Chapter 9 is dedicated to the story of the Husserl Archives, famously smuggled from Germany to Belgium by the young Franciscan Herman Leo Van Breda, to be institutionalized within Louvain’s Institut Supérieur de Philosophie. According to Baring, after WWII Van Breda, who was looking for means to secure the archives’ further existence (which he obtained at last from UNESCO), realized that “the archives would flourish only if they became independent of the Church” (297). Catholicism, which made phenomenology continental, was now required, in order to prefect its own making, to retreat. Like the truth of Heidegger’s Beyng, the appearance of neo-Thomism in phenomenology was completed by the concealment of neo-Thomism in phenomenology’s Veröffentlichung. It is thus that the first volume of the Husserliana was dedicated to the Cartesian Meditations, “the text where Husserl distinguished his work most clearly from scholasticism” (300).

Chapter 10, the last one, indicates traces of neo-scholasticism in “Postwar Phenomenology”, once again through an intellectual tension, this time between the secular Merleau-Ponty and the Protestant Paul Ricoeur. Both of “Marcelian bent”, affirming embodiment and existence versus idealism, their diverging interpretations of Marcel reproduced the debate between Thomism and Existentialism, inasmuch as Merleau-Ponty emphasized the intentional order of perception and Ricoeur the mystery and the “fault”. The disagreement on Marcel was intertwined with a disagreement on Husserl, which reproduced the debate between progressive and strict Thomism: whereas Merleau-Ponty, like the Louvain School, strove to protect Husserl’s realism from his transcendentalism, Ricoeur, like Maritain, read Husserl as an idealist. Commenting on the Protestant philosopher’s surprising affinity to strict Thomism, Baring provides a precious polemic triangulation, which is perhaps the real glory of scholastic sophistication: “Against the Thomists, Ricoeur denied that Christians could use philosophy to defend religious dogmas. Against the Barthians, Ricoeur did think philosophy retained an important role. It could challenge the pretension of science to have provided ‘a final solution.’ Christian philosophy would thus be a ‘science of limits, an essentially Socratic, ironic position [. . .] forbidding all thought to be totalitarian’.” (327)

***

Three Concluding Reflections:

  1. The key concept of the book’s argument is “the Real”. Catholicism promoted phenomenology for the sake of converting modern philosophy to the Real. As noted above, however, realism signifies in this book primarily polemically, in contrast to the alleged idealism of modern thought. However, as Baring insightfully shows with respect to “atheism”, polemic meanings are unstable and easily turned around. Just like criticism of “atheism” can be found in any religious position against any other religious position, isn’t criticism of “idealism” as detached from the real, i.e. as false, inherent to the disagreement of any philosophical position against all the others? Wasn’t metaphysical dogmatism for Kant too disconnected from reality, as the Ptolemaic system for Copernicus? For Hegel, an arche-idealist, the real was the reasonable. Baring shows how neo-Thomism too deemed the real intelligible, whereas existentialism and dialectical theology experienced reality in unintelligibility.
  2. It seems that ultimately “the Real” for Baring signifies the limit of human autonomy and power, where reason means intelligibility of – and subjection to – the given, eternal, cosmic order (Thomism), in contrast to modern “self-affirmation of reason” (Blumenberg). Conversion to the Real means something like undoing modern hubris, disempowering the human. Baring portrays at least two divergent ways of doing so in Catholic thought, rationalism and existentialism, both inspired by Husserl’s phenomenology. One may wonder, however, whether both modes of “the Real” are equally defining for continental philosophy. The very term “continental” philosophy, determines reason by existence, i.e. actual geography, politics, history, which arguably condition more continental than analytic thought. It is rather Anglo-American philosophy that may be said to represent anti-idealist, positive rationalism, where reason is limited qua “analytic”. Wouldn’t this modern philosophy – which is closer to natural sciences, and arises from phenomenology only within its alliance with logical positivism against psychologism – be a more suitable ally for neo-scholasticism?
  3. There seems to be a third way of limiting or determining reason, which is very present in Baring’s study, albeit unthematized as such. Next to rationalism (reason determined by given logical order) and existentialism (reason determined by given non-logical being), his narrative centrally features also the determination of reason through the inter-personal plurality of thought: thought as a school, the institution that gave scholasticism its name. As such, scholasticism determines reason neither by the given intelligible, nor by the unintelligible, but by the overintelligible, namely by the open excess of thought as polemics. By choosing the debate as a primary figure of thought, Baring’s book manifests perhaps scholarship itself, next to analytic and continental philosophies, as a third post-modern manifestation of scholastic realism, and perhaps of philosophy überhaupt.

Balázs M. Mezei, Matthew Z. Vale (Eds.): Philosophies of Christianity, Springer, 2019

Philosophies of Christianity: At the Crossroads of Contemporary Problems Book Cover Philosophies of Christianity: At the Crossroads of Contemporary Problems
Balázs M. Mezei, Matthew Z. Vale (Eds.)
Springer
2019
Hardback 106,99 €
XII, 288

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
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