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.

Thomas Gricoski: Being Unfolded: Edith Stein on the Meaning of Being, The Catholic University of America Press, 2020

Being Unfolded: Edith Stein on the Meaning of Being Book Cover Being Unfolded: Edith Stein on the Meaning of Being
Thomas Gricoski. Foreword by William Desmond
The Catholic University of America Press
2020
Paperback $75.00
304

Christian Krijnen (Ed.): Concepts of Normativity: Kant or Hegel? Brill, 2019

Concepts of Normativity: Kant or Hegel? Book Cover Concepts of Normativity: Kant or Hegel?
Critical Studies in German Idealism, Volume 24
Christian Krijnen (Ed.)
Brill
2019
Hardback €143.00 $172.00
x, 260

Reviewed by: Andrew James Komasinski (Hokkaido University of Education)

Introduction

Despite facing almost immediate criticism from Hegel, Kant’s view of normativity has greatly influenced contemporary value theory. This volume is the fruit of a 2017 conference at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam by the same name that sought to bring the two conflicting accounts into dialogue (1). There are three general points worth making before addressing the articles themselves.

First, the articles in this volume use diverse sigla. Some articles, such as Christian Hoffman’s, refer to the Elements of the Philosophy of Right as PR and other articles, such as Jiří Chotaš’s, refer to it as RpH (9, 164). The Phenomenology of Spirit similarly receives the sigla PhG from Arthur Kok, Christian Schmidt, and Alberto L. Siani whereas Martin Bunte and Tereza Matějčková inter alia use PS (47, 147, 244, 62, 199). Similar article by article variation occurs with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason with Martin Bunte using CPR but Paul Cobben using KdrV (66, 27). While each article is internally consistent, this and rehearsal of the same parts of Hegel make the book feels more like a collection than a whole. For consistency’s sake, I will use PR, PhG, CPR, along with EPS for Encyclopedia of the Philosophical System and Religion for Kant’s Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone consistently in this review.

Second, different authors took different approaches to the use of German. Some authors use the German directly for the major parts of PR: Abstrakt Recht, Moralität, and Sittlichkeit; others translate them as Abstract Right, Morality, and, Ethical Life (Battistoni at 121, 124; Chotaš at 164). I will consistently use the English throughout. For terms such as Bildung where the translation choices are substantive, this is more understandable. Hoffman glosses it as “education” and then uses “education” after that (4,12). Krijnen supplies the possible translation “education of the understanding and applicable skills” but generally sticks to Bildung (115-117). Siani does the same (250). Chotaš and Zabel call it development (171, 181). These differences between articles will not impede specialists but make it challenging to read the work as a united whole.

Third, the title of the volume suggests proponents of both Kant and Hegel, but true to its origin at a conference from a network called “Hegel’s Relevance,” most authors are more sympathetic to Hegel than to Kant (1). Some contributions write as if Hegel’s critiques of Kant were definitive and Hegel’s positions decisive. Having more full-throated defenses of Kantian’s normativity and more engagement between the two as competing contemporary interpretations would have strengthened the volume. Nevertheless, the volume contributes importantly to our understanding of ethics and social philosophy in Hegel and German Idealism.

Contributions

  1. Being at Home with Oneself in the Whole—Hegel’s Philosophy of Freedom as Actuality, Christian Hoffman

Christian Hoffman’s article provides an excellent introduction to the relation between Bildung and holism in Hegel and how this differentiates him from Kant. Hoffman traces Hegel’s attempt to accomplish monistically and holistically what Kant tried to achieve dualistically for reason and freedom. (9-10, 13). Hoffman identifies Bildung “education” in PhG, as both breaking the natural harmony and building “a new and more differentiated form of the whole” (12). Hoffman also highlights the senses in which Hegel’s unity is active rather than a static thing (14).

Turning to the system in the EPS and the PR, Hoffman first emphasizes how this holistic process is not just knowing but self-knowing (14-17). Hoffman joins to this sense in which Hegel’s holistic account refers to a common realm of shared freedom (19-22). Finally, Hoffman notes the relation between the Hegelian holism and its Aristotelian ancestry (inter alia 22-23). Hoffman addresses Kant’s idea of normativity as a dualistic account Hegel incorporates insights from but then supersedes.

  1. Hegel’s Radicalization of Kant’s Copernican Turn: the Internal Unity of the Natural and the Moral Law, Paul Cobben

Paul Cobben’s article progresses from problematic Humean impressions to dualistic Kantian intuitions to Hegel’s monistic resolution. First, Cobben develops how Kant’s intuitions solve the Humean predicament where impressions are both external and mind. Kant solves this problem in his apparatus of manifolds, imagination, and categories, which makes impressions mental and things-in-themselves external (27). Through this, Kant equates propositional and material truth when material truth is mediated by the Kantian apparatus (27-31). Cobben, following Gadamer, reads PhG’s first chapter as tracing out the Kantian account but rejecting its account of material truth (31-33). Cobben remarks that Hegel has demonstrated “The apperception of the Perception cannot justify how the manifold of intuitions can be connected into an objective material truth” (34). Unfortunately, the arguments substantiating this claim and the claims about Hegel’s “first truth of the understanding” and “second truth of the understanding” were truncated and hard to follow (34-35).

Cobben believes that understanding requires attending to the subject as conscious (36). Cobben sees PhG’s account of desire’s inability to achieve unity with its object, because it continues to want precisely what it is not as culminating in the realization that the perceived world that individual consciousness finds itself in is not merely its own but rather a shared world (38-39). Cobben joins to this an interpretation of the lord/bondsman dialectic which understands it as involving the death of individual consciousness and its sublimation into institutional consciousness (40-42). Cobben’s final claim is that Kant’s solution fails and that Hegel develops an account that culminates in the resolution of the lord/bondsman dialectic (43). Most of the second half seemed like it would benefit from more engagement with contemporary defenses of understanding along Kantian lines and other interpretations of the lord/bondsman dialectics.

  1. The Religion of the God-Man: Hegel’s Account of Revealed Religion in the Phenomenology of Spirit, Arthur Kok

Arthur Kok’s article is a welcome addition to the discussion of Hegel’s concept of God and its relation to Kant’s religion. Kok’s article also looks at Kant’s dualism and Hegel’s attempt to overcome it in PhG, insofar as Kant’s moral philosophy required a religion with a God as the projected lawgiver of reason to realize the good (46-47). Kok identifies this argument in PhG both specifically and within Spirit’s dialectical search for an adequate relation between freedom and moral duty (47-48). This activity culminates in the realization that the source of moral value in religion is Spirit moving in the community (49). Here, more interaction with Kant’s Religion could have explained why Kok believes Kant’s account of the rational community as the arbiter of moral value is inadequate.

Kok also locates a similar dynamic in Hegel’s account of revealed religion, i.e. Christianity, situating it as the dialectical outcome of an unhappy consciousness where freedom sees the inadequacy of an external law (50-53). This leads to the incarnation as the simultaneous “activity of the Self that results in the appearance of the Self without the Self becoming something other than itself” and thus resolves this tension in religion by (1) being “both distinct and non-distinct from those who identify him as the God-man,” (2) representing “the self-realization of spirit,” and (3) establishing “the presence of the divine in this world” to overcome suffering (55). Kok then articulates this as Hegel’s answer to the problem of evil where human activity can free itself from evil (56). Joined to the resurrection (and ascension), Hegel makes community that remembers the God-man the true reconciliation of spirit in ethics (57).

  1. The Reality of Value as a Problem of Kantian Ethics, Martin Bunte

Martin Bunte’s article looks at Hegel’s formalism objection against Kant’s ethics from PhG 257 (A.V. Miller pagination) and the problem of testing but not giving laws (62). Bunte believes Kant’s ethics suffers from a tautology because the a priori nature of Kant’s ethics interacts with the autonomy of the will to produce moral laws that are “conceivable only under the reservation of the heteronomy of what is willed” (63). Bunte explains his version of the objection in a single sentence: “If freedom as spontaneity or autonomy is to be the essential reason for the determination of will, then it must be able to refer to rules or laws from the position of legislator” (64).

Bunte argues that a successful Kantian defense against this objection must also achieve a unity for practical reason like the one for theoretical reason (65). Since the two domains are both domains of reason, Bunte notes that they must both find their origins in the spontaneity of the will as the “unconditioned condition” (65). Bunte illustrates this with the categories of the understanding in the realm of theoretical reason (66). Bunte analogizes that Kantian practical reason must be premised on the idea that the moral self gives itself its rules (66). Bunte here distinguishes the analogical cases by arguing that reason’s theoretical use refers to the laws of nature but that its practical use must refer to laws of freedom, which means laws that it must give itself (67). While Bunte largely thinks that Hegel’s critique rings true, he believes Kant succeeds in answering one part of Hegel’s objection: the moral imperative is something the self commands to itself as a demand of reason and that he develops such an account in Religion (70).

Bunte believes both that the formalism objection applies to Kant and succeeds convinced the formalism objection succeeds. There is a large amount of literature on this that finds things murkier: there is disagreement as to both what the objection is, to whether it misses the mark, and to whether Kantians have resources to resist or overcome it (See for instance Hoy 1989, Freyenhagen 2012, and Stern 2012).

  1. Foundations of Normativity, Max Gottschlich

Unlike many articles in this volume, Max Gottschlich’s article focused on identifying which logic is best for normativity: “formal logic” which he identifies with pre-Kantian order of being thinking (74-75), “transcendental logic” which he identifies with Kant (75-81), or “dialectical logic” which he identifies with Hegel (81-86). Gottschlich dismisses formal logic as often used but not useful for considering normativity, because it cannot capture the paradox of determiner and determined.

Transcendental logic, in contrast, focuses on the paradox of determiner and determined and identifies the limits of what can be said and is naturally reflexive (76). In Kant, this accomplishes “self-fulfilling self-relation” (77, emphasis in original). Through this, Gottschlich states that transcendental logic identifies the role of values and norms in “settings” (77). Gottschlich mentions in passing that he thinks the formalism objection is wrong (in opposition to several articles in this volume), that Kant and Hegel agree that value must begin in reason, and that Hegel’s true objection is to the absolute form, rather than developmental growth, that births duties (80).

Gottschlich sees dialectical logic’s acceptance of contradiction as its genius (82). In a clearer formulation, the point is that “the self only maintains itself by losing itself” – in other words when it recognizes its mediation as dynamic act rather than absolute (84). Gottschlich then turns to how norms are produced in the Hegelian account (86). While Kant and Hegel both make goal-setting a sign of rationality, Gottschlich sees Hegel’s version as more advanced because it abstracts from the abstracting in the execution of a “concrete universal” (86-87). Gottschlich next looks at poiesis (production) where Kant’s form is too abstract to derive anything but an abstract universal (90). Only in Hegel, he maintains, can we find subjectivity (a subjectivity beyond the self) as the goal (91). At many points, Hegel’s critiques seemed to be accepted uncritically and would have benefited from more interaction with defenses of the Kantian approaches.

  1. Hegel über die logischen Grundlagen der Sittlichkeit, Klaus Vieweg

Klaus Vieweg’s article was the singular contribution in German to this volume. Vieweg highlights the important role of civil society in PR often overlooked since it is only one step before right’s ultimate form in the state. After rehearsing PR’s Morality as a critique of Kant and a demonstration of its self-inadequacy (95-96), Vieweg focuses on Ethical Life as “eines logisch fundierten Systems der allgemeinen Willensbestimmungen konzipiert, als das Objektive der Freiheit” (97). In this domain, it is not the objective that dominates like a yoke but reason as a cozier hearth that determines things based on both objective and subjective will (97-98).

Vieweg focuses on the role of civil society and how it helps us understand modern society. Viewing identifies civil society as setting living a good life as the goal in a domain where consciousness has been brought under the concept (98-99). This is true freedom insofar as thinking has itself as its end. While Vieweg notes the work of Dieter Henrich on Hegel’s Lecture on the State as Three Ends, he argues that civil society’s importance has not been sufficiently mined in PR (99). Vieweg sees reflection and necessity as the distinctive marks of civil society that separate it from the family’s role as the natural end of humanity and the state’s self-substantial unity (100). Vieweg argues that this logic occurs in triadic form throughout these three forms of Ethical Life but in different sequences (101).

For Vieweg, what unifies all of the forms Ethical Life is that they all will the concept not only subjectively but in recognition of its objectivity (103; PR §142A). In this way, they are self-developing ends. They advance over the freedom of persons in abstract right, the freedom of moral subjects in Morality, and become the freedom of ethical subjects (103). Through this, they find themselves unified in a moral community (103).

  1. How is Practical Philosophy Speculatively Possible?, Christian Krijnen

Christian Krijnen’s article identifies both Kant and Hegel as contributors to a complete account of normativity. Krijnen argues that post-Kantian attempts in German Idealism to better ground the unity of practical and theoretical reason all lead to the centrality of freedom and the construction of value-laden reality (106-107). Krijnen believes the Kantian approach succumbs to a formalism objection that Hegel avoids this by understanding “self-formation as self-knowledge in the fashion of a self-realization of the concept” (107). At the same time, Krijnen argues that Hegel’s solution eviscerates practical philosophy by thematizing it as the “speculative doctrine of the idea” rather than engage it practically (108). Thus, Krijnen holds that Hegel does achieve a unity in the form of free Spirit but that this unity sublates practical philosophy and demeans it as an inadequate form of knowledge (109).

Returning to Kant’s architectonic, Hegel is not describing what “ought to be” in practical philosophy (110). In Kant’s picture, the free will needs to realize the rational object of its freedom, which it experiences as an ought (111). In contrast, Hegel’s Ethical Life focuses on the actuality of freedom rather than an ought: “The point for Hegel here is that we only have concrete, not mere abstract duties only in the realm of Sittlichkeit” (112).

Krijnen’s positive task is to establish a speculative practical philosophy despite Hegel’s failure to provide one (112). He begins by noting that Kant makes moral agents the originators of their actions (through the bifurcation of the world into the deterministic theoretical realm and the free practical realm), and this for Hegel is only true in the realm of subjective Spirit – not objective Spirit (112-113). Krijnen notes that abstract oughts operate as givens for Hegel and thus remain inadequate, which makes them inadequate for the living good that Hegel demands of the sphere of action (113-114).

Krijnen thinks an answer can be found in Bildung in the family and civil society (114-115). Krijnen then differentiates his view from those of Vieweg and Cobben. Krijnen thinks that Vieweg is wrong to think Hegel does not need a “canon of duties,” because Hegel does not abandon Morality’s truth but brings into Ethical Life (116). For Cobben, Krijnen notes the degree to which both treat Bildung but argues that the solutions Cobben notes are problems of integrating practical philosophy into Hegel rather than irremediable deficits in Hegel’s philosophy (117).

  1. The Normative Function of the Right of Objectivity in Hegel’s Theory of Imputation, Giulia Battistoni

Giulia Battistoni presents a deeply technical argument about imputation in the Morality section of PR. Battistoni first maintains that Hegel’s critique of Kant identified with PR §135 shows Kant unable to “derive particular and concrete duties from the determination of duty as formal correspondence with itself” and requires evaluating both the “consequences of actions” and “the social context” (121). While Ethical Life merges objective and subjective concerns of right, Battistoni sees Morality as the locus where imputation attributes subjective right to a moral subject (121-122). In Morality, the moral subject experiences the good as an ought, which interestingly creates the problem of making this “both the true good and a mere opinion” where actions are good if they are born of good intention (123).

To understand imputation in this context, Battistoni draws a parallel with Hegel’s two notions of nature (128). First nature is externality which can take the form of a natural world which stands in opposition to the subject as a determination separate from will (124). Second nature is the habituation and internalization of the social order of right (127). Battistoni locates the lower sense in Abstract Right and the higher sense in Morality, especially PR §119A’s claim that external deeds are categorized as we impute motives to the moral subjects involved (132).

  1. Freedom from Kant to Hegel, Christian Schmidt

Christian Schmidt’s article differs from many of the other critiques in defending Hegel against a contemporary critique. Schmidt tests whether Louis Althusser’s critique of German Idealism applies to Hegel and through this differentiates Kant and Hegel on freedom. Schmidt looks at why Althusser calls Hegel an empiricist by highlighting how Hegel mines the real by dividing the empirical and the essence of things to get to their essences (142). As Schmidt points out, this largely echoes Hegel’s critique of Kant where the empirical becomes merely material fodder for the categories to peel off (142). In contrast, Hegel sees understanding as a synthesis of sensuous manifold and mental activity (143). While knowing this, Althusser still things Hegel is guilty of the same bifurcation.

Schmidt spends the rest of the article looking specifically at freedom in Kant and Hegel as “a property of rational beings and moral (or political, or social) agents that is not detachable” and the critique of this analysis in Foucault and Althusser (144-145). Schmidt first explains how reason and understanding are the self-activity of subjects that separate them from animals (145). Despite the receptive components of understanding, Kant believes moral agents are free (146). Schmidt characterizes Kant’s account as “highly abstract … purified from all social and political meaning” (146). On this basis, Schmidt believes Althusser stands justified in his critique of Kant (147).

Hegel’s subject, like Kant’s, is a break in the causal chain (147-148). At the same time, Hegelian freedom is the restriction of “dull-witted emotions and raw impulses” (LPWH 103-104) that only finds itself in the state (148). In Hegel, freedom is a byproduct of people pursuing desire since this constructs and restructures the rules of society (148-149). This merges with spontaneity insofar as individuals collide with the established order (151). Thus, Hegel presents a unified idea of freedom where freedom is “the concretization of spontaneity” (152). For this reason, Schmidt rejects Althusser’s critique of Hegel.

  1. Justification of the State: Kant and Hegel, Jiří Chotaš

Jiří Chotaš contrasts Kant and Hegel’s justifications of the state. Chotaš reads Kant as like Hobbes building the state from a state of nature where people “are at each other’s mercy” who produce by nature a civil union with a “general united will” that expresses itself in the ruler, the judge, and most importantly the legislator which cooperate for the benefit of the citizens (158-161).

While Hegel shared Kant’s idea that “freedom creates human substance,” Hegel also examined how it was realized, Hegel believed Kant erred by basing this union on “an arbitrary will of individuals” who sought to establish it for property and contracts (164). In contrast, Hegel believed the State was the natural home of people and argued for this in PR, his “scientific proof of the concept of the state” (164).

Chotaš summarizes the stages of Ethical Life. First, Chotaš looks at family, focusing on how marriage links non-related people around love and common interest rather than as Kant supposed contract (166). Second, civil society arises through the division of labor (167). To this, Hegel joins the Polizei who secure “external order” in matters as diverse as public health and bridge-building (168). Chotaš identifies these attributes as giving civil society the status of being “‘an external state’ as well as ‘a state of necessity’ (PR §183)” (168). Here, corporations protect their members like an extended family and provide “the second ethical root of the state” (169). Third and finally, the state itself functions as the culmination of the ethical ideal actualizing itself in customs (169) and replicating the family as “a human community with its own spirit and will” but through “political virtue” rather than feeling (169-170). The state also takes on attributes of civil society, by transforming people’s ends and unifying them as a whole (170).

Chotaš then distinguishes Hegel’s state from Kant’s. He begins by noting that for Hegel, peoples and their constitutions are mirrors (171). He notes that both believe constitutional change should happen through constitutional procedures (171). He notes that Hegel also has three powers but they differ: “the legislative power, the executive power, and the princely power or monarchy” (171). For Hegel, the most important of these is the sovereign (PR §273, 279R) but remains under the constitution (171-172). Chotaš also describes the Hegelian legislature: upper house of landed gentry by birth and lower house by election (172). Chotaš’s article could have demonstrated further differences by addressing Kant’s Religion and contemporary defenses of Kant’s state.

  1. Hegel’s Republican Penal Philosophy: an Attempt at a Contemporary Reconstruction, Benno Zabel

Benno Zabel focuses on the republican nature of Hegel’s penal philosophy, situating it in an account of PR (182-183). Zabel identifies crime in Hegel as “(performative) self-contradiction” (184). Zabel explains using PR §95 that in crime, a criminal violates freedom (184-185). This must be met with cancellation (185). As Zabel points out, Hegel believes crime only applies to actions (185). Zabel identifies three practical functions in Hegel’s conception of punishment: “the dimension of the (formal) recognition of status, the dimension of the institutionalized procedure and the dimension of social communication” (186). Recognition of status begins with the “effective power of sanctions” (186). This also brings to the fore the standing of the victim as a member of a moral community (186). Crime, for Hegel, is resistance to “the common normative basis” and must be met so that crime does not appear as valid (187).

Turning to institutionalized procedure, Zabel contends that Hegel sees punishment as part and parcel of a legal procedure (187). Thus, it simultaneously refers to the separation of powers (187). In other words, the counter-coercion of punishment must occur on “a universally recognized basis” in accepted criminal law (188). As Zabel notes, for Hegel, contra Foucault, these procedures are precisely the prevention of despotism (188). Textually, Zabel supports this from the “administration of justice” (189).

Finally, Zabel points out how punishment communicates for Hegel (191). Zabel explains that “punishment can be considered only as retaliation (Wiedervergeltung), that is, as (symbolic) restoration of the order of freedom” (191). Zabel notes that Hegel is not limited to mere retribution, however, and can help in “the general prevention of crime and betterment of the individual” as punishment becomes “a visible part of society” (191). In this way, punishment communicates. Zabel disagrees with Cooper’s Abstract Right only reading (1971) and other interpretations that isolate punishment from the larger context of Hegel’s PR. Zabel thus argues for a punishment plus account of Hegel’s penal philosophy in line with Brooks (2012) and Komasinski (2018) and others.

  1. History as the Progress in the (Un)Consciousness of Freedom?, Tereza Matějčková

Matějčková’s article contrasts the destructive Enlightenment that felled governments and challenged religions with a Hegelian concept of freedom where freedom invigorates institutions (196-197). Kant occupies a middle where the limits of knowledge lead to “respect and toleration of others” (198). Hegel extends this by making actions reflexive and incorporating a social reality in the “I that is We and We that is I” (199 quoting PhG 110). On this reading, normativity becomes an internal feature of freedom such that Absolute Spirit’s achievement is to recognize that “that its own thinking has been conditioned by a plurality of other spirits or subjects” (200). This particular characterization of absolute Spirit could have been expanded and defended textually.

Matějčková uses PhG’s lengthy phrenology critique to highlight how this involves a re-appropriation of the physical contra dualistic approaches that deny the skull-bone any part in Spirit. For Hegel, in contrast, it is a part but just one part and highlights the Hegelian idea that the inner is the outer and the outer the inner (203-205).

For Hegel, all of the upheavals of history are part of “the progress of the consciousness of freedom” (206). In the realm of history, this amounts to a recognition that nature by itself has no history, because nature is not for itself (207). Only by the addition of human freedom and spontaneity can something new arise (207). In Hegel’s history, world-historical people function precisely by using freedom to overturn existing structure (208). In the process, they appeal to the people (209). Joined to its dynamism is the terminus of history (210). This end is one where freedom is being achieved through equal checks and balances in the institutions (210). Matějčková maintains that contra Popper, Hegel’s philosophical system develops institutions that enable people to have personal freedoms (211). This article covers a lot of ground and makes interesting arguments that would be clearer if they were set in contrast to others writing on similar topics in Hegel such as Adrian Peperzak’s Modern Freedom (2001).

  1. Is There Any Philosophy of History?, Jean-François Kervégan

Kervégan contrasts philosophy of history in Kant and Hegel against the backdrop of the arguments between enlightenment and anti-enlightenment thought (219-220). Kervégan first notes Voltaire’s coining of the term in 1765 and its audacity for mixing two heretofore distinct areas of knowledge as a history of human spirit (217-218).

Kervégan believes Kant lacks a proper philosophy of history, because the Kant texts generally categorized do not deal with a “system of rational knowledge via concepts” (220). Kervégan suggests that Kant’s historical works even when they present a “history of freedom” are still just histories rather than a proper philosophy of history, because philosophy proper is metaphysics in nature and freedom and “historical considerations do not belong to it” (226).

Conversely, Kervégan identifies the history of philosophy as central to Hegel’s philosophy (226). Given Hegel’s dialectical philosophy, Spirit is always working towards an adequate understanding of itself including its history (227). Philosophy thinks in the present and thinks the rational as actual and the actual as rational (228). This has the consequence of making history present to itself. In other words, the object of Hegel’s philosophy of Spirit is history, and Spirit is also the one doing the study (229).

  1. “Freedom in the European Sense”: Hegel on Action, Heroes, and Europe’s Philosophical Groundwork, Alberto L. Siani

Siani argues that Hegel and Europe are intertwined terms with Hegel’s insight being that institutions should mirror the freedom of people (235-236). Siani quotes Hegel’s linkage of Europe and freedom: “It is especially this subjective or moral freedom that is called freedom in the European sense” in the Morality section of the encyclopedia (EPS, §503R, 224) (236).

Siani explicates this through PR’s Morality section emphasizing Hegel’s critique which Siani articulate as follows: “morality has to state the difference between subject and object in order to affirm the freedom of the former, but if this difference is absolutized, subjective freedom can never bridge the gap to objectivity, and hence becomes utterly ineffective and empty” (241). This is, of course, overcome for Hegel in Ethical Life in which subjective freedom bridges the gap. Classically, the individual is free qua an identity rather than an abstraction (243). Modern freedom requires that tragedy intervene and make this freedom open (243). Siani then provides an extended consideration of Antigone and the role of heroes in the transformation of freedom (243-248).

As this is the third chapter in this volume to articulate a version of Hegel’s critique of Morality, it would help to understand how the different interpretations contrast with each other and differentiate themselves from common interpretations and defenses against the objection from Kantian scholars.

External References

Brooks, Thom. 2012. “Hegel and the Unified Theory of Punishment.” In Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, edited by Thom Brooks, 103–23. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Cooper, David E. 1971. “Hegel’s Theory of Punishment.” In Hegel’s Political Philosophy: Problems and Perspectives, edited by Z.A. Pelczynski, 151–67. London: Cambridge University Press.

Freyenhagen, Fabian. 2012. “The Empty Formalism Objection Revisited: §135R and Recent Kantian Responses.” In Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, by Thom Brooks, 43–72. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Hoy, David Couzens. 1989. “Hegel’s Critique of Kantian Morality.” History of Philosophy Quarterly 6 (2): 207–32.

Komasinski, Andrew. 2018. “Hegel’s Complete Views on Crime and Punishment.” Journal of the American Philosophical Association 4 (4): 525–44. https://doi.org/10.1017/apa.2018.35.

Peperzak, Adriaan Theodoor. 2001. Modern Freedom: Hegel’s Legal, Moral, and Political Philosophy. Studies in German Idealism, v. 1. Dordrecht ; Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Stern, Robert. 2012. “On Hegel’s Critique of Kant’s Ethics: Beyond the Empty Formalism Objection.” In Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, edited by Thom Brooks, 73–99. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Gregory P. Floyd, Stephanie Rumpza (Eds.): The Catholic Reception of Continental Philosophy in North America, University of Toronto Press, 2020

The Catholic Reception of Continental Philosophy in North America Book Cover The Catholic Reception of Continental Philosophy in North America
Gregory P. Floyd, Stephanie Rumpza (Eds.):
University of Toronto Press
2020
Cloth $60.00
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Richard I. Sugarman: Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach

Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach Book Cover Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach
SUNY series in Contemporary Jewish Thought
Richard I. Sugarman
SUNY Press
2019
Hardback $95.00
426

Reviewed by: Hannah Bacon (Stony Brook University)

The eminent French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995) has garnered recent renewed interest, both in terms of his philosophy and his reflection on Judaism. Sugarman contributes to this emergent scholarship in his extensive analysis Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach (published by SUNY Press in 2019), which extends and deepens his own body of work on Levinas.[1]

Sugarman’s extant Levinas scholarship includes the articles «Emmanuel Levinas: The Ethics of ‘Face to Face’/ The Religious Turn» in Phenomenology World-Wide; “Messianic Temporality: Preliminary Reflections on Ethical Messianism and the Deformalization of Time in Levinas” in Recherches Levinassiennes; and “Toward a Rationality of Transcendence: The Importance of Emmanuel Levinas to Contemporary Jewish Thought” published in A Perennial Spring.[2] Sugarman, with H.A. Stephenson, translated Levinas’s Talmudic text “To Love the Torah More Than God.” Pertinent to this project is the collection of John Wild’s work that Sugarman edited with R.B. Duncan entitled Speaking Philosophy: The Posthumous papers of John Wild.[3] John Wild (1902-1972), an influential phenomenologist, was Sugarman’s former teacher and mentor at Yale. Sugarman credits Wild with introducing Sugarman to the work of Levinas. As a result of his association with Wild, Sugarman personally met with Levinas in 1973.

Levinas and the Torah, an approachable but extensive text, begins with Sugarman’s own introduction and study of Levinas’s work, including a short, but relevant, biography of Levinas. This biographical framing includes three events pertinent to his philosophical work: the political horror that served as the backdrop of Levinas’s early life, including World War I; the Russian October Revolution which precipitated his family’s exile and relocation as Lithuanian Jews to the Ukraine; and, most saliently, World War II, during which he was imprisoned in a labor camp, his wife and daughter went into hiding, and most of his extended family was murdered. He dedicates Otherwise than Being: Beyond Essence to these family members murdered during the Holocaust of World War II. Sugarman’s biography also highlights his lifelong Jewish education in Talmudic Studies, his early philosophical immersion in phenomenology as a student of Edmund Husserl, and the trajectory of his work and the anxiety over influence as a colleague, admirer, and eventual critic of Martin Heidegger.

The guiding principle of Dr. Sugarman’s study is that, “The approach of Levinas to both Talmudic texts and philosophy is governed by the discipline of phenomenology.”[4] That said, Sugarman is a professor of religion: the book leans more towards religious studies than philosophy. To wit, there are more than twice as many commentators cited on the rabbinical texts as there are commentators on Levinas. Despite this focus, one need not be a religious scholar. The book is accessible and provides contexts and historical interpretations for the texts cited (such as the differences between the Pentateuch, the Mishnah, and the Bible).

Levinas and the Torah is decidedly focused on Levinas’s religious hermeneutics. The five main books of the Torah is the organizing taxonomy of the book (Genesis: Bereishis, Exodus: Shemos, Leviticus: Vayikra, Numbers: Bamidbar, and Deuteronomy: Devarim). These five sections are further divided down into the weekly readings portion of the Pentateuch. Sugarman pairs these readings with an equally diverse array of Levinasian concepts and interpretations of the underlying topics. Needless to say, this rich and multifaceted text covers a lot of ground, making it a difficult book to summarize.

One drawback to this structure is that the Levinasian philosophical concepts are spread across different sections. For example, the Talmudic concept of the Hineini, or the “Here I am,” that Levinas employs in his philosophical writings is discussed not in Genesis and the story of Abraham where one might expect it. Instead, it is treated in the section on proper names and Exodus 1:1-1:6 and then again in more depth in the section devoted to Prophetism: Inspiration and Prophecy, Numbers 22:2-25:9. These sections are almost two hundred pages apart and there is no indexical entry for this concept despite the centrality to Levinasian thought. For a Levinasian neophyte it is difficult to trace certain Levinasian specific concepts or ideas that are treated in multiple sections, but also to have a view of how specific leitmotifs fit together to form in his overarching philosophy. Similarly, Sugarman fails to attend to the nuanced way in which specific Levinasian concepts shift over time.[5]

In addition to the Jewish inflection that one can find in Levinas’s’ straightforward philosophical texts, Levinas also produced scholarship specifically on Jewish religious texts. Levinas lectured on the weekly Torah portions at École Normale Israelite Orientale. These lectures have no transcripts as recording and note-taken is forbidden during Shabbat. Levinas published two notable collections of essays specifically on Judaism: in 1963 with a book translated as Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism) and in 1968 with Nine Talmudic Readings. New Talmudic Readings was published posthumously in 1996. Sugarman draws on both the Talmudic texts and the philosophical texts. Sugarman puts Levinas’s Talmudic readings in dialogue with other Jewish scholars such as Mordechai Shoshani, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Rashi, Maimonides, Abrham Ibn Eza, Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner, and others.

Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach yokes Levinas’s conceptual framework to Talmudic passages and hermeneutical religious scholarship. Beginning with Genesis, Sugarman lays out Rashi’s, Erwin Straus’s, and Abraham Ibn Ezra’s readings of Genesis, drawing out the passages that pertain to Levinasian philosophy. In the first of fourteen subsections on Genesis, Sugarman gives an in-depth reading of Cain’s query, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). The obvious Levinasian response to this is affirmative: Responsibility to and for the other is one of Levinas’s central underlying ethical tenets. The Levinas that is juxtaposed is not always the most obvious. For instance, I assumed a discussion of fraternity in Levinas and its role in justice would ensue, but instead Sugarman focuses on God withdrawing his face as a form of grave punishment. The face and its appeal, specifically its appeal in terms of its unspoken command, is another central concept for Levinas. From there, Sugarman moves on to a discussion of responsibility to the future, and whether Cain is guilty not just of fratricide but guilty of the violence against Abel’s future bloodline in what he terms generational responsibility. Levinas argues one has a responsibility to the other not just in the current moment, but a responsibility to the other in ensuring their future. One is infinitely responsible to the other. Sugarman’s treatment of Levinas’s theories of fraternity and justice did come later. By highlighting minor or less overworked aspects both in the Torah and in Levinas, Sugarman opens room for the reader to pursue lines of thought that are not already so established and exhaustively treated as to be clichéd.

One of the more compelling and interesting moments is the discussion of Levinas’s 1935 text On Escape with relation to the Talmudic account of Abraham and Sarah (also found in Genesis). The Abrahamic story begins with the command Lech Lecha, which is often translated as meaning ‘go for yourself.’ Sugarman however, proposes an alternate reading of “go out from yourself” (19). This interpretation is then put in conversation with Levinas’s phenomenological description of embodiment as being trapped in the self and under the thumb of various affects such as hunger, exhaustion, restlessness, and malaise. In other places the most dynamic insights come from these close hermeneutical alternative readings.

In Levinas, the self becomes a self by sacrificing for the other. Egoism, or putting the self before the other, is a grave ethical failure and a form of spiritual death. Abraham becomes the father of faith by being willing to make the most profound sacrifice for the divine. Sugarman is a close reader: he reminds the reader of details that are often forgotten because they do not seem relevant, but they become significant because of the Levinasian framing.  In his reading, Sugarman returns us to the less sanitized version of Biblical stories, although he does not say as much. I, for one, had forgotten that Jacob had children with four women and that Sarah convinces Abraham to sleep with their slave/servant (depending on your reading) Hagar, an act that Sugarman characterizes as ‘selfless’ of Sarah.  Sarah then casts Hagar out when Ishmael (Hagar’s and Abraham’s son) and Isaac, (Sarah’s and Abraham’s son) get into a verbal altercation. The return to the original text opens us up to the possibility of less cemented hermeneutical readings, and raises questions as to what we forget or exclude when we tell the story of Abraham. This incident could be an interesting counter-example of Abraham and Sarah as “exemplars of hospitality.”[6] Sugarman does not go this far, and in fact does not have a critical reading of either Levinas or the Talmudic sections. By bringing in the actual text, however, the reader can take the task of critical reading upon herself.

One powerful aspect of the Talmudic stories that Sugarman highlights is that these are not stories in which one returns home in the end, but instead lives in exile. Sugarman argues that this narrative arc essentially differs from the hero’s journey of Greek myths such as Odysseus, or the teleological structure of human nature put forth by Aristotle. Odysseus and Abraham are fundamentally different cultural narratives: when a person leaves without the guarantee of returning or even the hope of returning, this is the basis of an essentially different kind of narrative and thus an essentially different kind of subject. Pointing out the resonance between the story of Abraham and the centrality of responsibility to the other in Levinas’s construction of the subject is not a fresh or new idea. Sugarman provides a compelling hermeneutical argument that, in its most successful passages, makes the reader newly aware of how uncommon specific narratives and arguments are in present-day culture and contemporary intellectual thought. By sharing the joyful ruminations gleaned from a close hermeneutical reading practice, this book is a successful argument for the importance of revisiting the Torah. Sugarman reminds the reader of what a radical shift it is to think of the self or the subject as inherently for the other, and he also demonstrates how against the grain Levinasian thought is in relation to the prevailing intellectual history of the subject or ego.

In the sections devoted to “Exodus: Shemos,” Sugarman outlines experiences of exile, revolution, tyranny, oppression and the duty towards social justice. Sugarman relates these concepts and narratives to the consequences they have for identity, morality, and temporality in the Talmudic text. These passages on temporality include a clarifying distinction between nostalgia and tradition. This constellation of ideas is related to Levinas’s conceptual framework of responsibility, freedom, law, and development of the moral subject. The most interesting aspect of this section is an account of the moral importance of the act of promising and the essential role it plays in intersubjective relationships. In order to promise one must have hope for a future. The discussion of promising emerges in Exodus in form of the promise G’d makes to the enslaved Jewish people. One consequence of slavery is the loss of individual identity evinced in the loss of proper names (Shemos the Hebrew for Exodus means names).[7] For Levinas, to be a subject, one must be responsible to the other. Sugarman shows, through his reading, how enslavement inhibits one’s ability to be a Levinasian ethical subject, in that one cannot make a promise to the other, nor can one respond to the needs of the other, or take responsibility for the future of the other. Exodus contains the command to protect ‘the widow, the orphan, and the stranger’ a phrase that regularly appears in Levinas’s ethical philosophy, suggesting that these Talmudic passages are immensely pertinent for Levinas in terms of our ethical duty to others.

Sugarman’s analysis of Leviticus: Vayikra focuses on holiness, religious law, the duty to study, and the atonement or repentance of Yom Kippur for transgressions against each other and against G’d. Leviticus is often considered the most esoteric and least well-known book of the Torah. Sugarman draws on Levinas’s discussion of holiness, the importance of language and dialogue, further analysis of diachrony (the time of the other), the difference between holiness and sacredness, and the phenomenology of human suffering to enliven this section successfully. In it Sugarman returns to his analysis of Nietzschean ressentiment.[8] Levinas is attentive to the ritual of Yom Kippur and how forgiveness and pardon can only be enacted after genuine action is taken to repair or alleviate the ongoing suffering that one’s actions have caused. Levinas also cautions against the rationalization of evil and suffering with relation to the Holocaust, which he argues was wholly inexplicable and unjustifiable. This section also puts forth a reading of the environmentalism inherent in Talmudic laws around agriculture.

The Book of Numbers: Bamidbar gives account of the period from the teachings on Sinai to the journey to the Promised Land. It begins with two censuses, which Sugarman juxtaposes with insights gleaned from Levinas’s book Proper Names. It then moves to a discussion of peace, prophecy, and most saliently Israel, which is central to the complicated issue of the relationship between ethics, politics, and Judaism in Levinas. Other topics discussed include fanaticism and obsession, infinity, and justice as it relates to cities of refuge for those who have committed involuntary manslaughter. Each of these sections, although often only a few pages long, are filled with provocative readings raising rich philosophical and religious questions.

Deuteronomy: Devarim, the last of the five books, mostly hinges on Moses’s dictum on how life ought to be lived in the Promised Land and what can be learned or what needs to be reiterated from the journey there. These sermons, Sugarman notes, contain a sense of urgency in that they would have been given in the last 37 days of Moses life.[9] This form of reflection aligns with Levinas’s notion of the past as trace, and the importance of facing that past in order to open a new future. Sugarman discusses topics that include prayer, profundity in the prosaic, whether it is righteous to exist, the responsibility to pursue and enact justice, and revolution. In his Nine Talmudic Readings, Levinas emphasizes the Talmudic basis for social justice and workers rights. Sugarman points out that Levinas’s text was written immediately following the 1968 Paris uprising. Here, and elsewhere, Sugarman indicates the lessons we may still need to learn or the concepts that may be pertinent in securing a more open future today. The book closes with an epilogue, two appendices—a useful and compact glossary of Talmudic and Biblical Terms, along with a glossary of Levinas’s terminology—and a brief but descriptive list of the Talmudic scholars or commentators that Sugarman is employing.

One possible criticism of Levinas and the Torah is that in order to make Levinas’s philosophy accessible, complex concepts are occasionally given superficial treatment. It is debatable whether necessary nuance and complexity were sacrificed. Sugarman seemingly makes these choices for the sake of clarity. For example, when Levinas speaks of the face of the other, at times it seems he is in truth speaking of an actual face or visage; at other times the face is clearly a metaphor, the face of the other is language or expressivity, or the face is meant in terms of orientation but not the literal sense of face. Other concepts developed and shifted over the course of his work: for instance Levinas’s descriptions of role of justice or politics shift in significant ways from his early texts to his later texts.

These conflicting meanings and connotations are often left unsaid in Sugarman’s hermeneutic reading, whether for the sake of clarity, efficiency, or simplification. There are passages in Levinas and the Torah where the move from the specific and singular other to multiple others, or the transition from ethics to justice, is more fluid and neat than it is in Levinas. Debates about what the face means in Levinas and what a Levinasian politics is are live and contentious, but these competing readings are not brought in. The narrowness of Sugarman’s reading could lead to misunderstandings or misinterpretations if the reader has not already read Levinas, or is not reading the original Levinasian texts in concert with Levinas and the Torah.

In the most successful exegetical analysis, Sugarman does not shy away from the complexities in Levinasian philosophy. This attention to nuance is shown in his careful and persuasive account of substitution and Levinas’s claim that one must take responsibility even for one’s persecutors. Arguably, with these lean arguments, there is more room for other types of rumination. When one is not reading and re-reading dense and convoluted Levinasian texts one can see the simplicity of this assertion. The reader can instead focus on an argument for radical responsibility for one’s persecutors that was made by someone who was held in a labor camp and whose family was murdered during the Shoah. For Sugarman this room for rumination is more important than making sure his reader understands all the subtle tonalities of the face in Levinasian philosophy.

Readers will most likely not always agree with Sugarman’s readings of either the Torah or Levinas. Additionally, some of the specific resonances between the Talmud and Levinasian philosophy feel more tenuous than other. By Sugarman’s reading it seems that anytime one leaves one’s house is an example of the Levinasian passage from the self to alterity and radical exteriority. Hopefully, any reader will be motivated to return to the original texts in order to ground productive disagreements and participate in the rich tradition of Jewish argument.

In this way the book is doing something different. There is already a wealth of scholarship that interrogates Levinas’s use of the concept of fraternity or whether or not one can use Levinas to move from an ethics to a robust account of justice or politics. While not every book needs to be critical of Levinas—and if criticism is what one wants there are plenty of resources for a more measured reading of Levinas outside of this book—there are instances where it would have opened a more nuanced or rich reading. The author recommends reading Levinas and the Torah alongside of the Talmudic readings. I would advise to read it alongside the wealth of contemporary Levinas scholarship that analyzes both the strengths and weaknesses of his work.

There are three main aspects of Levinas that are usually the focus of criticism. First, he tends to employ an overly masculine account of ethics in his reliance of concepts such as fraternity, and the son rather than the child (This is central to Derrida’s criticism and is all the more striking in that Levinas had two daughters, although one did not survive) and his equivocating femininity with the domestic sphere and with alterity. Second, Levinas’s actual political statements occasionally verge on nationalism in the case of France and Israel. Perhaps Levinas’s most controversial opinion was given during a 1982 radio interview weeks after the Sabra and Shalita massacre of between 700-3,000 Palestinian men, women and children in which Israeli courts later deemed the IDF complicit. When repeatedly pressed by the interviewer Levinas avoided finding fault in this behavior, and implied that these victims perhaps did not rise to the level of being an ethical other. Last, Levinas has been accused of Euro-centrism in his championing of Europe and European culture through his claim that Greek culture and the Bible were the pinnacle of civilization and societal achievements, and that other cultures were non-serious or lesser. These issues raise crucial questions of who can be an ethical other, of whether or not hospitality has its limits, and whether Levinas makes exception to his own dictums. This sometimes overly laudatory account of Levinas’s work does not even footnote the criticisms that Levinas has received, let alone place them in conversation.

Although clearly rooted in intense Talmudic scholarship, this text does not provide a critical lens for Levinas’s religious readings. A generous reading would state that Sugarman is not concerned with these debates and that they are well documented elsewhere. A more critical reader may see this as a missed opportunity to provide a more robust discussion and also a chance to respond to these criticisms and defend Levinas’s positions. In the tradition of questioning within the Jewish intellectual tradition, it would benefit the readers of Levinas and the Talmud to have this same hermeneutical precision trained on the full range of readings and scholarship.

Levinas and the Torah is a rich and compelling text that provides the reader with a general overview and the necessary exegesis and hermeneutic tools for further inquiry. Through persuasive and spirited analysis, Sugarman makes clear a generous intention for his reader. I would recommend Levinas and the Torah for those who are curious or towards the beginning of their study but feel overwhelmed by the jargon and complexity of other exegetical readings of Levinas’s Jewish thought or to those with familiarity with either the Talmudic texts or Levinas and have a thirst for knowledge for the other. Moreover, this seems to be a book conscious of the zeitgeist of our time, with its pertinence to questions of apocalypse, exile, revolution, suffering, political uncertainty, and futurity. Levinas and the Torah is rich without being exhaustive; it is penetrating without being abstruse and esoteric.  In Levinasian terms we have an infinite responsibility to the future. Sugarman argues compellingly for the importance of learning the narratives and ideas of the deep past in order to enact a more ethical and just future for the coming generations.


[1] Sugarman, Richard I. 2019. Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach. Albany: State University of New York.

[2] Sugarman, Richard I. 2003. «Emmanuel Levinas: The Ethics of ‘Face to Face’/ The Religious Turn.» In Phenomenology World-Wide, ed. Anna Teresa Tymieniecka (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers), published in Analecta Husserliana 80: 409-430; Sugarman, Richard I. 2012. “Messianic Temporality: Preliminary Reflections on Ethical Messianism and the Deformalization of Time in Levinas.” Recherches Levinassiennes, ed. R. Burrggreave et al. Series Bibliotheque Philosophique de Louvain 82, 421-436, Peeters Publishers, Leuven, Belgium; Sugarman, Richard I. 2013. «Toward A Rationality Of Transcendence: The Importance Of Emmanuel Levinas To Contemporary Jewish Thought.» In As A Perennial Spring: A Festschrift honoring Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, 473-493.

[3] Wild, John. 2006. Speaking Philosophy: The Posthumous papers of John Wild,ed. Richard I. Sugarmn & R.B. Duncan; Phenomenological Inquiry 24 (2000): 205-292.

[4] Sugarman, Ibid. 8.

[5] For instance, the face-to-face, the neighbor, and the trace are omitted from the index but are treated in multiple sections. Incomplete Indices is a common problem in academic books.

[6] Sugarman, Ibid. 32.

[7] Sugarman, Ibid. 96. Curiously, this section on Proper Names does not make reference or use of Levinas’s book Proper Names in this section, but in the beginning of The Book of Numbers.

[8] This was the topic of his book Rancor Against Time: The Phenomenology of Ressentiment (Felix Meiner, 1980)

[9] Sugarman, Levinas and the Torah, 303.

James Mensch: Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining

Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining Book Cover Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining
Studies in Contemporary Phenomenology, Volume: 17
James Mensch
Brill
2018
Hardback €157.00
X, 342

Reviewed by: Jakub Kowalewski

The scope of James Mensch’s new book is truly impressive. On the one hand, Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining does not shy away from the rather unfashionable task of proposing a systemic account of human existence. In a manner reminiscent of some of the most exciting works in the history of philosophy, Selfhood and Appearing intervenes in an array of philosophical, political, and religious debates, which, in turn, allow it to propose a unified model of human reality: from subjectivity, through science and politics, to the divine. On the other hand, Mensch’s engagement with wide-ranging and diverse sources relies on insights afforded by one tradition of philosophy in particular – phenomenology. It is on the basis of his close reading of various phenomenologists (perhaps most importantly, Patočka and Merleau-Ponty), that Mensch is able to develop an interpretative key capable of unlocking hidden possibilities of diverse theoretical debates. In other words, the ‘macroscopic’ account of human existence proposed in Selfhood and Appearing presupposes a ‘microscopic’ argument grounded in phenomenological literature.

One of the undeniable achievements of Mensch’s book, therefore, is that it clearly demonstrates the continuous importance of phenomenology, not only for questions which remain unsolved (or, at least, remain solved insufficiently) in other traditions and disciplines, but also for a more consistent understanding of our multifaceted existence – on Mensch’s reading, phenomenology is a force to be reckoned with.

In consequence, Selfhood and Appearing can be read in three ways (simultaneously): as a comprehensive analysis of the various levels of human reality; as an interpretative intervention in contemporary phenomenological studies; and, finally, as a love letter to phenomenology.

Selfhood and Appearing is divided into four parts: Part One examines the role of intertwining in subjective experiences; Part Two deals with intertwining and intersubjectivity; Part Three continues the analysis of the previous sections by exploring intertwining in the context of political violence; and Part Four focuses on intertwining and religion.

Since it is the notion of intertwining which allows Mensch to successfully navigate through diverse theoretical landscapes, in this review I will focus primarily on the role intertwining plays in the main argument of the book. As I hope to show, although extracted from the works of other philosophers, intertwining is a specifically ‘Menschean’ notion, which in Selfhood and Appearing is endowed with a double function: firstly, intertwining characterises human experience as a whole, and as such, it is the unifying thread which weaves together the various levels of human reality, which from a traditional perspective are in opposition to one another. Secondly, intertwining enables Mensch to re-interpret and bring together otherwise dispersed philosophical arguments, debates, and traditions; the concept of intertwining is formed on the basis of a phenomenological analysis, and because of that it can be found (for the most part implicitly) in any philosophy attentive to this fundamental structure of human experience.

I will conclude this review by alluding to a tension between two effects of intertwining. Throughout Selfhood and Appearing, intertwining reveals human existence to be chiefly harmonious: the traditionally opposing terms—for instance, self and other, self and the world, the world and divinity—are shown to be intertwined and thus essentially compatible with one another. Likewise, the history of philosophy appears to be interwoven and unified due to a shared attentiveness to the concept of intertwining. In short, the main effect of intertwining is a reconciliatory vision of existence and philosophy, in which antagonisms between divergent elements are dissolved in a more fundamental interlacing. However, occasionally, Mensch allows us to glimpse a different effect of his concept: some phenomena and philosophies are excluded from the reconciliatory work of intertwining. In such cases, a phenomenon or a philosophy is so radically antagonistic that it becomes separated from the otherwise all-encompassing intertwining. As a result, Selfhood and Appearing—in addition to demonstrating the possibility of a harmonious existence and theory—invites us to think the irreducibility of antagonisms in both experience and philosophy, and with it, to conceptualise notions like separation and exclusion opposed to, yet effected by Mensch’s intertwining.

The definition of the concept of intertwining finds its first expression in the Introduction. In the section devoted to Merleau-Ponty, Mensch discusses our natural belief that my perception of external objects is an internal process which takes place “in me,” and that I also count myself as one of the external objects, out there in the world. Our natural belief, therefore, is that ‘I am in the world and the world is in me’ – the “natural” person:

‘lives in a paradox, undisturbed by it. He thinks both that he grasps external objects and their apprehension is within him. The basic tenet of such belief is that our relation to world is that of a double being-in. We are inside that which is in us.’[1]

The paradigmatic example of intertwining, therefore, is our double position as perceivers of objects and—by virtue of our embodiment—as objects to be perceived. These two perspectives, according to Mensch, reveal something ‘more than the fact that our embodiment places us in the world, which we internalize through perception. At issue here is the appearing of the world.’[2] In other words, the fact that my perception of objects is “in me,” while I am “out there” with the objects, is not an inconsequential paradox, which philosophers may try to resolve in their free time. On the contrary, the intertwining between the “inside” and the “outside” found in our embodied perception, is a condition of possibility for any manifestation: I reveal myself and the world which I inhabit thanks to the “double being-in” of the world in me and of me in the world as embodied. Intertwining, therefore, has a transcendental function of making possible the appearing of subjects and objects.

Mensch extends his definition of intertwining in the next section devoted to Patočka. Intertwining, and the manifestation it makes possible, should not be understood as an essentially subjectivity category; nor can it be reduced simply to an objective structure:

‘Appearing as such, however, can be derived neither from consciousness nor the realities that appear to it. Considered in itself, it is a “world-structure”… Prior to subjects and objects, it informs both.’[3]

Whereas Merleau-Ponty enables Mensch to posit intertwining as a transcendental condition of appearance, Patočka helps Mensch to argue that intertwining cannot be categorised as simply subjective or objective. Since intertwining makes possible disclosure as such, it is the structure which underlies the manifestation of both subjectivity and objectivity.

Importantly, Patočka contributes a further insight: intertwining is not a static function of appearance. Rather, ‘appearing… is to be understood in terms of motion.’

‘As Patočka expresses this, “movement… first makes this or that being apparent, causes it to manifest itself in its own original manner.” The moving entity does this through affecting what surrounds it… Without this ability through motion to affect what surrounds it, an entity cannot distinguish itself from its environment. But without this, it has no presence either to inanimate or anime beings. In living sentient creatures, this manifests itself as experience. It forms the subjective component of appearing. The objective component is simply the physical presence that the entity has through its action. It is, for example, the depression on the pillow left by an object pressing on it.’[4]

The engagement with Merleau-Ponty and Patočka in the Introduction provides the basic definition of intertwining: it is a transcendental condition of appearance, neither subjective nor objective, which enables manifestation through motion. In the remainder of the book, Mensch demonstrates the way in which intertwining is effective in various aspects of our existence. It is precisely here that the concept becomes ‘Menschean’: intertwining enables Mensch to offer a coherent re-interpretation of the writings of figures in the history of philosophy; these re-interpretations, in turn, allow him to propose a unified account of human existence in its various guises.

In the first part of the book, in addition to Merleau-Ponty, Patočka and other phenomenologists, Mensch engages at length with Aristotle, who helps him to conceptualise space and time in terms of intertwining. The discussion of Aristotle is exemplary since it illustrates well the trajectory of Mensch’s argument as a whole. Selfhood and Appearing takes up notions theorised by other thinkers and reframes them by demonstrating their reliance on intertwining. Aristotle offers resources which enable Mensch to identify the effects of intertwining on the appearance of subjects and objects in space and time.

According to Mensch, the notion of space described by Aristotle, is a space produced by the motion of entities. The particular movement of a subject, for instance, determines its “first unmoved boundary” and with it, the space it occupies and in which it moves. Furthermore, as Mensch points out, these Aristotelian conclusions can be applied beyond a simple physical presence – space can be constituted by a practical motion of a teacher who teaches, or a builder who builds. Importantly, on Mensch’s reading, space depends on embodied entities which produce it by their motion. [5] Furthermore, since motion is a structural feature of intertwining, it is, in fact, the latter which, indirectly, gives rise to space.

Likewise time can no longer be thought of as independent from the movements of embodied entities, and thus from intertwining. The constant presence of the body to itself (e.g. my continuous embodiment) constitutes the now: ‘This present “corresponds” to the body by virtue of being part of the body’s continuous self-manifestation.’ The flow of time, by contrast, ‘corresponds to the body’s movement insofar as it manifests the body’s shifting relation to its environment.’ [6] Time, therefore, depends on the permanent yet moving body, producing a temporality responsive to the entity’s motion: the flow of time is effected by the body’s movement, whereas the persistence of the present (the fact that I am always in the now) results from the uninterrupted presence of the body to itself.

Both space and time, therefore, are the effects of embodied entities and their motions; as such, space and time presuppose intertwining as the structure which makes possible the appearance of embodied entities in motion.

A similar argument can be found in Part Two of Selfhood and Appearing. In this section of the book, Mensch re-examines Hannah Arendt’s discussion of public space, which, he says, ‘should be understood in terms of our embodied motion in the world… To think public space in terms of this embodiment is to understand how the intertwining of self and world shapes the public space we share.’[7] Interestingly, in his engagement with Arendt, Mensch makes more explicit the distinction between intertwining as a fundamental structure of appearance, and intertwining as an interpretative key useful for the re-reading of other philosophers. When Mensch takes up Arendt’s categories of labour, work, and action, in order to demonstrate their intertwining, he uses the latter primarily as a concept enabling him to bring together the otherwise separate aspects of human activity theorised by Arendt. Here, intertwining designates a conceptual structure in which category A manifests within itself external categories B and C, while itself remaining one of the external categories. ‘To claim in this context that labor, work, and action are intertwined is to claim that they achieve their presence through embodying one another. Doing so, they serve as a place of disclosure for each other’.

Naturally, the demonstration of the intertwining of different aspects of human activity – that is to say, intertwining as a theoretical tool – presupposes the intertwining of embodied entities in motion (i.e., the intertwining as the transcendental structure of appearance). The intertwined manifestation of labour, work, and action, ‘occurs in conjunction with our disclosure of the world… The public space we share is, in fact, the result of both forms of disclosure.’[8]

Nevertheless, it is important to distinguish between intertwining as a conceptual tool and intertwining as the condition of experience – whereas the former is derived from the latter, the two notions are endowed with different functions. Intertwining as a transcendental structure allows for the manifestation of entities; intertwining as an interpretative key enables Mensch to re-read the writings of other philosophers.

This distinction between the two functions of intertwining was already operative in Mensch’s interpretation of Aristotle, however, it becomes more explicit when Mensch first presents Arendt’s categories as intertwined, and only then links them with intertwining as a transcendental condition of appearance. Of course, Mensch could not re-interpret Arendt without identifying intertwining as a fundamental structure of experience; however, the fact that he is then able to free intertwining from its original context in order to apply it to the discussion of other philosophers, makes intertwining an effective (and genuinely interesting) theoretical notion.

The efficacy of the concept of intertwining is explored further in Part Four of the book. There, intertwining is used to examine questions related to religious life, and, specifically, to unravel a paradox which, according to Mensch, lies at the heart of the Abrahamic religions:

‘Thus, on the one hand, we have the binding insistence on justice, on the punishment of the offender, on the payment of the transgressor’s debts to God and society. On the other hand, we have an equally insistent emphasis on the unbinding of mercy, on the forgiveness of all debts. How can these two perspectives be combined? How are we to grasp this binding that is also an unbinding?’[9]

The problem which motivates Part Four echoes the paradox of our natural belief in Part One (that the world is both “in us” and we are “out there in the world”) with which Mensch introduces intertwining as transcendental structure of appearance. However, the respective questions of Part One and Part Four remain distinct – what interests Mensch towards the end of this book is not, for the most part, the intertwining between embodied perceiver and the world; rather, his focus turns to a theoretical problem inherent in the biblical concept of religion, which can be solved by means of intertwining.

Importantly, intertwining as the solution to the paradox of religion is only analogous to the intertwining found at the bottom of appearance: ‘For Merleau-Ponty, the intertwining concerns our relation to the world… The religious analogue of this intertwining places God and the world inside each other.’[10] In other words, in part four intertwining becomes a device used to solve theoretical problems, with only an analogical relationship to the intertwining of experience of oneself in the world.

Of course, this is not say that the two notions of intertwining—as a theoretical tool and as a foundational experience—are separate. On the contrary, the latter continues to inform the former. However, the fact that, despite the change of conceptuality (from phenomenological terms to religious vocabulary), intertwining remains effective, attests to the theoretical efficacy of intertwining outside of a strictly phenomenological analysis of experience. This flexibility of the concept of intertwining enables Mensch to solve the “religious paradox” of part four in a manner reminiscent of the book’s previous arguments – that is to say, by arguing for the religious structure of intertwining: ‘…in the Mosaic tradition, religious selfhood is constituted through intertwining of binding and unbinding. This selfhood is such that the binding and unbinding provide for each other a place of disclosure.’[11]

I have attempted to decouple the two functions of intertwining (as a theoretical tool and as a fundamental structure of appearing) because it strikes me that they are able to generate distinct effects, which are in tension with one another.

This tension is most apparent in Part Three, where Mensch discusses the relationship between violence and politics. There, Mensch engages with the thoughts of Schmitt and Heidegger. Mensch does not attempt to hide his intentions – in contrast to Merleau-Ponty, Patočka, Aristotle, and even Arendt, all of whom contributed something positive to the argument of Selfhood and Appearing, the two Nazi-sympathisers are shown to be wrong, and only wrong (and rightly so, I should add).

From a perspective of the history of phenomenology, one of the ingenious aspects of Mensch’s reading of Heidegger is that he finds him “in” Schmitt. As a result he is able to disclose the Heideggerian basis of Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty, which invalidates Schmitt and Heidegger as appropriated by Schmitt. This way, Mensch is able to please both the anti-Heideggerian readers (who will be satisfied with the demonstration of the explicit relationship between Heidegger and Schmitt), and the pro-Heideggerian readers (who will point out that the relationship between Heidegger and Schmitt is possible on the basis of partial convergence of their respective thoughts). Take, for instance, these two passages, which follow one another in the text:

‘… we can say that Schmitt’s use of the “extreme situation” to define our collective identity is based on a specific notion of human existence, one that he shares with Heidegger… Given the essential lack of content of our existence, seriousness means taking responsibility or the decisions that shape it and, hence, affirming our identity through such responsibility. For Heidegger and Schmitt, what forces us to do this is the enemy that confronts us. For both, then seriousness involves a readiness for conflict, a need to seek out the enemy.’

‘Heidegger takes our confrontation with death as primarily individual. For Schmitt, by contrast, both death and the enemy that threatens it are thought in terms of the collective.[12]

Mensch then skillfully demonstrates how Schmitt’s understanding of the collective (that is to say, the point at which he differs from Heidegger) helps the jurist to elaborate his concept of sovereignty – thus creating a distance between Heideggerian ontology and Schmitt’s theory of the sovereign.

Almost immediately afterwards, Mensch returns to the similarities between Schmitt and Heidegger – the decision of Schmitt’s sovereign is ungrounded, and the ‘nothingness that is its source is, in fact, the political equivalent of the nothingness of death.’[13] Nevertheless, despite the equivalence of their concepts, the reader is reminded that is Schmitt who contributes the more explicitly problematic dimension to the discussion of decisionism.

The most interesting aspect of the discussion of Heidegger and Schmitt, in my opinion, is their uneasy position in relation to the concept of intertwining.

Schmitt’s (Heidegger-inspired) sovereign escapes the intertwining which constitutes legitimate politics, and in which the subject is free to act in the world while being limited by its norms and values. The sovereign does act in the world, however, he or she is not constrained by the world’s values.[14] The sovereign constitutes a “liminal” figure: ‘this liminality signifies that the sovereign has complete authority with regard to the legal system, being himself unconstrained by it.’[15]

Interestingly, the concept of liminality (embodied by the figure of the sovereign) is used by Mensch to identify phenomena which sit uncomfortably on the border of intertwining and its beyond. These phenomena are dangerous, because they act in the world from the position external to the world’s norms. This is why liminality should be eliminated by ‘the inclusion of the [liminal] agents into the world in which they act. It can only come through the reestablishment of the intertwining that joins the self and its Others in a world of shared senses.’[16]

Intertwining, therefore, functions as a way to reintegrate liminal figures – such as the sovereign – back into the shared world of values and norms, and thus to eliminate the threat of senseless violence which liminality makes possible.

However, despite the call for the inclusion of liminal figures, the works of Schmitt (and to a lesser extent, Heidegger) are excluded from Mensch’s theoretical enterprise. After finishing Part Three of Selfhood and Appearing, the reader has no doubt that there is no place for Schmitt (and Schmitt’s Heidegger) amongst the thinkers of intertwining. This is a result which speaks favourably about Mensch’s project as a whole – we can safely assume that Mensch does not want to have Nazi-sympathisers on his side. However, this exclusion of Schmitt seems to be at odds with the inclusive work of intertwining attested to by Mensch in his demand for the reintegration of liminal figures.

My hypothesis is that the tension between, on the one hand, the exclusion of Schmitt, and, on the other hand, the inclusion of liminal figures, can be explained by the distinction between the two types of intertwining identified above.

As a transcendental condition of manifestation, intertwining aims to reconcile oppositional terms (e.g. subjectivity and objectivity, or the world and divnity). As a theoretical tool, however, intertwining can be used to separate and exclude philosophies which are irreconcilable with the ultimately harmonising and inclusive project of Selfhood and Appearing.

This suggests, in turn, that at least on the theoretical level antagonism is irreducible: philosophy attentive to intertwining cannot be reconciled with philosophies which pay no attention to this fundamental structure.

It remains an open question, however, if a similar antagonism can be located on the level of experience: is there anything which intertwining as a transcendental condition of manifestation is incompatible with?

Mensch’s discussion of liminality hints on such a possibility. The liminal figure is both within the structure of intertwining, and external to it. Furthermore, as the possibility of sovereign violence demonstrates, this sphere external to intertwining is an effective and dangerous dimension, with real consequences for the intertwined existence. Thus, ultimately, we might find an irreducible antagonism also in experience – the external dimension attested to by liminal figures is fundamentally opposed to the harmonising structure of intertwining and the manifestation it produces.

If we were to continue our hypothetical musings, we can ask: how is this dangerous dimension external to intertwining constituted?

Perhaps it is produced by intertwining itself, which separates and excludes elements which cannot be integrated in its structure. Intertwining is defined as a transcendental condition of appearance, neither subjective nor objective, which enables manifestation through motion. Does this definition not imply the separation and exclusion of elements which are static, purely subjective or purely objective, and as such invisible from the perspective of intertwining? Would these non-integrated elements, in turn, constitute the hostile dimension external to intertwining, threatening the harmonising work of its “enemy”?

In addition to all its other achievements, the fact that Selfhood and Appearing invites us to pose such questions, and to consider the irreducible antagonism between intertwining and the dimension external to it, shows clearly that Mensch’s new book truly has an impressive scope.


[1] J. Mensch, Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining, Brill 2018, p. 16

[2] Ibid., p. 16

[3] Ibid., p.19

[4] Ibid., p. 20

[5] Ibid., pp. 87-88

[6] Ibid., p. 89

[7] Ibid., p. 168

[8] Ibid., p. 171

[9] Ibid., p, 283

[10] Ibid., p. 288

[11] Ibid., p. 288

[12] Ibid., p. 265

[13] Ibid., p. 268

[14] Ibid., p. 253

[15] Ibid., p. 250

[16] Ibid., p. 254

Wilhelm Dilthey: Selected Works, Volume VI: Ethical and World-View Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 2019

Selected Works, Volume VI: Ethical and World-View Philosophy Book Cover Selected Works, Volume VI: Ethical and World-View Philosophy
Wilhelm Dilthey. Edited by Rudolf A. Makkreel and Frijhthof Rodi
Princeton University Press
2019
Hardback $55.00 / £46.00
360

Ethical Experience: A Phenomenology

Ethical Experience: A Phenomenology Book Cover Ethical Experience: A Phenomenology
Nicolle Zapien, Susi Ferrarello
Bloomsbury Academic
2018
Paperback £17.99
256

Reviewed by: Emanuela Carta (University of Cologne)

Susi Ferrarello and Nicolle Zapien’s book Ethical Experience: A Phenomenology is an ambitious and thought-provoking attempt to show how philosophy (and, especially, phenomenology) and psychology can collaborate concretely towards the achievement of shared aims.

The book, as a whole, has two core aims. On the one hand, it aims to offer a phenomenological analysis of the experience of decision-making, as it occurs in everyday life and as individuals recognize it in their personal narratives. The authors conceive this approach to moral psychology and the phenomenon of decision-making in open contrast to the approaches of cognitive science and contemporary analytic philosophy (2). On the other hand, the book aims to argue that the understanding of the multiple ways in which individuals approach time and intimacy contributes to shaping our ethical choices and can even improve our well-being (10).

The book is conveniently divided into two parts: Part One is written by Ferrarello and is philosophical in nature; Part Two is written by Zapien, instead, and is (mostly) psychological.

Part One clarifies fundamental methodological and theoretical points, which are mainly taken from Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology. In particular, in Part One, Ferrarello illustrates the distinction between different layers of reality, of time, and of identity and thematizes individual approaches to time and intimacy. Crucially, these distinctions and themes will be employed in the philosophical interpretation of the empirical findings of Part Two.

Part Two presents qualitative studies concerning three kinds of ethical decisions (unexpected leadership decisions, parental decisions, and those of individuals who face the choice of engaging in extramarital affairs), as well as offering philosophical interpretations of their findings. The general approach of Part Two involves the application of Amedeo Giorgi’s phenomenological research method for psychology.

Chapter I.1 of Part One opens with an intriguing explanation of the method employed throughout the book – that is, the phenomenological method. More precisely, the phenomenological method is understood as a method that aims towards the reactivation of sedimented meanings or the production of new meanings. It consists of two parts, which should not be considered as chronologically separated moments, but, rather, as complementary halves of one process operating simultaneously: one is the pars destruens and the other is the pars construens. They correspond to Husserl’s static and genetic methods, respectively. The goal of the pars destruens, which is the expression of the static method, consists in grasping the essential traits of the phenomenon whose meaning the phenomenologist aims to question and reactivate. This operation can be accomplished only if the phenomenologist is able to free himself or herself from prejudices and hasty associative habits he or she might have, and to “challenge any previous authority and the meanings that have been accepted in previous investigation” or “by the intersubjective community” (21). The goal of the pars construens, which is the expression of the genetic method, is to relate the new meaning produced (or awakened) with the passive layers of sense. With this goal in mind, the phenomenologist establishes whether the newer meaning can appropriately substitute the older.

Importantly, Ferrarello stresses that the attempt to attribute new meaning to phenomena is not just embedded in a general epistemological goal, but also in a specifically ethical one. According to Ferrarello, there is, indeed, a strong connection between ethics and the project of the amelioration of meanings.

After the clarification of the general methodology employed in the book, Ferrarello moves on to distinguish between three different layers of reality, of time, and identity in Chapter I.2 and Chapter I.3. Such descriptions constitute the theoretical core of the book.

Ferrarello explains that our life features three layers to which correspond three forms of temporality and three forms of identity (or ego). One of these is the layer of the passive, ego-less life, which Ferrarello also describes as the natural or psychological life. This level is characterized by a linear sense of time. Another layer consists of the practical and ethical life of the “just-awoken ego”. This ego, embodied in a “volitional body”, lives and acts in the time of the here-and-now. Lastly, a third level is identified with the layer of the philosophical life; the life lived from an absolute standpoint and from an absolute, timeless time.

The layer of the practical ego or volitional body is particularly important, since without this level it would be “neither ethical awareness nor an actual effort to become responsibly self-reflectively aware of our deeds” (37). However, Ferrarello also claims that these layers are all present in the life of an individual and that, typically, individuals continuously shift from one level to another. Ferrarello’s idea is that the balance that we find between these three layers of reality, time and identity, “is what shapes our sense of goodness, normal behavior and knowledge” (47).

In Chapter I.4, she expands on this idea by reference to the examples of the schizophrenic and the mystic who display, each in their own way, a unique between the three layers of life, time, and identity. For example, people with schizophrenia are not able to float from one layer of reality to another, but they are rather mostly stuck in the layer of absolute, timeless time. Because of this, they lack intimacy with their passive selves and, this, in turn, prevents them from finding a fulfilling meaning for their lives. Ferrarello insists that the schizophrenics’ relation with reality and time should not be stigmatized, because this would intensify the schizophrenics’ struggle to become intimate with their passive selves. On the contrary, it is pivotal to acknowledge that there are a variety of perspectives and ways to relate to reality and time (as that of the person with schizophrenia) so one can develop empathy towards others and be able to build a sense of intimacy with others.

The first part of the book closes with stimulating and original analyses delving into the central issue outlined in Chapter I.2 – that is, the volitional body. More specifically, Chapter I.5 clarifies the notion of practical intentionality introduced in Chapter I.2. Practical intentionality refers to the intentionality displayed in the moment in which the ego awakes and enters into a responsible contact with its passive habits and instincts. Ferrarello clarifies practical intentionality in relation to love and intimacy.

Following Husserl’s phenomenology, Ferrarello claims that that love is the force guaranteeing the true awakening of the ego and putting our passive selves in contact with our active life. Love opens a space of intimacy through which the subject can regain touch with his or her passive self and his or her factual existence, while, at the same time, shaping his or her identity and values. Intimate love allows us to break old habits and, as a result, it finds new sensuous lower matter (90). As such, love is a meaning- and value-giving activity. Unfortunately, the possibility that things take the wrong turn in this regard is an ineliminable live possibility, as in the case of intimacy forced through violence. This issue is explored in Chapter I.6, together with the notion of existential sexuality.

Part Two, the second part of the book, revolves around the analyses of the qualitative psychological studies carried out by Nicolle Zapien. Her research focuses on three kinds of ethical experiences of decision-making: unexpected leadership decisions, parental decisions, and those of individuals who face the choice of engaging in extramarital affairs despite the promise of monogamy. Importantly, the first kind of experience concerns the sphere of external relationships, whereas the second and third kinds concern the private sphere of our life – that is, the first kind concerns a comparatively less intimate dimension of personal relationships with respect to the dimension of the second and third kinds.

In the introduction, Zapien illustrates Giorgi’s phenomenological research method for psychology and the reasons why she decided to carry out her research by employing this method rather than the phenomenological psychological methods of van Manen, Moustakas, and Colaizzi. Moreover, and notably, Zapien carefully reviews all the choices made in the process of collecting and interpreting the data.

Zapien selects and publishes in the book large excerpts of the interviews that she performed, for each kind of the experiences of decision-making that she discusses. As Zapien explains, the participants of the three groups involved in the case studies were interviewed (orally or in writing), and they were left free to choose and explain the experience of decision that they preferred, as it came to their minds.

After the presentation of these personal narratives, Zapien then arranges in the following order: first, her interpretation of the findings; second, the explication of the constituents of the experience(s) at stake; third and lastly, a short philosophical commentary of the relevant experience. Each of Zapien’s philosophical commentaries puts to use the theoretical points that Ferrarello presents and clarifies in Part One of the book.

For example, the unexpected decisions that the leader must face for his or her own good and for his or her employees’ good are interpreted as a transformative experience that helps him or her to come into deeper contact with his or her identity as a leader.

The second case study, which concerns parents’ decisions for their children, makes explicitly evident the relevance of the dimension of time that Ferrarello stresses in Part One of the book. The realization that there is some problem that can dangerously affect their children’s future leads parents to rekindle the meaning of parenting and their identity as parents. This is, once again, a transformative experience that breaks the natural organic relation that parents have with their children and the daily linear time that characterizes such an experience. When facing such problems, parents feel the need – and the pressure – to make choices on behalf of the volitional body of their children, so to protect them and their natural life. If they otherwise refrain from making such choices, they feel that they are bound to lose their identity of good parents (159).

Similar considerations seem to hold with respect to the third kind of experience examined by Zapien – that is, the decisions of individuals partaking in marital relations who decide to engage in extramarital affairs. As for the previously examined cases, Zapien identifies the essential structural elements connecting the narratives of individuals with similar experiences. Specifically, she notes that individuals starting an affair fail to have active access to their passive intentions. Indeed, the volitional body of the person who starts the affair decides to negate active access to his or her passive self, so as to maintain a view on reality that is ethically acceptable to the self (180). The affair is only later acknowledged as such, when it could not be lived passively anymore.

Moving on to the critical assessment of the book, one of its most remarkable elements consists of Ferrarello and Zapien’s intent to engage with the book’s core themes in an original manner and without being afraid to voice their own opinion on these matters. This is clear, among other reasons, from Ferrarello and Zapien’s attempt to rejuvenate Husserl’s analyses, to recover their current relevance, instead of presenting these as valuable for specialized scholarship only. The authors show to have internalized phenomenology’s core points well enough to succeed in this difficult task.

Further, the book is well organized, and the authors take notable care of its pedagogical aspects. For example, the reference apparatus placed at the end of the book is extremely detailed, and it contributes to give solid ground to the claims advanced in the main parts of the book. Moreover, each chapter ends with a summary, and both the introduction and the conclusion summarize both the entire book’s structure and the main theses defended.

Yet, the care that the authors devote to the structure of the book for the purpose of conveying their views in an intelligible way is sometimes counterbalanced by the book’s confusing formulations, which run the risk of hindering the general understanding of the authors’ theses. This risk is also embodied in the authors’ choice to resort to metaphors at crucial points in their analyses, and doing so without further clarification using comprehensible terminology. For example, at the conclusion of Chapter I.4, Ferrarello uses the metaphors of the “static eye” and of the “genetic eye” in relation to the schizophrenic’s experience.

On a related note, one may be puzzled by some of Ferrarello and Zapien’s terminological choices, as, for example, the use of the adjective ‘trinitarian’ in relation to Husserl’s philosophy in a number of parts of the book. This and other theoretical choices should have been better justified.

As far as the content of the book goes, my main concern lies with the authors’ attempt to describe a large variety of experiences related to decision-making, by resorting to only one theoretical device – that is, the multi-layered dimensions of time and intimacy. Surely, the authors demonstrate that their approach has a certain explanatory power, given that the three kinds of ethical decisions investigated by their book permit, indeed, interpretations grounded in the relations occurring between time and identity. One might, however, be left with the impression that more examples of analogous and dissimilar ethical experiences and more phenomenological descriptions relying on a broader variety of theoretical devices would have been necessary to clarify the meaning of the phenomenon in question fully. Ferrarello and Zapien themselves seem to acknowledge the need for further investigations in this regard and, in fact, they explicitly consider some of their analyses presented in Part Two of the book as open-ended and merely provisional in nature.

Overall, Ferrarello and Zapien’s book is a very-welcomed and much-needed attempt to show how phenomenology and psychology can collaborate concretely with each other towards the achievement of a shared aim and how theoretical and applied analyses can be meaningfully combined. The book constitutes Ferrarello and Zapien’s challenge for their contemporary peers – that is, the challenge to develop a comprehensive phenomenological understanding of ethical experiences, such as that of decision-making. Furthermore, it provides a first attempt to rise to this interesting challenge.

Christian Krijnen (Ed.): Concepts of Normativity: Kant or Hegel?, Brill, 2019

Concepts of Normativity: Kant or Hegel? Book Cover Concepts of Normativity: Kant or Hegel?
Critical Studies in German Idealism, Volume: 24
Christian Krijnen (Ed.)
Brill
2019
Hardback €143.00 USD $172.00
x, 260

Jason W. Alvis: The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn

The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn Book Cover The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn
Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion
Jason W. Alvis
Indiana University Press
2018
Hardback $65.00
320

Reviewed by: Daniel Cox (Saint Louis University)

Jason W. Alvis’s new book, The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn, takes insights from Heidegger’s notion of eine phänomenologie des Unscheinbaren and applies them to the phenomenological study of religion and religious experience. Synthesizing Heidegger’s work with French philosophers who have made influential contributions to the theological turn in phenomenology, Alvis successfully develops an inconspicuous phenomenology which challenges the privileged forms of presentation that hinder our phenomenological and theological thinking. In addition to offering a compelling chronology of the history of 20th century phenomenology and its various twists and turns, this book fruitfully teases out the paradoxical, subversive, and transformative nature of religious experience.

Is God a spectacle? Do the various themes and experiences belonging to religious life subvert or confirm a duplicitous metaphysics of absence and presence? If phenomenology is concerned with phenomena as they appear, while the object of theology is inherently unknowable, then is a “phenomenology of religion” a contradiction in terms? The Inconspicuous God tackles these questions and more, offering a tour de force on the development of phenomenology in Husserl’s writings, Heidegger’s monumental reshaping of phenomenology, and through to the French and theological turns in the later 20th century. Central to Alvis’s project is an attempt to recover, fortify, and ultimately defend Heidegger’s notion of unscheinbarkeit (inconspicuousness) as a way to both breathe life into a phenomenological explanation of religious experience, as well as to challenge critics of phenomenology’s mingling with theology.

Chapter one brings Heidegger’s phenomenology of the inconspicuous into conversation with Jean-Luc Marion’s writings on the paradoxical nature of revelation. Challenging phenomenology’s privileging of precision and clarity, Heidegger observes that what is hidden or covered up is paradoxically integrated into what it is for a phenomenon to appear as a phenomenon. For example, if I’m walking quickly through a crowd I mustn’t focus on what stands right in front of me, for otherwise I would be overwhelmed with information and would be unable to conceive of the pathway to my destination. Instead, I must look to where I’m headed while still being aware of my surroundings enough to not bump into people. The people in the crowd thus become inconspicuously integrated into my frame of vision, presenting useful information while not being fully present to thought. This is brought to a head in Heidegger’s writings on Being—which remains hidden while always closest at hand—eventually leading to his reformulation of phenomenology as no longer loyal to Husserl’s method of unveiling phenomena clearly and distinctly, but now as deformalizing the very distinction between the veiled and the unveiled. For Heidegger, the paradoxical nature of appearance is not something for philosophy to overcome, but is rather something to recognize as irreducibly endemic to the lebenswelt itself.

For Marion, the epitome of paradox is revelation, which he understands as “a phenomenon that phenomenalizes by countering its own modes of givenness.”[1] Similar to Heidegger’s insights into the paradoxical nature of appearing, Marion holds that revelation disrupts the very distinction between that which appears and that which is hidden. His work on saturated phenomena—revelation being the saturated phenomenon par excellence—is characterized by attempting to overcome the dialectic between the visible and the invisible, and as such shares Heidegger’s view that a reliance on this dialectic numbs thinking.

Alvis tries to take the work of these thinkers a step further by indicating two ways an inconspicuous revelation can avoid the dialectic between visibility and invisibility while also providing an opportunity for rich religious experience. First, revelation should be understood as intertwined within the banal fabric of everyday life, not as events that must shock and awe. “Revelation, if it truly is to be shocking, must take place in the most unexpected of places and ways: in the marginal, inconspicuous, and banal.”[2] Second, revelation not only challenges the privileging of visibility over invisibility in presentation, but deformalizes the framing of this distinction itself.

In chapter two, Alvis takes a closer look at what Heidegger might mean by eine phänomenologie des Unscheinbaren. Drawing from the Zähringen and Parmenides seminars, Alvis attempts to systematize Heidegger’s notion of the inconspicuous and contextualize it with respect to his larger project. As opposed to being a lens through which all phenomena can be viewed or being construed as only a step in the process of phenomenalization, Alvis ultimately finds that the most fecund interpretation of this elusive topic to be that Heidegger had in mind distinct phenomena as being inconspicuous or as appearing inconspicuously. These particular phenomena require a particular phenomenology in order to make them intelligible: a phenomenology of the inconspicuous. While all phenomena can perhaps take on the character of inconspicuousness—as a builder’s hammer becomes inconspicuous in his habitual use of it—certain phenomena are more likely to appear as inconspicuous than others. Alvis’s intended contribution is to show how experiences located in the religious life can represent these distinct phenomena that have a special ability to appear inconspicuously.

Chapter three takes Michel Henry’s writings on “life” in conjunction with Heidegger’s thoughts on “world” in order to challenge the view that the world is a neutral theatre for subjective consciousness. For Heidegger, the world is neither a sum total of neutral data nor something to be overcome, but rather is something intrinsically yet mysteriously tied to the “being open” of Dasein as it lives and endures. The objects I encounter in the world do not merely convey neutral meanings available to all rational agents, but instead tell me something about myself, what I care about, my mood-as-lived, and thus my overall affective involvement in the world at large. Inconspicuousness comes into play as the oscillation between taking-an-object-as-such and taking-an-object-as-indicative-of-involvement-in-the-world. We can learn something about the world not by philosophizing in armchairs but by being affectively involved—living and dwelling—in the inconspicuous clearing opened by Dasein.

Henry takes up this thread of affectivity in his description of “life.” To be living in the world, for Henry, is to be an affective being. We come into the world only after being affectively involved with life. The world is studied by paying attention to the affective interactions that buffer the in-between spaces separating ourselves and the world. Although there is a worry that Henry reinstates a dichotomy between inside and outside—which both Heidegger and Husserl attempted to dispel—Alvis finds that he indeed successfully domesticates life in the immanent.

Combining Heidegger’s “world” with Henry’s “life,” Alvis locates the possibility of experience of the inconspicuous God in the oscillating interval between them. Jesus himself was characterized by a mode of living that was not of this world, teaching his followers the ways in which the ordinary and banal can teach us something about God. Jesus’ prayer for his disciples—in which the paradoxical in-the world/not-of-this-world relation is exemplified—teaches that a dwelling in the world allows participation with the inconspicuous God, while cutting against the invisible-visible paradigm.

Chapter four develops an inconspicuous liturgy alongside Jean-Yves Lacoste’s development of the nonexperience and nonplace of the Absolute. Alvis seeks to correct some of Lacoste’s misconstruals of Heidegger’s project and arrive at an inconspicuous liturgical reduction. For Lacoste, a liturgical reduction entails bracketing away the ‘thesis of the world’ in order to allow the presentation of God to be free from the modes of presentation that characterize our world. This allows the phenomenological appearance of God to be located in the strangely irreducible exterior of consciousness. The world must be put in suspension in order to experience the ‘nonexperience’ of the Absolute. By bracketing a totalizing thesis of the world away from the question of the experience of God, Lacoste allows God to appear as total but not as totalizing.

Alvis finds a similar theme running through Heidegger’s writings on the disclosure of Being to Dasein. Contrary to the early Greek and Husserlian notion of Being as a stable presence that can be ascertained by consciousness, Heidegger’s Being is first disclosed when one finds oneself thrown out into the world, which is the fundamental experience of Dasein. This thrown-openness which characterizes Heideggerian Being exceeds—or, rather, precedes—conscious experience, and as such it entails a fundamental relationship with the nonconscious or the nonexperienceable.

Instead of bracketing the world away completely—which destroys the way Dasein dwells as a ‘worlded’ being—Alvis suggests thinking the world as inconspicuous. Instead of looking for the Absolute by escaping from the world, we should view the world as harboring the potential nonplace and nonexperience about which Lacoste speaks. This allows the inconspicuous God to manifest in the marginalized, dormant, and inconspicuous ‘here’ within our world. The clearing or opening onto the nonplace and nonexperience of the Absolute is found in the uncanny and banal places that, inconspicuously, are most near and familiar to us. An inconspicuous liturgical reduction, therefore, suspends not the world but the spectacles of the world in favor of the Absolute’s indwelling in the inconspicuous and immanent ‘here.’

In chapter five, Alvis follows Jean-Luc Nancy’s investigations on Christian adoration in order to develop a way by which the inconspicuous God can be adored. Adoration is a reflexive activity whereby one sets apart that which is deemed worthy of praise from that which is not. But this can all too easily turn into an idolization of spectacles. What is worthy of praise and adoration, Nancy argues, is not the spectacle which is differentiated from the ordinary, but instead differentiation itself, as the abyss or opening which both appears and withdraws when we set things apart.

However, Alvis argues that a grafting of pure differentiation onto divinity can easily become an idolatrous discourse in our spectacle-dominated world. Divine differentiation, to which an inconspicuous adoration is directed, must be seamlessly incorporated into the marginal and everyday in order to avoid the idol-multiplying simulacrum of divinity that an adoration of pure differentiation creates. An inconspicuous adoration allows for the familiar and immanent around us to be an occasion for glimpsing the Absolute. We can learn something about the inconspicuous God by adoring what is forgotten and rejected as commonplace. What do we adore when we adore the inconspicuous God? Not difference-as-content but instead the non-idolatrous differentiation that overcomes the spectacle/ordinary dichotomy altogether.

Chapter six takes stock of Dominique Janicaud’s critique of Heidegger in order to pin down some of the methodological implications for how evidence should be construed in the context of an inconspicuous phenomenology of religion. A staunch critic of Heidegger, Janicaud thought his notion of unscheinbarkeit was the root of the bad theological turn in phenomenology, which was responsible for unnecessarily complicating phenomenological thinking. Heidegger eschewed Husserl’s privileging of clarity over absence, turned away from his intentionality-rich method, and integrated absence and withdrawal into the substrate of phenomenological thinking, all things Janicaud thought were poisoning phenomenology. But this is due, Alvis argues, to his misunderstanding of Heidegger’s unscheinbarkeit, which Janicaud seems to think means “inapparent” or “invisible.” Unscheinbarkeit instead should be translated as “inconspicuous,” “lacking in evidence,” or “lacking the ability to be spectacular.” Contra Janicaud, then, “phenomenology of religion” is not an oxymoronic attempt to solder together clarity with absence, but is instead, following Heidegger, the attempt to deformalize the very distinction between clarity and absence in order to allow religious experiences to present themselves in ways which exceed our worldly compartmentalizations.

Alvis then synthesizes the work of William Alston, Merold Westphal, and Anthony Steinbock in order to arrive at an inconspicuous construal of religious evidence. Alvis wants a description of evidence that avoids being reduced to epistemology, that avoids ushering in ontotheology, and finally that avoids ascribing legitimacy to any and all phenomena without explanation or defense. For Alvis, if “religion” refers to the being-open-to an essential relationship between Dasein and a meaning-giving potentiality; and if “experience” describes the process of grasping the particularities in consciousness which become meaningful-for-me; then “religious experience” describes the momentary latching onto intelligible data which is constitutive of the being-openness of Dasein to the meaning-giving potentiality of the Absolute.

Alvis then offers three reasons why the theme of inconspicuousness is keen to describe evidence for religious experiences construed as such. First, the religious experience is inconspicuously integrated into the whole of experience, thus being unable to be extracted from the totality of presentation. Second, religious experience isn’t straightforwardly “provable” because this would assume the Absolute can be wholly conjured when its evidence is offered. Third, the absoluteness or omnipotence of God—to which religious experience points—resists being brought into full clarity, remaining inconspicuous in our attempts to do so.

Chapter seven investigates the merits of understanding faith through the lens of inconspicuousness. By considering the thought of both Heidegger and Jean-Louis Chrétien, Alvis develops three ways the theme of forgetting supports an inconspicuous faith. First, forgetting as denoticing, which includes a double movement in which one is open to the new while simultaneously recognizing the disclosure of the new in the old that endures. Second, forgetting as counternoticing reincorporates the remembered into a novel context, which allows for a new type of knowledge to manifest. Third, forgetting as covering-over, which includes laminating over that which is remembered, not as anti-remembrance but as counter-remembrance.

Alvis argues that an inconspicuous faith must recognize the importance of forgetting which resists a totalizing grasp onto the object of faith. Instead of a faith in, we should embrace a faith with, which recognizes the interpersonal aspect to religious experience and phenomenological thinking. The inconspicuous God is the most ‘unforgettable’ because it is paradoxically that which most uniquely resists being contained within memory’s grasp, always residing in the inconspicuous peripheries of thought.

In chapter eight, Alvis investigates the aboutness of the inconspicuous God, which includes bracketing away the metaphysical questions “is there a God?” and “what is God’s essential nature” while instead focusing on the phenomenological questions “how is God given?” and “to what forms of presentation does God relate?” Alvis finds Emmanuel Levinas to be an ally in describing how God can be described in a way that doesn’t idolize incomprehensibility while also avoiding the temptation to draw God out into the full clarity of daylight. Levinas negotiates these obstacles by locating God’s incarnate infinity in the multitudinous faces of the inconspicuous others that surround us. We share ethical and social relationships with the foreign faces around us without ever grasping them directly. God’s intelligibility is thus gestured toward through our immanent relationships with others which avoid a totalizing conceptualization.

Keeping in theme with the preceding chapters, Alvis argues that inconspicuousness offers a key to subverting the dichotomies which obfuscate a description of the givenness of God. The intelligibility of God comes about not through locating God in a single pole of light/dark, clear/obscure, presence/withdrawal, but instead by recognizing the unique way in which an experience of the Absolute subverts these categories altogether. Inconspicuous phenomena instead can be given through hiding, surrogating, screening, or being present-at-hand by proxy. To recognize God as inconspicuous entails paying closer attention to the common and marginal, as opportunities for a glimpse into the Absolute which incites wonder. To seek the inconspicuous God is not to search after a hidden essence, but is instead a call to action for paying closer attention to our immanent relationships with the ordinary and with others. A phenomenology of the inconspicuous, at the very least, obliges one to rethink the temptation to quarantine God into either incomprehensibility or a blinding clarity, and instead to become open to the potential for an experience that oscillates between them.

Now I’d like return to the questions that were posed at the beginning of this review in order to expound on how they can be illuminated following some of the insights gained from Alvis’s project. Is God a spectacle? The answer is a clear no for Alvis. God understood as a spectacle—as well as the inversion of this: God understood as pure incomprehensibility—relies upon the assumption that the phenomenality of God must operate according to a dazzling clarity. Associating divinity with spectacularity is to invoke the multiple duplicities—absence/presence, clarity/withdrawal, light/dark—that facilitate an idolatrous obsession with grasping the totality of the Absolute in its infinity.

A phenomenology of the spectacle—which operates according to a privileging of presence and a repression of absence—is problematic for a number of reasons. Spectacles have a shelf life, so a philosophy that idolizes spectacularity soon becomes a discourse of addiction which eventually colonizes all facets of life. By privileging clarity and a totalizing intelligibility, a phenomenology of the spectacle teaches that what is good is that which does not resist domination and what is bad is what avoids conceptualization. This betrays an epistemological pathology that seeks certainty and absolute precision as the ends of philosophical thinking, which thinkers ranging from Nietzsche to Derrida have thoroughly critiqued. Applied to theology, God becomes the greatest spectacle of all and by proxy that which is most able to be domesticated by thought. As all the great thinkers of classical theology knew to be true, a God that can be domesticated by thought is no God at all, but is only a “god”: a powerful yet finite being among beings.

Jesus himself was hardly spectacular in his life. He was a lowly Jewish preacher who disavowed the power of state and sword, lived in a shared community with his disciples, and taught pacifism and tolerance in the face of violence. Those whose faith relies primarily on the mythical spectacles associated with Jesus—miraculous healings and his resurrection—often miss the importance of his life and teachings, as Nietzsche knew to be true. To isolate the spectacle of miracles or resurrections as the core of Christian theology is to necessarily relegate Jesus’s social and political teachings to second-order phenomena, when in fact the reverse is an eminently more faithful portrayal of the Good News brought by Jesus Christ. The force of the New Testament relies not on cheap tricks but on a transformative vision about what humans can become and how they can live as oriented toward a primordial Goodness that shines forth in all things. As Nietzsche knew, an ascetic devotion to metaphysical platitudes—and we should include here the worshipping of divinity-as-spectacle—inevitably tends to turn our heads away from the banalities endemic to worldly being and toward a maddening denial of life.[3]

Instead, the God of a phenomenology of the inconspicuous avoids the totalizing gaze of clarity, while also resisting the void of pure incomprehensibility. God ought to be understood as harboring a potential to be disclosed in the ordinary and banal, among those disavowed and disenfranchised by society. We can glimpse something of the infinite in that which is paradoxically closest to us. An inconspicuous phenomenology thus tarries with the paradoxical nature by which phenomena are disclosed to us. There is always something hidden in a phenomenon’s being presented. Contrariwise, that which most resists conceptualization can be the nearest at hand. The inconspicuous nature of divine phenomenality allows for an experience of the Absolute which paradoxically is revealed through the ordinary and every day.

Do the various themes and experiences belonging to religious life subvert or confirm a duplicitous metaphysics of absence and presence? In considering revelation, the religious lifeworld, liturgy, adoration, evidence, and faith, Alvis consistently finds that these theological themes are animated by a phenomenology that disavows the duplicitous metaphysical categorization by which one would separate phenomena into polarizing categories. The Absolute is paradoxically revealed through the ordinary. Recognizing the affective dwelling of Dasein in the lifeworld resists the polarizing oppositions of inside/outside. An inconspicuous liturgical reduction suspends the spectacles of the world in order to allow for the nonexperience of the infinite in the immanent. By lingering with the rejected and forgotten, we can cultivate an inconspicuous adoration that overcomes the clarity/withdrawal dichotomy. An inconspicuous evidence must recognize the impossibility of bringing divinity into full clarity, and instead must allow God to blend inconspicuously into the entire field of experience. Faith in the inconspicuous God is directed toward that which is unforgettable precisely because it paradoxically resists memory’s grasp. In each case, Alvis shows how invoking a polarizing metaphysics of presence and absence numbs theological thinking, and instead we should recognize the ways in which an experience of the Absolute deformalizes and thus subverts these sorts of distinctions.

Is “phenomenology of religion” an oxymoron? As already alluded to in the summary of chapter six, this phrase only becomes an oxymoron if one adopts a duplicitous metaphysical perspective whereby phenomenology is assumed to be a method of grasping objects with absolute clarity, while religion is assumed to be a discourse directed toward unknowable phenomena. Setting the stage as such certainly would cause problems for how God, as hidden or unknowable, could be brought into the light using a method that privileges clarity. However, following Heidegger, Alvis seeks to deformalize the distinction between clarity and absence that undergirds this problematic.

This confusion in terms also stems back to the misunderstanding of the meaning of Heidegger’s unscheinbarkeit. As Alvis repeatedly has shown in his book, this word does not mean “absent” or “invisible,” which Heidegger addressed early on in his career. It needs to be understood rather as that which slips conscious grasping while still presenting itself intelligibly. An inconspicuous phenomenology cuts against phenomenality itself and the conditions of experience we typically rely on, paying attention to the ways a phenomenon incorporates absence into its appearance while recognizing the way those phenomena that are ontologically furthest away are paradoxically nearest to us.

I’d like to now pivot into some more critical remarks that hopefully spark further dialogue and academic interest into this fascinating topic. One cannot help but to draw a comparison between a phenomenology of the inconspicuous and the analogia entis (analogy of being) as described in the classical Christian tradition. Both methods seek to accomplish similar goals. The phenomenology of the inconspicuous seeks to offer ways to describe religious experiences that privilege neither clarity nor absence, but instead subvert this distinction altogether. Similarly, the analogia entis seeks to offer ways to understand the relationship between God and creation, which is done by drawing an analogy between the two that eschews both equivocal and univocal predication. While phenomenologists would likely have problems with the analogia entis understood as a totalizing metaphysical system, this largely isn’t what Aquinas and others had in mind when writing about it. Instead, it was a method to temper our knowledge of God and God’s relationship to humanity and to usher in humility before that which escapes complete conceptualization yet is revealed through the immanent.

Similar to the phenomenology of the inconspicuous, the analogia entis seeks to navigate a path between a rationalist philosophy disconnected from history and tradition that seeks to bring everything out into the clarity of light and an individualistic voluntarism that can identify no rational norms nor universal intelligibilities, which ultimately culminates in a nihilistic historicism and relativism. Both also seek to show how something of the infinite Absolute can be gestured at by paying more attention to the immanent and ordinary. Erich Przywara’s celebrated book on the analogia entis endeavored to bring the ancient doctrine into conversation with 20th century phenomenology, especially Heidegger and Husserl.[4] More attention needs to brought to the contact point between this classical doctrine of Christian theology and modern attempts to rethink religious principles in ways like Alvis does in his book.

If nothing else, a phenomenology of the inconspicuous can utilize the scholarship surrounding the analogia entis for understanding how God became understood as a spectacle in the first place, since this was not always the case. As recent commenters like Gavin Hyman have argued, God becomes associated with spectacularity once a univocity of being is adopted in order to understand the relationship between God and man.[5] In order to counteract God or religious experience being understood as spectacles that must shock and awe us, we must learn how the move from analogy to univocity occurred in history and apply this to our current philosophies to safeguard them from hiding a repressed tendency toward idolatrous spectacularity.

In conclusion, Alvis’s book successfully accomplishes its stated goals and is a must read for those interested in both the phenomenological and theological traditions, as well as the ways in which these two traditions can benefit from dialoguing with each other. Alvis provides new avenues for thinking about God and religious precepts which pay homage to Heidegger’s innovations in phenomenology while being true to the salvific story of Jesus. Most of all, Alvis correctly identifies the problems associated with a phenomenology of religion that privileges clarity over other types of presentation. Perhaps Alvis’s greatest lesson is to teach humility before the mundane and ordinary, for the experience of God is revealed through a transformative potentiality present in those overlooked and ordinary phenomena that are closest at hand.

References

Alvis, Jason W. 2018. The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hyman, Gavin. 2010. A Short History of Atheism. London: I. B. Tauris.

Przywara, Erich. 2014. Analogia Entis: Metaphysics: Original Structure and Universal Rhythm. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Company.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1967. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Edited by Walter Kaufmann and RJ Hollingdale. New York, NY: Random House.


[1] Jason W. Alvis. 2018. The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 33.

[2] Alvis, The Inconspicuous God, 49.

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche. 1967. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, ed. Walter Kaufmann and RJ Hollingdale. New York, NY: Random House, 108.

[4] Erich Przywara. 2014. Analogia Entis: Metaphysics: Original Structure and Universal Rhythm. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Company.

[5] Gavin Hyman. 2010. A Short History of Atheism. London: I. B. Tauris, 49.