While Hegel has long been acknowledged as an important influence upon several figures within the phenomenological tradition, the relation of his system to the movement’s founder, Husserl, has been largely overlooked. Husserl’s few, and – for the most part – unenthusiastic references to Hegel, together with the anti-Hegelian attitudes of his teacher, Brentano, have seemed, for most, to suggest that there is nothing to learn from comparing Husserl’s thought with Hegel’s, however much Hegelian and Husserlian themes are to be found combined in the works of subsequent phenomenologists. As such, the recent collection of essays, Hegel and Phenomenology, edited by Alfredo Ferrarin, Dermot Moran, Elisa Magrì and Danilo Manca, represents a most welcome contribution to current debates concerning Hegel’s legacy for Continental philosophy, and the affinities between Hegelian and Husserlian approaches. The collection leans very much towards Husserl, with eight of its eleven chapters centring upon Husserl’s relation to Hegel. Other members of the phenomenological tradition, customarily thought closer to Hegel, are less well-represented here, although there are very interesting chapters on Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur, each of which makes an original contribution to phenomenology scholarship while offering a distinct perspective from which to assess Hegel’s twentieth century legacy.
Although several of the contributors note significant agreements between Husserl and Hegel in earlier works, it is no surprise that the Hegelian motifs in Husserl’s project are most apparent in the posthumous Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. Whether or not Husserl himself became conscious of his affinities with Hegel, his successors in the phenomenological tradition were not slow to appreciate the Hegelian implications contained within a post-Kantian philosophy of subjectivity once it has become sensitive to the importance of intersubjective and inherited historical factors conditioning the subject’s understanding of its experience. The first three chapters of the collection are therefore specifically devoted to interpreting Husserl’s Crisis text in the light of such Hegelian motifs. Chapters four and five compare methodological approaches in Hegel’s phenomenology, whereas chapters six, seven and eight make subjectivity their central theme. The remaining three chapters examine Hegel and Husserl by way of Adorno, Ricœur and Sellars.
The first chapter of the collection, by Dermot Moran, delivers a fascinating account of Hegel’s passage from disrepute to prestige during the early history of the phenomenological movement. As Moran explains, Hegel’s reputation suffered enormously in Germany during the second half of the nineteenth century, when the call for a return to Kant left Hegelian speculative idealism discredited as an extravagantly metaphysical position vulnerable to epistemic critique. Brentano typifies the anti-Hegelian attitudes of this period in German philosophy, identifying Hegel as part of an irrationalist wave terminating a cycle of philosophical progress. The monumentally influential lectures of Koyré, Kojève and Hyppolite notwithstanding, however, Moran shows Heidegger’s rehabilitation of Hegel to pre-date these developments in France, so that it is in Germany that Hegel’s journey to phenomenological respectability originates. Moran stresses the importance of Heidegger’s Freiburg lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit in restoring Hegel’s esteem amongst a new generation of phenomenologists, and devotes particular attention to Finks’s Hegelian inheritance and its possible influence upon the ultimate shape of Husserl’s Crisis text.
Husserl’s early disregard for Hegel aside, Moran clearly identifies deep affinities between Hegel’s treatment of subjectivity in terms of historically developing intersubjective Spirit and the concerns of the Crisis, examining possible sources of conscious or unconscious Hegelian influences upon this work. Moran’s assessment of the Hegel-Husserl relationship is compelling, original and productive, opening a route to significant re-evaluation of a pairing frequently regarded as fundamentally incompatible. Moran arguably overstates Hegel’s proximity to Husserl, however, on the crucial and much-contested issue of transcendental philosophy – a matter of decisive importance in assessing Hegel’s place in the post-Kantian tradition. Whereas Husserl never abandons his commitment to transcendental methods following his 1907 Kantian epiphany, Hegel’s consciously anti-Kantian methodology greatly complicates efforts to classify him as a transcendental philosopher in any straightforward, unqualified sense.
The complex relationship between Hegel’s system and Husserl’s later work is further examined in the second chapter of the collection, by Tanja Staehler, which addresses their respective treatments of history and teleology. Whereas, according to Staehler, both thinkers identify a purposiveness in European history, and an orientation towards a telos, Hegel takes the goal of history to have been prescribed in advance by the logic of the Absolute Idea, while Husserl allows for changes in historical trajectory owing to the revisability of its telos. In spite of a common teleological approach to historical understanding, Husserl and Hegel differ very significantly, according to Staehler, in their treatments of the future. For Staehler, Hegel’s omnivorous system struggles to accommodate genuine spontaneity into its grand design, which entails that the horizons of historical possibility completely fixed by a process which achieved maturation in the early nineteenth century. Husserl, however, is better able to acknowledge contingencies of time and culture not anticipated in the historical experience of any given community. As such, the future never loses its potential for radical novelty on Husserl’s account, according to Staehler, who takes Husserl to deny the possibility of an ‘absolute’ perspective from which all historically-conditioned limits of understanding are overcome.
Those who are sympathetic to Hegel shall no doubt take issue with Staehler’s familiar objection that there is no contingency or spontaneity worthy of the title in Hegel’s treatment of history. All the same, Staehler identifies a crucial point of disagreement between Hegel and Husserl, insofar as Husserl treats the telos of European history as originating within a specific historical life-world, whereas, for Hegel, teleology involves the realisation in space and time of a conceptual order originating elsewhere. As such, Staehler is well-supported in maintaining that Husserl’s historical teleology is more modest in its claims than Hegel’s.
Danilo Manca’s chapter – the third of the collection – compares Hegel’s and Husserl’s respective treatments of the history of philosophy, with particular focus upon their differing relations to Kant’s approach to the same topic. Beginning with a discussion of Kant’s position, Manca outlines the notion of a ‘philosophizing history of philosophy’ which Kant introduces to distinguish a narrative of specifically philosophical significance within the events leading from Thales to the Enlightenment. Although the first Critique presents the history of philosophy as a cyclical process of metaphysical indulgence and sceptical renunciation, Manca notes evidence from Kant’s posthumous documents suggesting a more progressive interpretation of the same events, whereby reason’s own nature entails its elaboration over time. According to Manca, Hegel and Husserl are Kant’s successors in the project of a philosophizing history of philosophy, each seeking for an underlying rationale and a generally progressive direction to the same historical sequence of events.
Manca’s contribution is the first of the collection to discuss in detail the shared Kantian inheritance to the Hegelian and phenomenological movements, and his comparison of Hegel’s and Husserl’s respective accounts of the history of philosophy neatly illustrates their points of departure from a common ancestor. Manca notes that, for Hegel, contingencies in the historically-situated articulations of the Absolute Idea are the result of the spatiotemporal medium in which reason strains to express itself, whereas Husserl understands the same contingency to originate in more mundane cultural differences. Ultimately, Manca concludes, Husserl remains closest to Kant, insofar as he interprets the history of philosophy as orbiting around a set of problems, rather than as the unidirectional process by which reason realises itself over an organic series of stages. Whereas, for Hegel, history articulates a conceptual structure outlined in the Science of Logic, Husserl recognises no such extra-historical standard informing history’s development.
Hegel’s critique of immediacy and its implications for Husserl’s foundationalist project provides the theme for Chapter Four, by Chong-Fuk Lau, in which it is argued that Husserl came ultimately to concede the impossibility of the very presuppositionless standpoint to which his epoché had been intended to facilitate access. As Lau notes, Hegel and Husserl are similarly committed to the possibility of a rigorously scientific and presuppositionless philosophy, differing principally over whether presuppositionlessness is the feature of a starting-point or a system taken as a whole. Lau is sympathetic to Hegel’s anti-foundationalism, which he takes to fatally undermine the pursuit of ultimate beginnings to which Husserl is committed in his transcendental phenomenology. According to Lau, whereas Hegel had shown that there is nothing altogether free of mediation, Husserl’s performance of the epoché is intended to facilitate a radical beginning from which all mediation has been expelled. For Lau, there is simply no room for compromise between Husserl and Hegel over this Cartesian methodological issue, and Husserl’s appearance of having moved closer to Hegel by the time of the Crisis is the result of his having abandoned his earlier foundationalist ideals.
Lau’s expert discussion of Hegel compellingly makes the case for a fundamental incompatibility between Hegel’s method and that of the Husserlian transcendental phenomenologist. Whereas, however, he is on secure ground in maintaining that Heidegger or Gadamer represent greater prospects for a phenomenological appropriation of Hegelian insights than is afforded by Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, his claim that the Crisis involves a complete reversal of earlier foundationalist aspirations is more questionable. The ideal of “European science” to which Husserl re-affirms his commitment in the Crisis does not significantly differ from that which he presents in the Cartesian Meditations, and Husserl does not suppose his greater attention to the life-world to undermine earlier aspirations.
Chapter Five, the first of the collection specifically to compare Hegel and Heidegger, is by Antoine Cantin-Brault and examines Hegel’s and Heidegger’s respective understandings of the Heraclitean logos. In its profounder sense, as the principle (arche) of nature (phusis), logos may, according to Cantin-Brault be understood either as (i) the dialectical and determinate truth of being, or as (ii) the unveiling of that which is concealed. Although Heraclitus does not, Cantin-Brault maintains, explicitly make any such distinction, Hegel interprets Heraclitean logos from the first perspective, whereas Heidegger’s interpretation emphasises the second. For Cantin-Brault, Heidegger’s approach to Heraclitus is mediated by a Hegelian interpretation which he tries, and ultimately fails, to overcome. As such, Cantin-Brault argues, Heidegger is unsuccessful in his attempt to understand Heraclitean logos apart from Hegelian dialectic. Hence, for Cantin-Brault, as for Hegel, Heraclitus is a dialectical thinker, in whose work a process of rational self-articulation is driven by the dynamic relation between certain fundamental concepts. Indeed, Cantin-Brault maintains, it was Heraclitus that first instituted a logos which provides Hegel’s philosophy with its central governing principle.
Heidegger’s changing approach to Heraclitean logos, and his disagreements with Hegel on this matter, are, according to Cantin-Brault, illustrative of differing understandings of the nature of ontology, and Heidegger engages differently with Heraclitus before and after his famous Kehre. Cantin-Brault’s chapter strikingly highlights the very different issues relevant to comparing Hegel with either Heidegger or Husserl, and marks quite a thematic departure from the previous, more Husserl-focussed contributions. This is apparent not only in the respectively epistemic and ontological priorities which distinguish Husserl and Heidegger, but also in their divergent attitudes towards the pre-Socratics. Although Plato marks a watershed for both Husserl and Heidegger, he is, for Husserl, the first true philosopher, and for Heidegger, the initial step to modernity’s ontological forgetfulness.
In Chapter Six, Andrea Altobrando compellingly makes the case that, from the time of his transcendental turn, Husserl came to share with Hegel a commitment to the pure ego as a necessary abstraction from the concrete self. After the initial Humean-Brentanian scepticism towards the unified self which he displays in the Logical Investigations, Husserl moves, according to Altobrando, in the contrary direction, acknowledging the pure ego as a necessary condition of any possible experience. Like Hegel, however, in the Phenomenology of Spirit and Philosophy of Mind, Husserl is not, Altobrando shows, committed to Cartesian substance dualism, but recognises the pure ego as an abstraction from a more concrete self, upon which it is therefore ontologically dependent. Both Hegel and Husserl, Altobrando maintains, recognise a demand to develop a more concrete understanding of one’s ontological identity which is not, therefore, merely abstract. For Hegel as well as Husserl, the pure ego, according to Altobrando, is entirely barren of content, simple, indeterminate and negative, without being unreal. Such an abstract pure ego is, Altobrando maintains, necessary for both Hegel and Husserl in order to accommodate the possibility of free agency and the intentionality of consciousness.
With this discussion of the pure ego, Altobrando highlights a feature of Husserl’s philosophy which might – in view of his well-known Cartesian inheritance – initially be thought to disqualify any prospect of overlap with Hegel, and shows that such impressions are unfounded. What is more, as Altobrando explicitly remarks, the comparison of Hegel’s and Husserl’s respective views concerning the pure ego represents a large and difficult project with very significant potential for re-assessing the prospects for dialogue between Husserlian and Hegelian traditions. As such, Altobrando’s contribution indicates the beginning of an exciting and promising larger project concerning the place of the pure ego in Husserl’s thought and Hegel’s.
Chapter Seven, by Alfredo Ferrarin, examines the much-neglected topic of Hegel’s and Husserl’s respective views concerning the imagination and, in so doing, identifies fascinating and unexpected points of agreement between the two thinkers, along with more predictable disagreements. According to Ferrarin, Hegel and Husserl share, first, a common Humean target, and, second, an understanding of the mind as stratified into layers of capacity which support and build upon one another. Unlike Hume, who recognises only a difference in degree of liveliness and vivacity between the ideas and impressions which furnish the contents of the mind, Hegel and Husserl recognise logically irreducible functional differences between the imagination and other subjective capacities. Such capacities are vertically ordered, for Hegel and Husserl, each of whom maintains that the capacity for sensible perception is conditional and grounded upon that of imagination.
Whereas, for Ferrarin, Hegel stresses the continuities between imagination and perception, Hegel emphasises their discontinuities, but both acknowledge a mutual dependence between the possible representation of the real and that of the unreal. In accordance with their contrasting methodological approaches, however, Hegel and Husserl differ very significantly, according to Ferrarin, in their assessments of the philosophical role of the imagination. Husserl’s eidetic discoveries are presented as the products of phantasy or imaginative variation, whereas Hegel understands the imagination as an intermediate stage on subjectivity’s self-propelling journey towards the pure Idea, wherein the sensible content of one’s representations is abstracted and their logical form laid bare to the contemplation of speculative intelligence. Since for Hegel it is the business of philosophy to transform representations into thoughts, the products of imagination are, in spite of their necessary contribution in facilitating the possibility of sensible knowledge and experience, part of what needs to be overcome in effecting the self-mediated transition from ordinary consciousness to philosophical science.
In her chapter – the eighth of the collection – Elisa Magrì argues that Hegel and Merleau-Ponty confront a similar paradox concerning expression, and pursue a common strategy in response. According to Magrì, the concept of expression occupies a central role in Hegel’s thought and Merleau-Ponty’s, but is in neither case to be understood in terms of the manifestation of a pre-existing logos. Beginning with Kant’s account of genius in the third Critique, Magrì shows that, for Kant, expression involves the spontaneous production of a representation which is communicable to others without having been generated according to a fixed procedure or rule. Expression takes on a broader systematic role for Hegel and Merleau-Ponty, Magrì maintains, both of whom employ genetic description to make sense of its pervasive significance in every aspect of thought and subjective experience. Magrì examines Hegel’s discussions of the concepts of expression and manifestation in the Science of Logic and identifies how their respective shortcomings contribute to the emergence of the self-conditioning concept which is the articulation of its own significance. Hegel’s account of expression in the Philosophy of Subjective Spirit is then explored in depth and its systematic connections with the argument of the Logic brought into view.
Merleau-Ponty is seen to agree with Hegel in treating expression properly understood as the origination of meaning, rather than the making publicly available of a privately originating significance. According to Magrì, expression depends, for Hegel and Merleau-Ponty, upon a complex dialectical interplay of activity and passivity, the importance of which for their respective post-Kantian approaches is difficult to overstate. Such a dialectic is particularly well-illustrated, Magrì suggests, in Hegel’s and Merleau-Ponty’s respective accounts of the processes by which the body becomes habituated to the expression of meaning – a series of developments involving moments of subjectivity and objectivity, interiority and exteriority.
Chapter Nine, by Giovanni Zanotti, represents something of a change in direction for the collection, with Hegel taking a step into the background and his place being filled by one of his most important twentieth century enthusiasts – Theodor Adorno. Zanotti examines Adorno’s Hegelian critique of Husserl’s commitment to a presuppositionless first philosophy grounded in the immediate deliverances of intuition. According to Zanotti, Adorno shows Husserl’s ambitious foundationalist project to fall victim to Hegel’s critique of pure immediacy, insofar as Husserl falsely assumes the possibility of an immediate foundation to knowledge which is yet able to mediate the transfer of epistemic support to propositions to which it must therefore stand in relations of mediation. Zanotti explicitly maintains that Adorno’s critique is effective specifically against such earlier Husserlian works as the Logical Investigations, leaving open the possibility that Husserl may be less vulnerable to such criticisms in the Crisis and related works of that period.
What is especially interesting about Zanotti’s admirably lucid and finely-crafted chapter is the way it explains Adorno’s discovery of an unintended dialectical tendency in Husserl’s work. According to Zanotti, Adorno shows that Husserl is led, in spite of himself but nonetheless through a kind of logic immanent within his position, to qualify the earlier Platonic realism of the Logical Investigations in recognition of a necessary subjective ground for the logical concepts he intends to elucidate without, however, sliding into the naïve psychologism which, Adorno maintains, Husserl was right to reject. As such, Zanotti’s chapter amplifies a theme recurrent throughout the collection – that in spite of his ignorance of and early antipathy to Hegel’s thought, the trajectory of Husserl’s philosophical development is towards increasingly greater proximity to Hegel. This is not to deny, however – as Adorno well-recognises – that the one-sidedness of Husserl’s earlier works indicates a genuine insight.
The penultimate chapter of the collection, by Gilles Marmasse, explores Ricœur’s ambivalent assessment of Hegel’s system and its legacy. According to Marmasse, Ricœur understands Hegel’s absolutist ambitions as a temptation which must be resisted, but the renunciation of which cannot be experienced without a sense of profound loss. For Ricœur, the events of the twentieth century have made it impossible to subscribe any longer to the self-grounding and totalising conception of philosophy which Hegel offers in reply to the finitude of the Kantian system, without having eliminated the appeal of such an ideal. The contemporary predicament is well-illustrated by the remarkable fascination which Hegel’s system retains, according to Ricœur, notwithstanding that it is no longer possible seriously to regard philosophy as party to anything else than a partial interpretation of the multifaceted cultural environment to which it belongs and by which it is conditioned.
Ricœur exaggerates Hegel’s dogmatic proclivities, according to Marmasse, who confronts Ricœur’s familiarly speculative interpretation of Hegel with a more deflationary approach which emphasises the Hegelian ambition to accommodate contingency and particularity within the system without annihilating their status as irreducible moments of a greater whole. Contrary to Ricœur’s inflationary reading, Hegel’s notion of Spirit does not, Marmasse maintains, commit him to any disembodied extra-human agency. All the same, according to Marmasse, Ricœur’s criticisms of Hegel retain, in spite of their shortcomings, a contemporary value and interest, especially in respect of their highlighting of authoritarian implications in Hegel’s theory of the state. Marmasse’s chapter is especially interesting in the way it exemplifies a phenomenon frequently remarked upon in the history of Hegel’s reception – namely, the peculiar allure of his system even for those seeking to identify its failings, and the apparent impossibility of ‘getting beyond’ Hegel – with whom it therefore seems necessary to remain in continued dialogue.
Daniele De Santis concludes the collection with a chapter defending Husserl against charges of the kind raised by Sellars’s monumentally influential critique of the myth of the Given. As De Santis remarks, Sellars’s Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind is often taken as the original source of a Hegel renaissance within analytic philosophy by which Cartesian approaches of the kind which Husserl advocates have been largely discredited. De Santis identifies three aspects of Sellars’s Hegelianism; (i) a ‘three-fold critique’ of givenness, comprising epistemological, metaphysical and genetic elements, (ii) a historical counter-account to a received view of Hegel’s relation to Cartesian philosophy, and (iii) a conceptual holism subsequently embraced by Brandom and McDowell. According to De Santis, Sellars intends for his initial attack against sense-datum theories to open a route towards the rejection of a general picture of givenness of which no philosopher has been altogether innocent. Sellars’s self-described Méditations Hégéliennes are intended to recall Husserl’s Méditations Cartésiennes, De Santis maintains, and therefore to implicate Husserl as complicit in the myth which Sellars means to unveil and dispel.
Identifying a problematic conception of evidence as the core of Sellars’s three-fold critique of givenness, De Santis proceeds to argue that performance of the transcendental-phenomenological reduction, or epoché, leads Husserl to reconceive of the intentional object as the product of acts of transcendental synthesis. Appearances are not mere isolated ‘givens’ according to Husserl, but originate within a normative network of combination-guiding principles which has more in common with Sellars’s conceptual holism than analytic Hegelians have yet to recognise. De Santis’s contribution carries the welcome implication that the so-called ‘Hegelian turn’ in recent analytic philosophy need not preclude productive engagement with phenomenology, any more than phenomenologists have been prevented from making significant contributions to Hegel scholarship or to contemporary understandings of Hegel’s current relevance.
The omission of chapters devoted specifically to Sartre, de Beauvoir and Gadamer and their respective responses to Hegel is perhaps surprising, although a volume addressing each of the major figures of the phenomenological movement would have significantly increased the length of the collection and shifted its focus away from the movement’s founder. Certainly other phenomenologists are more explicitly indebted to Hegel, and Husserl is one of the least obviously ‘Hegelian’ figures of the tradition, but the collection’s unusual attention to Husserl’s widely unacknowledged affinities with Hegel’s thought is, for this very reason, amongst its many virtues. Few other collections offer such thorough studies of the congruences and points of departure between Hegel’s ambitious project and the tradition of philosophical research originating with Husserl, without failing to respect the complex unity of the phenomenological movement as a venture of Husserlian origin. The essays in the present volume – the result of a conference on “Hegel and the Phenomenological Movement” held in Pisa in 2014 – collectively and compellingly make the case for a fresh approach to the relation between Hegelianism and phenomenology, which does not assume Husserl’s basic philosophical orientation to be antithetical to Hegel’s but sees both traditions as responses to a common Kantian heritage and capable of productive cross-fertilisation in the development of anti-naturalist strategies centring upon the meaning-constitutive priority of historical subjectivity. Such a re-evaluation – it might reasonably be hoped – shall be met with enthusiasm by an audience which has become impatient with dismissive treatments of Husserl as a naïve Cartesian, radical only in his uncompromising foundationalism and unmoved by the era-defining concerns which have, since the mid-twentieth century, made Hegel increasingly difficult to ignore for analytic as well as Continental philosophers. While the history of the phenomenological movement has typically been seen as one of successive heretical departures from an original Husserlian ideal of ‘philosophy as rigorous science’ and the greater acceptance of a hermeneutic and historicist approach antithetical to Husserl’s, the present collection invites readers to question such received wisdom by considering the Hegelian potential implicit in Husserl and re-examining his legacy from a perspective informed by Hegel.
“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.
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.
The Mathematical Imagination focuses on the role of mathematics and digital technologies in critical theory of culture. This book belongs to the history of ideas rather than to that of mathematics proper since it treats it on a metaphorical level to express phenomena of silence or discontinuity. In order to bring more readability and clarity to the non-specialist readers, I firstly present the essential concepts, background, and objectives of his book.
The methodology of this book is constructed on the discussion of concepts and theoretical perspectives such as Critical Theory, Negative Mathematics, Infinitesimal Calculus, expression and signification of silence and contradictions in language. Borrowed from the mathematics or from the thinkers of the Frankfurt School, each of these concepts becomes refined, revisited and transposed by Handelman in order to become operative outside of their usual context or philosophical domain. The term Critical Theory was developed by several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School. According to these theorists, a critical theory may be distinguished from a traditional theory as it seeks human emancipation from slavery, acts as a liberating tool, and works to create a world that satisfies the needs and powers of human beings (Horkheimer 1972). Handelman revisits what he calls a “negative mathematics”: a type of mathematical reasoning that deals productively with phenomena that cannot be fully represented by language and history, illuminating a path forward for critical theory in the field we know today as the digital humanities.
In The Mathematical Imagination, negative mathematics encapsulates infinitesimal calculation, logic and projective geometry as developed by Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), and Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966). These three German-Jewish intellectuals were connected to the thinkers of the Frankfurt School but distinct because they found ways to use math in their cultural theory. The negative mathematics found in the theories of Scholem, Kracauer or Rosenzweig (inspired by their famous predecessors Salomon Maimon (1753-1800), Moses Mendelsohn (1729-1786) and Hermann Cohen (1842-1918)), are not synonymous with the concept of negative numbers or the negative connotation of math that we see in the works of the other members of the Frankfurt School.
Handelman’s objective is to present his book on the path of Scholem, Kracauer and Rosenzweig using math and digital technology as a powerful line of intervention in culture and aesthetics. The Mathematical Imagination investigates mostly the position of these three German Jewish writers of the XX century concerning the relationship between mathematics, language, history, redemption, and culture in the XX century and extending his analysis to digital humanities. Mathematics is convened metaphorically in their theory of culture as pathways to realizing the enlightenment promises of inclusion and emancipation. The silence of mathematical reasoning is not represented by language but by the negative approach that is to say absence, lack, privation, discontinuity or division like in the conception of the infinite. One example of this productive negativity is to look at how mathematics develops concepts and symbols to address ideas that human cognition and language cannot properly grasp or represent, and surfs metaphorically with the concept of the infinite (Monnoyeur 2011, 2013). The infinite calculation is a generative spark for theorizing the influence of math in culture as differentials represent a medium between experience and thought. For Scholem, Rosenzweig, and Kracauer, these mathematical approaches provide new paths for theorizing culture and art anew, where traditional modes of philosophical and theological thought do not apply to modern life or situation of exile.
In The Mathematical Imagination, Matthew Handelman wants to give legitimacy to the undeveloped potential of mathematics and digital technology to negotiate social and cultural crises. Going back to the Jewish thinkers of the Weimar Republic, namely Scholem, Rosenzweig and Kraucauer, he shows how they found in mathematical approaches strategies to capture the marginalized experiences and perspectives of German Jews in Germany or exile at the beginning of the XX century. In doing so, he re-examines the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, specifically those philosophers who perceived in the mathematization of reason a progression into a dangerous positivism and an explanation for the barbarism of World War II. Handelman re-evaluates Adorno and Horkheimer‘s conception of mathematics, according to which math should not be treated as a universal science able to solve any problem because it is not able to rule the human world of culture, art and philosophy. For them, as for Adam Kirsch, who wrote in 2014 the article “Technology Is Taking Over English Departments” (published in New Republic), both mathematical and computational mechanization of thought exclude the synthetic moment of the intellect and cannot produce new or meaningful results.
The first chapter, titled “The Trouble with Logical Positivism: Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, and the Origins of Critical Theory,” recounts the debate that took place between the members of the Frankfurt School — Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969)—, and members of the Vienna Circle, such as Otto Neurath (1882-1945) and Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970). Mathematics, according to the Frankfurt School’s critical theory, is in apparent opposition to language, since there is a dialectical tension between two forms of thought, one expressed in mathematics that circumvents representation and the other mediated by language and representation. Adorno gave, through the tension between mathematics and other forms of knowledge, the political dimension that we find in his works and his confrontation with the Vienna Circle. For Adorno, the attempt in mathematics to abandon meaning, the ability to signify something else, constitutes the philosophical flaw of the logical positivists’ proposal to reduce thought to mathematics.
The second chapter, titled “The Philosophy of Mathematics: Privation and Representation in Gershom Scholem’s Negative Aesthetics,” revisits the relation between language and mathematics in the context of Kabbalist culture. In his writings on the language of lamentation, “On Lament and Lamentation,” Scholem explores the dilemma of saying the ineffable and the oscillations between spoken and unspoken language, in order to reconcile the paradoxes inherent in language (Scholem, 2014). At the heart of these paradoxes lies the deep dialectic between openness and secret, concealment and revelation. He underlines a common privative structure of communication in mathematics and laments that it negatively communicates language’s own limits, but it also reveals an aesthetic strategy. For Scholem, the philosophy of math deals with the problem of language by omitting its representation, and its inexpressibility represents the privation of life in exile with the possibility to recover a productive vision of mathematics. Math is done to speak purity, privation, a language without representation, and it deals with the shortcomings of language. According to Gershom Scholem, this fruitful approach lies beyond language within the sphere defined by the signs of mathematical logic. Scholem understands math, history, and tradition metaphorically, as characterized by silences and erasures that pave the way for the acknowledgment of historical experiences and cultural practices which rationalist discourses, majority cultures, and national, world-historical narratives may marginalize, forget, or deny.
The third chapter analyses the relation between infinitesimal calculus and subjectivity/motion in Franz Rosenzweig’s Messianism. Rosenzweig’s (1886-1929) major work, The Star of Redemption (1921), is a description of the relationships between God, humanity, and the world, as they are connected by creation, revelation, and redemption. He is critical of any attempt to replace actual human existence with an ideal and, for him, revelation arises not in metaphysics but in the here and now. He understands knowledge not as what is absolutely proven, but rather what individuals and groups have verified through their experience. For Rosenzweig, verification did not mean that ideas substantiated in experience automatically counted as knowledge; neither does it imply that theoretical statements become meaningful when verified by experience, as Carnap later argued. He analyzes thus how concepts such as subjectivity, time, and redemption are central to critical theory and avoided by the official languages of philosophy and theology. Rosenzweig’s thought is an example of how cultural criticism can borrow from mathematics to illuminate its concepts without mathematizing culture. For instance, the way infinitesimal calculus linked nothingness with finitude represented a tool that could be used to reorient epistemology around the individual subject. For him, mathematics possesses the ability to resolve a fundamental problem for both theology and philosophy, which is the creation of something from nothing. Calculus is motion over rest, reveals multiplicities of subjectivity and representation, and shows how the theoretical work done by mathematics offers epistemological tools useful for cultural criticism. These tools could help theorists to think through concepts that remain obscure in aesthetics and cultural theory, as fractal geometry illuminates the theory of the novelty. Mathematics helps us to construct more capacious versions of these concepts as well, and conceptual tools exist that allow us to intervene more immediately in a project of emancipation, in the service of theories of culture and art, and where they are at work.
Chapter fourth presents geometrical projection and space in Siegfried Kracauer’s Aesthetics. In The Mass Ornament, written in 1921 but published in 1960, Siegfried Kracauer reads the ephemeral unnoticed and culturally marginalized phenomena of everyday city life as an ornament. His attention to the quotidian leads him to decipher in urban life a hidden subtext referring to biblical figures that comfort his experience of intellectual exile. Improvisation constitutes a key category in Kracauer’s critical engagement with metropolitan experience and modern culture; improvisation, with its invocation and representation, lies at the confluence of Kracauer’s preoccupation, the contemporary cityscape. In this book, he decodes the surface meanings of the new city phenomena in their shallowness, personal and political significance. These collected essays dream wild about the ultimate meaning of the banal and the beautiful in cities and gather a diverse range of observations such as boredom and bullfights, dance crazes and detective novels, to reviews of sociology, theology and Biblical translation. The Mass Ornament offers an opportunity to reflect historically on culture and connects the theoretical or philosophical discourse to the passing flux of fashion and the inexorable demands of quotidian life in the city. As a report from the past, this book invites us to renewed reflection on the relation between theory and history, fashion and tradition. Kracauer, in relation to the entire range of cultural phenomena, includes fascinating portions of history and situates man’s relation to society and time. By rearranging the language and textual space as a projection of rationalization, Kracauer explores the point of transference where geometric projection and the metaphors of space become a natural geometry in cultural critique. For Kracauer, geometry is a bridge across void because the mathematical study of space bridges the void between material reality and pure reason. The logic of mathematics informed his readings of mass culture, which sought to advance, rather than oppose, the project of the Enlightenment. For him, geometry enabled a literary approach to cultural critique in which the work of the critique helped to confront the contradictions of modernity and, through such confrontation, potentially resolve them. In The Mass Ornament, geometric projection turned into a political mode of cultural critique, projection, and the metaphors of space became aesthetically operative in the exploration of the rationalized spaces of the modern city.
In his final historical book, titled The Last Things Before the Last (1969), Kracauer presents mathematics as a web of relationships between elements abstracted from nature (Kracauer, 1969). The surfaces Kracauer describes are not an objective reality in the sense of the natural sciences describe them; surfaces exhibit innate breaking points built into by the phenomenology of his approach of a reality stripped of meaning. For Kracauer, the study of history had to mediate between the contingency of its subject matter and the logic of the natural sciences. Nonetheless, this type of cultural critique, enabled by negative mathematics, must resonate with those of us who live in a world of new media, one ever more mediated and controlled by computers and other digital technologies. Kracauer assessed popular culture on its own terms, with a mind open to new technology and communications, and articulated a still valid critique of popular culture.
In his last chapter, titled: “Who’s Afraid of Mathematics? Critical Theory in the Digital Age,” Handelman concludes that digital technology with textual analysis is engaged in social emancipation and can give an answer to the crisis in the humanities. In his analysis of Gershom Scholem, Franz Rosenzweig, and Siegfried Kracauer’s project, he develops the concept of Negative Mathematics in the tradition of Maimon, Mendelson, and Cohen to show how certain mathematical features and concepts can express the unexpressed part of language. In this endeavor, he focuses on infinitesimal calculation and reveals how culture, emancipation and social life can benefit from mathematics. That is to say, the seemingly tautological repetition of mathematics or digital technologies can act as a cultural aesthetics and interpretative medium. Handelman considers that mathematics and digital technology are by nature able to be a tool of liberation and emancipation if a good use is made of them. According to Handelman, if critical theory accepts the way Horkheimer and Adorno associate mathematics with instrumental reason and politics of domination, it risks giving up the critical potential of mathematics and any other interpretive tool such as technology or computer science.
Handelman poses the question: what happens if we allow mathematics to speak with analogy and image, to work with the integral of tradition, the continuity and derivative of truth? What if we applied mathematics more directly to cultural criticism? What possibilities, if not also, dangers, arise in using mathematics as an instrument of cultural thought?
Handelman’s choice to focus on Scholem, Rosenzweig, and Kracauer’s approach to mathematics in order to reveal pathways through the apparent philosophical impasse and an opportunity to realize the Enlightenment promise of inclusion and emancipation is exhilarating. His endeavor to build on the thought of these three lesser-known German-Jewish intellectuals of the interwar period can help move today’s debates that pit the humanities against the sciences. By locating in mathematics a style of reasoning that deals productively with something that cannot be wholly represented by language and history, The Mathematical Imagination illuminates a path forward for critical theory in the field we know today as the digital humanities. Furthermore, this volume explores mathematics as more than just a tool of calculation but one that is a metaphorically powerful mode for aesthetics and cultural analysis. Handelman reintroduces critical theory in the benefice of mathematics as access to culture and expression of the inexpressible. In other words, Handelman revitalizes a forgotten field of research at the intersection of language, math, history, and redemption, so as to capture the irrepresentable presence and interpretation of the complementarity of silence, and the language to express what was forgotten by the official language and culture. He also questions Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt School as unremitting opponents to mathematics. Instead, negative mathematics offers a complement to the type of productive negativity that Adorno, in particular, had located originally in the Hegelian dialectic. Negative mathematics reveals prospects for aesthetics and cultural theory neither as a result of being opposed to language, as Adorno and Horkheimer suggested, nor because it uses the trajectory of history or the limit of tradition. Instead, negative mathematics constitutes its own epistemological realm alongside history and mysticism, illuminating, based on its problematic relationship to language, in the dark corners and hidden pathways of representation. In this sense, it is positive because it deals successfully with what cannot appear in normal use of language or disappears behind official discourse. To this point, Handelman maybe meets the critical and social purpose of the Frankfurt School and fulfills his ambition to produce a theory both critical and mathematical, and even digital. If we take the Frankfurt School main critique regarding mathematics, according to which mathematical and computational mechanization of thought excludes the synthetic moment of the intellect and thus cannot produce new or meaningful results, we have to question then if Handelman’s negative mathematics can actually produce new and meaningful results? Handelman’s negative mathematics does not propose a general way to social critique as a block but rather opens space for the expression of what is suppressed, forgotten, hidden or impossible to realize because of official culture. Silences, disruption, movement, fashion, improvisation, news and materiality occupy the world of culture and are brought to existence by adapted mathematical processes. In this sense, the special treatment of mathematics does not repress the synthetic moment of the intellect but gives a voice to what could not exist before. Common, traditional, usual and politically dominant ideologies cannot resist or foresee this new critical mathematical cultural theory. Of course, this perspective is limited and is not enough to prepare a general critique of society as the thinkers of the Frankfurt School pursued it but improves significantly cultural and critical analysis.
Matthew Handelman noticed that many humanists nowadays have turned to mathematics and digital technologies and tries to forge new paths for modernizing and reinvigorating humanistic inquiry. The Mathematical Imagination presents mathematics and digital technologies as providing a key to unlock the critical possibilities hidden in language to give a voice to silenced communities. Handelman’s book improves cultural and critical analysis, and results into a new and thought-provoking Critical Theory bridging humanities and digital/mathematical technologies. His methodology and ideology are deliberately provocative, and he intends to develop a post-academic approach to fix the weaknesses of traditional and official discourse. His endeavor is also fruitful from the perspective of the history of the science as it shows the relation between various mathematical processes, such as the infinitesimal calculation and everyday phenomena that remain unexplored.
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