Adam J. Graves: The Phenomenology of Revelation in Heidegger, Marion, and Ricœur

The Phenomenology of Revelation in Heidegger, Marion, and Ricoeur Book Cover The Phenomenology of Revelation in Heidegger, Marion, and Ricoeur
Studies in the Thought of Paul Ricoeur
Adam J. Graves
Lexington Books
2021
Paperback $31.95
256

Reviewed by: Steven DeLay (Global Center for Advanced Studies)

Of truth, it was Schopenhauer who said, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Thirty years after the publication of Dominique Janicaud’s “The Theological Turn of French Phenomenology,” arguing that the work of Jean-Louis Chrétien, Michel Henry, Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Luc Marion, and Paul Ricœur was a collective betrayal of classical phenomenology, are we nearing truth’s inevitable third stage? The appearance of Adam J. Graves’s The Phenomenology of Revelation in Heidegger, Marion, and Ricœur indicates such is the case.1 For, although some dismiss the theological turn, continuing to pass over it in silence, as if it were unworthy of their attention or response, there is no longer any pretending that a theological turn in phenomenology has not occurred. Far from it constituting a deviation from phenomenology’s true method, attention to the phenomenon of revelation has always been foundational to phenomenological philosophy’s stand against the prevailing naturalistic, empiricist, and scientistic understanding of the modern, disenchanted, technological world. The task, then, is not one of determining whether revelation is a viability for phenomenology, but of assessing its contribution to phenomenology’s promise as an ongoing movement. In response to this task, Graves has given us a work tracing the trajectory of the phenomenon of revelation in Heidegger, Marion, and Ricœur. “Phenomenology’s turn toward the theological,” as Graves says at one point, “did not begin in the nineteen eighties. It was already well underway by the time Heidegger delivered his lecture on ‘Phenomenology and Theology’ in 1928” (23). Not only then does he illustrate why it is justified today to speak openly of a theological turn in phenomenology, or even of a return. This result would be useful enough! More still, Graves offers us a groundbreaking account of revelation itself contributing to the very theological (re)turn it so admirably examines.

To see why Graves views the turn this way, a mindfulness of the philosophical history shaping phenomenology’s concern with the phenomenon of revelation is necessary. “No single theological concept poses a greater challenge to philosophy than that of revelation,” he observes at the beginning of the introduction (xxi). For just as “revelation implies a claim to disclose truth” thereby “allegedly confronting philosophy on its own turf” (xxi), so then it might be viewed as “an affront to reason, an anathema to philosophy” (xxi). One indeed might simply conclude that revelation and reason are opposed to one another, the two “destined from birth to face off as mortal enemies, caught in an endless, take-no-prisoners battle wherein each seeks to reduce the other to itself, to monopolize truth by capturing and colonizing the other’s terrain” (xxi). Such a characterization, however, overexaggerates the antagonism between them, Graves says. As he points out, philosophy has a history of “negotiating a lasting peace” with revelation, even if such a “precarious ceasefire” has separated reason and revelation into two autonomous zones (xxi). This effort to separate revelation and reason is evident at least as early as in Aquinas, who demarcates “rational truths” (the domain of theologia philosophiae) from the so-called “revealed truths” that are inaccessible to the natural light of reason (the domain of theologia sacrae doctinae) (xxii). A “philosophical theory of two truths” (xxii), Aquinas believed, would allow for philosophical reason and theological revelation to complement one another. However, by the end of the modern period, the arrangement had come to undermine revelation’s own understanding of itself as the dispenser of absolute truth. Modern philosophical reason, imbued with the right to question everything, including the authority of tradition, church, and the Bible, considered revelation an “historical relic.” Consequently, the truths of revelation were subordinated to the eternal truths of reason (xxii). Further complicating matters was the fact that this very distinction between the eternal truths of reason and the historical truths of revelation was unstable, itself becoming a matter of contention. The Enlightenment’s conception of reason’s authority and sovereignty proved not to be above criticism. As Graves remarks, “The kind of autonomy and transparency which philosophy had claimed for itself, could only be defined and maintained when juxtaposed against the backdrop of its proper epistemic ‘other,’ as though the eternal truths of reason could only ever shine against the supposedly opaque and impenetrable surface of revelation and its contingent truths” (xxv). The Enlightenment conception of rational truth defining itself in opposition to revelation “could not do away with its other without doing away with itself” (xxv). This story of modern reason’s evolution, and its relation to revelation, is a fascinating issue in its own right.2 Lest, however, it be concluded that it is only a piece of intellectual history, Graves illustrates how modern philosophy’s question of the extent to which the content of revelation might be reducible to reason is at issue again today in the theological turn of phenomenology. “One of the philosophical frontlines in this centuries-old battle between reason and revelation,” as he says, “is located within the field of phenomenology” (xxv). With this historical backdrop in view, a key claim of Graves’s concerning the relation between reason and revelation here emerges: Heidegger, Marion, and Ricœur in their own ways “undermine the enlightenment’s claim that reason is autonomous and wholly transparent” (xxvi). If Enlightenment efforts of self-grounding reason fail, one might conclude philosophy ends in skepticism or nihilism.2 Or, one might instead attempt to rehabilitate philosophy by resuscitating revelation. As Graves will show, this is what Marion, Heidegger, and Ricœur each aims to do, by refiguring revelation phenomenologically. Just as the concept of reason underwent a transformation in the hands of modern philosophy, so now the concept of revelation has in phenomenology.

In what does this transformation of revelation consist? To begin with, it is a broadening of the concept. Revelation no longer is confined to propositional truths only, as was the case for the Scholastics. In the Middle Ages, as Graves himself explains, “the content of the so-called revealed was comprised of a set of the propositional statements, i.e., doctrines that could not be obtained through human reason, but depended upon God’s active revelation” (12). When, however, revelation became “more closely associated with a particular quality of experience, or a particular kind of phenomenon, rather than a mere collection of dogmatic propositions, the stage was set for its philosophical reevaluation” (xxvi). Part of that legacy is alive today in phenomenology, for which revelation is a matter of experiential truth, of what is encountered. But revelation is not simply said to be a particular mode or content of experience. It is the essence of experience. Quoting Marion, Graves notes, “‘Revelation, by virtue of the givenness that it alone performs perfectly, would accomplish the essence of phenomenality’” (5). Not only, then, does phenomenology seek to undermine and escape the constraints once imposed by modern philosophical reason. Moreover, its interest in revelation “stems from its own root concerns and core problems” (5). As the “other” of Enlightenment reason,3 revelation would lie at the heart of phenomenology’s philosophical project to uncover and describe that which appears, and how it appears. So understood, revelation would designate the form of phenomenality as such:

[Phenomenology’s concern with revelation is] not adopting a theological question that would be foreign or even peripheral to its core concerns. On the contrary, it is actually tackling a question about phenomenology itself, about its ability to live up to its own promise of enabling phenomena to appear as they give themselves out to be, as they are given beyond the limits of enlightenment reason—and that means independently of scientific or naturalistic presuppositions, the narrow constraints of the principle of sufficient reason, and the conditions of possibility imposed upon them by the modern subject (5).

None of this should be considered particularly controversial yet. The phenomenological formulation of revelation as a problem, one will note, involves doing philosophy in light of Husserl’s epoché, insofar as it entails “the fulfillment of Husserl’s original aim, namely, a pure description of the full range of phenomena” (xxvii). Husserl’s “principle of principles” frees the phenomena, notes Graves, such that “everything that appears to consciousness—including religious phenomena—could, at least in principle, become a legitimate object of phenomenological description and thus philosophical investigation” (3). Revelation, then, would appear to be fair game.

However, things are not quite so straightforward, owing to a tension within Husserl himself that the rest of phenomenology inherits. Does not Husserl call for a suspension of theological presuppositions? The same Husserlian method that might be claimed to allow God to appear could also be said to foreclose the appearing of God. “One might wonder,” as Graves observes, how Husserl’s epoché and reductions “could possibly serve as the best method for developing a philosophical account of revelation” (xxvii). Others for this reason have viewed with suspicion the attempt to formulate revelation as a phenomenological problem, calling into question its methodological moves and underlying motives (xxvii). One here again calls to mind Janicaud’s original contention, according to which the theological turn had abandoned an “interrogation of the visible in favor of a blind and imprudent affirmation of radical transcendence” (xxviii). As Graves himself notes, “One may ask whether the turn’s new and peculiar reinterpretation of key phenomenological principles—such as horizon, reduction, intentionality, world, etc.—signals the culmination of the phenomenological enterprise or whether it signals a departure from and deterioration of phenomenology as such” (xxix). “What cannot be disputed,” he says, “is the significance of this ‘turn’ as a purely historical event” (xxix). It here becomes apparent why Graves has elected to open his study of revelation by placing things in historical context. He says,

If some have claimed phenomenology has remained the most powerful and enduring force on the Parisian philosophical scene since its initial reception in the middle of the last century, then the phenomenological appropriation of the category of revelation may be said to represent—for better or worse—the single most significant even in recent French philosophy. How did this event come to pass? What concrete challenge has it raised, and what paths have phenomenologists taken in order to meet those challenges? How has this event altered the phenomenological enterprise itself—its methods, its objectives, and its own self-understanding? How has it altered or informed our understanding of the nature of revelation, or perhaps even of the nature of philosophical reason? (xxx).

Sensitive to the fact that many might find this claim of French phenomenological philosophy’s importance hyperbolic, Graves points out that the problem of revelation, and the corresponding question concerning the methodological relation between phenomenology and theology, is not an issue parochial to French phenomenology. For one thing, theology and the religious life were fundamental concerns of Heidegger’s during the lead-up to Being and Time. Heidegger’s thought (particularly his departing 1928 Marburg lecture), Graves will claim, “is the single most important source for understanding the nature and diversity of the most recent interest in the phenomenology of revelation among French philosophers” (3). How did the Parisian concern with revelation originate in Marburg and Freiburg? As Graves recounts,

On February 14, 1928, Heidegger stood before his colleagues at the University of Marburg to deliver what would be his final lecture before returning—triumphantly, as it were—to Freiburg, where he was to take over as the successor to his former mentor, Edmund Husserl. The topic Heidegger chose for his parting address was “Phenomenology and Theology” (1).

The lecture’s significance can only be understood when appreciated in terms of its place within the overall philosophical project Heidegger was engaged in at the time. In courses on the religious life from earlier that decade, Heidegger had claimed “primal Christian experience becomes concealed through Greek conceptuality,” a thesis prefiguring his “later description of the history of the forgetfulness of Being—the all-important Seinsvergessenheit” (2). For Heidegger, overcoming the history of philosophy’s forgetfulness of being would require a deconstruction of Christianity’s own self-understanding. Here, Graves notes that Heidegger’s approach to revelation highlights two contrasting attitudes toward the role of language in revelation that will structure phenomenology’s subsequent handling of the problem: “the ‘radical’ and the ‘hermeneutical’ attitudes” (6). The radical attitude, he says, “begins to take shape in the works of early Heidegger, whose Destruktion of the metaphysical tradition involved a return to ‘the beginning, the primal, the originary,’ and thus moves in the direction of what might be called the pre-linguistic” (6). As Graves continues, “this partly explains why Heidegger’s destructive (destruktiv) project was leveled against ordinary language—everyday chatter or idle talk (Gerede)—as much as it was against the distinctively philosophical language of modernity” (7). That is to say, Heidegger’s quest for the meaning of being necessitates a return to a primordial experience which “precedes (or cuts beneath)” certain forms of linguistic articulation and sedimentation (7). Now, contrast this radical attitude with the other, the hermeneutic attitude.

Whereas radical phenomenology seeks to overcome metaphysics by sidestepping language in its ceaseless quest for the primordial givenness, hermeneutical phenomenology challenges enlightenment paradigms through language itself, or by insisting upon a richer conception of linguisticality and the inexorable connection between language and being (9).

Thus emerges a further key claim of Graves’s study. Strictly speaking, he will claim, there is “no such thing as the phenomenology of revelation” (9). Rather, we must address “two essentially dichotomous phenomenological views of revelation as they emerge in the works of Heidegger, Marion, and Ricœur” (10). Another central claim of Graves’s work follows. For as he clarifies, the purpose of the study “is not merely to present an account of these opposed approaches from the disinterested standpoint of a spectator or intellectual historian” (10). His aim, rather, is to show that the radical approach (typified by both Heidegger and Marion) divests revelation of its meaning and content, leaving a merely formal concept of revelation—“a revelation without Revelation,” unless it is supplemented with a hermeneutic approach (10). What does Graves mean—what is the problem? Typically, the worry concerning phenomenology turning to the problem of revelation is that it by doing so comprises its philosophical rigor and neutrality—this is the so-called “contamination” problem, as Graves terms it. Phenomenology importing theological content can be a problem, Graves is happy to admit. But he has a different concern in view, what he terms the problem of “counter-contamination.” Fearful of illicitly importing theological content into one’s phenomenological method, one formalizes the phenomenon of revelation to the point whereby it is attenuated completely, bereft of any meaningful content. When this happens, says Graves, an analysis of revelation finds itself having “lost sight” of “the material content of revelation itself” (15), such that whatever remains is “characterized by formalism itself, by a certain lack of determinate content” (15). This process of “attenuation-formalization” (16) leads phenomenological analysis astray in the case of revelation. As Graves asks, how will it be possible for phenomenology to account for the structure of revelation without having to draw from the well of theological discourse? (16). Is not phenomenology “inevitably dependent upon its engagement with religions language?” (16). It may be that phenomenological accounts of revelation are inescapably “contaminated” by a certain theological orientation or bias (16). But this, argues Graves, is in a way inevitable—for the idea of a philosophy somehow starting without presuppositions is a fantasy. In a qualified sense, then, such presuppositions can be a good thing. After all, were phenomenology unable to draw upon theological content when addressing the phenomenon of revelation, what would be left for the phenomenologist to investigate?4 As Graves says,

What would the phenomenological meaning of revelation mean in the absence of any reference to concrete religious experience? Would it represent an empty figure, a mere shadow? Or, would it mark the ultimate essence of revelation as such, beyond any of its particular historical, linguistic, or textual instantiations? (16).

The polar threats of “contamination” and “de-contamination” are related to the twofold sense of revelation itself. On the one hand, revelation can designate “the means or the process by which God is revealed to human beings” (13). On the other hand, it can denote “the nature of the content that is revealed” (13). According to Graves, the problems of ontic contamination and counter-contamination are both apparent in Heidegger’s 1928 lecture. This is largely explainable due to Heidegger’s commitment to what he at the time took to be the scientificity of philosophy. Philosophy and theology, Heidegger claims, are “two sciences rather than two competing worldviews” (25). There are two general types of science—ontic science and ontological science, a distinction grafted onto the ontological difference, the difference between beings (entities) and being (the being of entities). Science for Heidegger, taken in its most general sense, is defined by “‘the founding disclosure, for the sake of disclosure, of a self-contained region of beings, or of Being as such’” (27). The division between ontic and ontological sciences accordingly “derives from these two radically different manners of disclosure—ontic sciences are founded upon a disclosure of a being or a region of beings, whereas ontology involves the disclosure of Being as such” (27). Said another way, ontic sciences never engage the question of being as such. What they do instead, says Heidegger, is conceptualize, objectify, or thematize a set of beings that have already been disclosed in a prescientific manner (28). As Graves explains, “ontic-positive sciences are thereby engaged in second-order operations—experiments, data collection, etc.—that are propped up upon and sustained by the ‘rough’ and ‘naïve’ interpretations of their respective fields—interpretations which they inadvertently inherit from ordinary, pre-scientific experience without ever radically calling them into question” (28). Philosophy is not an ontic science. It is an ontological science—philosophy asks the question of the meaning of being as such. Phenomenology is thus the Urwissenschaft—as fundamental ontology, it is a questioning and clarifying of the meaning of being (29).

How does this concern the problem of revelation? As Graves observes, Heidegger’s distinction between ontical sciences and the ontological science corresponds to a distinction between revelation (Offenbarung) and revealability (Offenbarkeit) (23). Revealability is a formalization of revelation, one that Graves argues threatens to distort the concrete character of revelation itself (24). According to him, Heidegger attempts to illegitimately superimpose the formal character of revealability back upon revelation itself, so that the latter is purged of any ontic content that might threaten to contaminate the ontological character of the analytic of Dasein that is built upon it (24-25). But has not Heidegger thereby hollowed out revelation itself? Graves thinks Heidegger has. Heidegger, he says, “simply folds the ‘purity’ or ‘formality’ constitutive of revealability over into the ontic-positive domain of revelation” (50), such that revelation gets recast as a “pure, formal structure,” while revealability becomes “the structure of a structure” (50). Consequently, Heidegger’s formalization of revelation renders it “merely an empty shell, a mere abstraction” (50-51) That is to say, Heidegger commits the phenomenological sin of counter-contamination: “revealability (Offenbarkeit) intrudes upon and violates revelation (Offenbarung)” (50-51).

Why does Heidegger do this? Graves attributes Heidegger’s error to what Jacques Derrida calls the “logic of presupposition” (30). Heidegger’s prioritization of fundamental ontology over ontic inquiry claims to “reveal deeper structures of experience, which are more primordial than the modes of experience unearthed by ontic-positive analysis” (32). These primordial structures purportedly lie beneath the domains of language, culture, and religion in general (33). According to Graves, however, Heidegger’s ambition of uncovering fundamental or “originary” structures ultimately renders the resulting phenomenon of revelation devoid of any determinate content.

Even if one were to dispute Graves’s claim that revelation in Heidegger is attenuated and formalized to the point of no longer being anything but the structure of a structure, there is another problem which Graves mentions as well. The ontological science—the science of being—like any inquiry is said by Heidegger to be oriented toward particular entities. But if all inquiry implies that ontology’s quest for being must itself begin with some entity, then phenomenology would no longer appear to be a non-oriented, ontological science. Heidegger’s famous solution, as Graves notes, is to emphasize that phenomenology’s difference from the positive ontic sciences is that the kind of being through which a genuine science of being passes is a being with an understanding of being. As Graves says, “On account of the peculiar character of Dasein, Heidegger suggests, his analysis can be delimited and directed toward a particular being (namely, Dasein) without fear of losing sight of the ontological question (namely, of the meaning of Being as such)” (38). The existential analytic, thus, aims to function as a preliminary point of departure for fundamental ontology.

What, though, of the analytic of Dasein’s relationship to theology? Many of the key features of Heidegger’s existential analytic in Being and Time—historicity, facticity, care, fundamental temporality, anxiety—were prefigured by his early lecture courses on religion (45). Thus, there is the potential problem of theological contamination. In an attempt to avoid it, Heidegger will claim that phenomenology resembles theology only because the object of theology (faith, revelation, Christlichkeit) conceals within itself a kind of abstract, formal character which falls to phenomenology to uncover. Heidegger contends that Christlichkeit is derivative—it is founded upon a deeper, more primordial pre-Christian structure (65). Finitude, sin, anxiety, conscience—such phenomena are to be purified of their traditional theological garb, revealing their true ontological significance. The concept of sin, for example, can only be explained in terms of a more fundamental ontological concept of guilt (66). As Graves notes, “none of the determinate content of the way of being of faith remains—it has already been removed as part of the excavation process that served to expose its more radical foundations in the ontology of Dasein” (66). Although Heidegger’s development of his philosophy of being was inextricably tied to his theological interests (41), including Luther’s theology of the cross and Pauline eschatology, the analytic of Dasein “has already been subject to a counter-contamination” (62).

Having examined the problems of contamination and counter-contamination, the logic of presupposition, and the distinction between ontic sciences and ontological science, Graves poses a question meant to highlight a tension in Heidegger’s attempt to purge revelation of any traditional theological content in the name of uncovering “originary” or fundamental ontological structures:

Is Heidegger’s interpretation of primal Christianity (Urchristentum) meant merely to serve as one concrete, historical example that helps illuminate the fundamental existential structures—that is, as one example among other possible examples? If so, he would have to explain why Christian experience appears to supply the example par excellence for his fundamental existentials (an explanation which he never provides). Or, on the contrary, does the primal Christian experience constitute a privileged event (a particular “revelation,” as it were), one that would prove indispensable for Heidegger’s later fundamental ontology—that is, an event in the absence of which the fundamental structures of Being and Time could not have been thought? (45).

Despite the internal vacillation apparent in Heidegger’s text, the ultimate goal of an existential analytic of religious life is to render explicit the general structure of revealability. The traditional theological content serves as mere “formal indications (formale Anzeige)” (42)—signposts on the way to uncovering “the unique temporal modality implicit within the primal Christian eschatological experience” (43). By insisting on the priority of revealability over and above revelation (48), Heidegger tries to “secure a method capable of grasping this experience” (42). To do so, it is necessary to chart a middle course, neither committing an “ontic contamination” of the ontological nor a premature formalization of the ontical. The problem of contamination threatens the philosophical status of phenomenology, the problem of counter-contamination the phenomenology of revelation qua revelation (55). Eager to preempt any accusation that his ontology is contaminated by Christian revelation, Heidegger tries to avoid the first problem by preserving the autonomy and priority of fundamental ontology. He attempts to do this, by hollowing out Christian eschatological experience to such an extent that theology begins to resemble phenomenology and the positum of theology begins to resemble factical life experience itself (55-56). The formalization of the ontical content of revelation enables Heidegger to maintain the priority of phenomenological ontology (the science of being) over theological science (the science of revelation) (56). Consequently, as Graves summarizes,

Heidegger’s obsession with ontological concerns and his constant quest for increasingly radical foundations or conditions of possibility eventually led him to view faith, Christlichkeit, and revelation (Offenbarung) as merely derivative phenomena. But this conclusion came only after a long period of philosophical labor in which the religious concepts underwent (or were subjected to) a series of progressive formalizations and radicalazations, which effectively purged them of their determinate contents (67).

Although Graves does not say it here explicitly, one clearly is meant to conclude that the desirability of what Heidegger’s process of formalization leaves us is dubious.

Does Jean-Luc Marion’s phenomenology of revelation qua revelation fare better? This is the question of Graves’s next chapter. Having first examined Heidegger, here he turns to Husserl. Marion’s phenomenology of revelation, particularly the formulation of the saturated phenomenon, relies on a reworking of the phenomenological reduction in both Husserl and Heidegger. For Heidegger, phenomenology as fundamental ontology is an attempt to deconstruct the history of philosophy, by properly thematizing the question of the meaning of being. It is thus a critique of metaphysics, as metaphysics (on Heidegger’s understanding of the term) fails to understand the being of Dasein and formulate the question of the meaning of being in general. For Marion also, phenomenology is a critique of metaphysics, but here it will be necessary to move beyond even Heidegger’s fundamental ontology and formulation of the ontological difference. In reformulating the phenomenological critique of metaphysics, Marion will argue it is imperative to surpass Husserl and Heidegger, by exploiting a breakthrough in Husserl’s phenomenology that Husserl himself never properly developed. Marion’s goal is to free givenness from all prior constraints. As Marion says, “‘In a metaphysical system, the possibility of appearing never belongs to what appears, nor phenomenality to the phenomenon” (80). As Graves himself explains, “Marion marks a crucial development in Husserl’s thought—namely the widening of the notion of intuition” (81) While Husserlian phenomenology marks an important break with the metaphysical tradition in this respect, Marion claims that the standard interpretation of Husserl misses what is most essential, by focusing solely on Husserl’s extension of intuition (82). Marion has in view two competing ways of interpreting Husserl’s broadening of the concept of intuition, the Derridian and the Heideggerian. On the Heideggerian interpretation, Husserl’s elevation of intuition marks a promising break with metaphysics and supplies a new ground for the question of being (Heidegger is fond of Husserl’s sixth logical investigation on categorial intuition). On the Derridian interpretation, this promotion of intuition marks the fatal step which leads Husserl back into a metaphysics of presence. Marion’s potential innovation, as Graves explains, is to suggest that these two competing perspectives on Husserl can be reconciled within a single interpretation, which would be informed and supported by both (83). “On Marion’s reading,” says Graves, “Husserl felt a need to broaden the field of signification beyond the already extended field of intuition” (83). Husserl’s desire to extend signification beyond intuition, Marion claims, is driven by a vague (and ultimately suppressed) recognition of a givenness which precedes both intuition and signification. Hence, Marion sees the true breakthrough of Husserl’s Logical Investigations not as the broadening of the field of intuition or signification, but as the implicit uncovering of the “unconditional primacy” of givenness itself (84). As Graves summarizes,

If Marion regards Husserl’s breakthrough as the discovery of the unconditional primacy of givenness, he nevertheless admits that this discovery was only partial—the instant givenness is unearthed by Husserl, it is immediately covered over by a classical (i.e., “metaphysical”) theory of intuition (84).

By reducing all givenness to what can be given “objectively,” or according to the horizon of the object (86), Husserl fails to thematize givenness radically. It is here that Marion’s own reduction—the “third” reduction, the reduction to givenness—is deployed. This reformulation of the reduction situates Marion’s account of the saturated phenomenon. Here again, the introduction of the saturated phenomenon is understood by Marion as a break from metaphysics. “Marion’s quasi-teleological interpretive framework,” says Graves, “according to which the development of phenomenology consists of a series of radicalizations culminating in his theory of givenness, seems to hinge upon Husserl’s original break with metaphysics” (79). Not only is it a matter of freeing the phenomenon from Husserlian objectivity. More fundamentally, it is a question of breaking free from Kant’s account of the conditions of possibility for the experience of objects. “The Kantian conditions of possible experience,” as Graves notes, “are not given by phenomena themselves but are rather imposed upon phenomena by the subjective faculties of sensibility and understanding” (79-80). In addition to Kant and Husserl, Marion’s reduction in part break with Heidegger too. Although Heidegger had himself radicalized Husserl’s approach with an existential reduction to being as such (88), he remains beholden to the ontological difference. “The saturated phenomenon,” observes Graves, “is characterized by an excess of intuition […] It cannot be controlled or neutralized by a conscious subject, and it cannot be reduced to or proceeded by any horizon—not even by the horizon of Being (Heidegger), let alone that of objectivity (Husserl)” (108). This is not to say, however, that there are not important overlaps between Heidegger and Marion. Like Heidegger before him, Marion also appears interested in retrieving “originary” and fundamental structures of experience. As Graves says, “Marion’s central idea of the saturated phenomena is based on a recognition that the given often outstrips the conceptual and linguistic categories used to understand or interpret it” (7). Like Heidegger, Marion’s phenomenology of revelation is a radical one.

And like Heidegger also, Marion takes great pains to insist that his phenomenological method is rigorous, strictly philosophical, and not contaminated by theology. In order to distinguish the phenomenology of givenness from theology, Marion employs “a distinction between revelation as possibility, and Revelation as actuality” (79).

According to Marion, [phenomenology] is properly concerned only with possibilities, not actualities. With respect to the phenomenon of revelation, the sole task of the phenomenologist would be to account for the mere possibility of such an experience, without having to presuppose or posit its actuality (108).

Yet Marion’s radical phenomenology, which seeks philosophical purity and rigor, “ultimately [leads] him to recapitulate the Heideggerian strategy,” namely “the protective strategy” of counter-contamination (78-79). Marion’s phenomenological figure of revelation (as possibility) “winds up imposing its own indeterminate status upon Revelation itself” (79). “Revelation,” as Graves says, “is described as a purely formal givenness” (79). In Reduction and Givenness, for example, Marion maintains that the “pure form of the call” is anonymous, “one that defies all names” (7). Such a call is said to be given “before any act of determination or nomination, before any Name can be ‘imposed upon it’” (79). Hence, the call of revelation remains indeterminate. As Graves notes, Marion’s radical attitude entails that revelation be defined in terms of a conceptual indeterminateness and resistance to linguistic determination, predication, or nomination (7). Understandably, part of Marion’s motivation for insisting upon a distinction between revelation as possibility and Revelation as actual is to forestall theological contamination, and the accusation that he is guilty of crypto-theology. But part of it is also an attempt to avoid conceptual idolatry, to avoid a philosophical discourse that would idolatrize God. This is something Marion addressed in God without Being, and Graves offers a fantastic account of that work’s account of the idol and the icon. Of relevance here is the fact that Marion’s phenomenology of givenness is said to overcome metaphysics (and nihilism’s so-called “death of God”), by liberating God from an idolatrous discourse. For Marion, as Graves says,

The problem of God for modernity has less to do with God’s negation, with atheism, than with the reemergence of idolatry at the level of the concept—we are, above all, prevented from respecting God not because God is rejected but because the conceptual idol blinds us to God (138).

The type of idolatry Marion is interested in resisting, hence, is conceptual. According to Marion, every conceptual discourse on God “involves a certain degree of idolatry” (95). How, we might ask, could one formulate a non-idolatrous conceptual discourse on God? (95). As Graves explains, here Marion finds it necessary to go further than Heidegger. In Heidegger, metaphysical thinking’s conceptual idolatry of God is named onto-theology. In onto-theology, God is given the definition of causa sui. Heidegger admonishes onto-theology for its forgetfulness of being and the ontological difference (96). Recalling Graves’s earlier discussion of Heidegger’s 1928 lecture is important here. Graves had shown that in an attempt to preserve the methodological rigor of phenomenology as fundamental ontology, Heidegger fell prey to the problem of “counter-contamination.” Here, Graves notes that Marion, who agrees with Heidegger that onto-theology leads to conceptual idolatry, claims Heidegger ignores a further form of idolatry. As Graves explains,

God’s revelation is contained or conditioned by “the dimension of Being,” by “revealability,” by the existential structures of Dasein. God may be above and beyond all matters of Being and ontology, but if God is to be revealed to Dasein, this revelation (Offenbarung) must conform to the ontological conditions of experience, that is, to revealability (Offenbarkeit) (99).

Consigning God to the ontological difference, and thereby confining revelation to the horizon of being, Marion believes that the Heideggerian divorce between being and God comes at too high a price. As a result of it, any talk of God as such is excluded from philosophical discourse (100). As Graves says, for Heidegger, “since the ontological difference is determinative of philosophical discourse, this implies that we must forever keep silent before God” (101). Or again, “By casting God as such outside ontological discourse, Heidegger essentially abandons theo-logical discourse (discourse about God as such) to the dogs, so to speak” (101). In Marion’s estimation, this silence of Heidegger’s on God avoids the onto-theological concept of “God” as causa sui or supreme being. Such silence, as Graves himself notes, embodies a certain reverence toward God. But the second silence, the silence insisting that nothing at all further can be said of God, “bars reverential silence from becoming the object of thought” (101).

In turn, Graves goes on to show how Marion attempts to open a discourse on God precisely where Heidegger had not. For although the ontological difference marks the borderline beyond which a non-idolatrous thought of God might finally become articulable (103), Heidegger himself does not attempt to think it. Instead, he remains completely silent. Marion suggests that, to think God reverentially, an escape from ontological difference is necessary (103). A phenomenological critique of metaphysics “must remain essentially indifferent to the ontological difference itself” (104), if God is to be discussed non-idolatrously, rather than simply passed over in total silence. To begin sketching how this might be possible, Marion highlights three biblical texts (Romans 4:17 is the text upon which Graves focuses) that he argues enable phenomenology to formulate an anterior instance to the ontological difference (104). In the passage in question from Romans, God is referred to as the one “who gives life to the dead and who calls the non-beings as the beings” (104), indicating God is prior to the ontological difference between being and entities. As Marion puts it, “‘The gift delivers Being/being’” (105). The problem, however, is that this dimension of givenness (or revelation) prior to the ontological difference is an attenuated, formalized structure. Consequently, Graves sees Marion’s attempt to move beyond Heidegger’s ontological difference as something ultimately still beholden to it, insofar as Marion falls prey to the same problem of counter-contamination:

Our thesis regarding Marion remains structurally analogous to the one we advanced in the preceding chapter: Like Heidegger, Marion’s effort to overcome charges of theological contamination leads him to adopt a strategy whereby revelation is divested of its material content. The process of “hollowing out” revelation leads to a merely formal conception of revelation—one that is essentially devoid of any reference to the historical, linguistic, and textual richness of revelation in its religious or theological acceptations. Rather than describing this procedure in terms of a divestment or “hollowing out,” Marion portrays it in terms of a purification of revelation—that is, in terms of a reduction to the “pure” call or the call as such (i.e., revelation) (107).

To be sure, Marion’s claim that “revelation (as gift) proceeds, founds, delivers, brings into play both beings and being itself” (105) invites the objection that this apparent recourse to revealed theology violates the neutrality of phenomenological method. However, Graves is interested in a different objection that others have not made. As he notes, what Marion terms the gift (or the call) is “materially indeterminate” (198). The indeterminateness arises, says Graves, due to the phenomenological method Marion develops in the course of sketching the saturated phenomenon. “Marion insists it is possible,” says Graves, “to provide a strictly phenomenological articulation of it, under the rubric of the saturated phenomenon par excellence—revelation” (108). But this phenomenon—the call, the gift, or revelation, must remain essentially indeterminate and anonymous, claims Marion. This means that those who allege Marion’s phenomenology is crypto-theology have missed the crucial point. This common criticism, which accuses Marion of identifying God as the caller, is in fact prohibited by Marion’s own philosophical analysis in works such as Reduction and Givenness. As Graves reminds us, the call in Marion “is ‘pure’ insofar as the caller remains undetermined; but this lack of determination is a highly ambiguous one” (116). The real objection against Marion, then, says Graves, is not that Marion defines the call theologically (for Marion does not), but that he renders it indeterminate. But if Marion’s account of revelation renders Revelation itself indeterminate, then as with Heidegger, we have another instance of counter-contamination.

It is unsurprising that counter-contamination should occur here, since it is generally committed in the course of defending oneself against the charge of theological contamination or of holding theological biases (115). Heidegger had done so in the 1920s when developing his existential analytic, and here Marion has as well. As Graves summarizes, “While Marion had previously characterized the task of phenomenology as offering a mere description of revelation as possibility, toward the end of Being Given it begins to sound as if Revelation (as event) is only ever given in actuality to the phenomenologist, to the one who rigorously avoids naming it, the one who is willing to live with the indecision of the gift” (117). Part of the indeterminacy Graves highlights is traceable to Marion’s radical approach to language. Marion clears the path for a pure form of a call which remains “entirely anonymous and indeterminate, since the call reaches the subject before the subject can wield any concept, horizon, or names that might serve to delimit the call, or give it a particular determination” (114). The fundamental problem facing Marion’s phenomenology of revelation, thus, is not the potential intrusion of theological presuppositions or contents, but rather a philosophical bias, which in the name of maintaining rigor and neutrality, distorts the actual givenness of Revelation. As Graves says, what results is an “attenuated conception of Revelation” (115). In an effort to defend the methodological rigor of his analysis, Marion misconstrues the religious phenomenon itself (115). Such is Graves’s claim.

It is worth revisiting Marion’s distinction between revelation (as possibility) and Revelation (as actual). For Marion, Revelation is thought in terms of its form rather than its content—as Graves says, it is “construed formally precisely because it refuses any determinant content” (118). But the status of this indeterminateness is ambiguous. Revelation might be said to be so, because it remains at the level of a sheer possibility, a formal possibility (122). In this respect, it is indeterminate insofar as the phenomenologist makes no decision about whether the phenomenon has actually taken place. Marion defends the philosophical legitimacy of his analysis of revelation on the grounds that it holds such determination, designation, or denomination in suspense (122). The philosophical rigor of the analysis is said to be safeguarded by bracketing the question about the actuality of revelation (122). However, Graves notes a further potential kind of indeterminacy. In addition to the formal (or methodological) indeterminacy just noted is another type, “material” indeterminacy:

Marion’s work suggests another kind of indeterminacy, one that belongs to the content or material of the phenomenon itself. Here, the actual content remains indeterminate precisely because this content exceeds or overwhelms all signification and concepts—in short, all efforts to comprehend it, to say it, or to give it a linguistic articulation. We might call this material-indeterminacy since it refers to that which is materially (i.e., actually) given, but given in a way that eludes our (linguistic) understanding of it. That which is given remains indeterminate not because it is non-actual or not-yet-give—as in the case of the formal-indeterminacy—but because this actuality frustrates and exceeds every attempt to pin it down, to make determinations, and to describe its contents. Whereas formal-indeterminacy clearly pertains to revelation (as possibility), material-indeterminacy belongs to Revelation (as actually given)—and thus, it would make no sense to speak of the formal-indeterminacy of Revelation or the material-indeterminacy of revelation (123).

When Marion speaks of a pure givenness or a pure call, which type of indeterminacy does he mean—formal or material? To determine or name the call would involve a theological interpretation which would violate Marion’s own phenomenological description. Under pressure to justify his phenomenological approach on strictly philosophical grounds, Marion has subjected the phenomenon of Revelation to a process of counter-contamination in his work (125). The resulting material indeterminacy of Revelation is related to Marion’s related handling of language and hermeneutics, Graves claims. For has not Marion in effect extricated Revelation from its proper textual-linguistic milieu? (125). In Graves’s estimation, the saturated phenomenon renders any hermeneutic interpretation of it an afterthought, as an activity that works upon an already given phenomenon (126). This is because Marion operates on the assumption that the success of his phenomenology of givenness depends upon a radical suspension of the subject’s capacity to constitute, conceptualize, or name the given (127). In the name of liberating the phenomenon from metaphysics (and hence the conditions of possibility of the transcendental subject), Revelation is left lacking any determinate material content. For although it is true that Marion will insist the saturated phenomenon necessitates an “endless hermeneutic” on the part of the recipient, this is ultimately because no set of finite concepts will ever prove sufficient or adequate to it. In the last analysis, Graves concludes that Marion’s phenomenology of revelation fails to describe Revelation. The decision to formulate the merely formal possibility of revelation, without presupposing an actual event of determinate Revelation, entails that the actual event of Revelation itself is left indeterminate (143). On the one hand, Marion seems to want to insist that linguistic determinations always originate on the side of the finite subject (in his or her effort to interpret the indeterminate given).  On the other hand, he wants to say that the finite subject is constituted by (or receives itself from) the given itself.  In Graves’s view, this presents a problem concerning how to account for determinacy in the first place.

At last, we come to Ricœur, whose approach to revelation is the one Graves most prefers. For it is Ricœur who is said to provide a way forward, by having taken a path that the radical approaches of both Heidegger and Marion did not. It all has to do with language. Contrary to the radical attitude toward linguistic mediation which maintains that any given phenomenon will require interpretation (and hence an imposition on what is fundamentally in itself indeterminate), Ricœur’s hermeneutic approach stresses that all phenomena are always already interpreted. Language is no longer regarded as an inert medium which simply mediates what has already been given by superimposing its determinateness upon it, but rather as a genuine source of revelation in its own right (133). Rather than language obstructing or occluding revelation, revelation takes place in language. For, according to Graves, it is Ricœur who rightly acknowledges that the given is always already linguistically determined (not pure).

This promise of language to resolve the problems of formalization/attenuation, ontic contamination, and counter-contamination besetting the radical approach has gone unnoticed, says Graves, because until recently, Ricœur’s work had been largely overlooked within the secondary literature on the theological turn. For whereas Marion under the threat of ontic contamination—like Heidegger before him—wound up advancing a purely formal figure of Revelation, one that is said to precede any possible description, designation, or act of naming, and one that is therefore anterior to linguistic expression and textual mediation (146), Ricœur instead treats language as the originary site of revelation. For him, revelation involves a transformation of the self during the course of reading or interpreting concrete texts—specifically texts that are deemed sacred (147). To the extent there is an indeterminacy at work in revelation, it has less to do with a prior, pre-linguistic givenness than with an over-determinacy rooted in the domain of language itself (147). The saturation does not reside in an “originary” domain beyond the ken of language and the concept, but in the superabundance of meaning within the text itself.

Ricœur’s discussion of the relationship between phenomenology and hermeneutics does not begin with Heidegger, nor even with Husserl, but rather with a consideration of the epistemological problems that plagued nineteenth-century hermeneutic theory and, specifically, those relation to issues within the Geisteswissenschaft (150). Dilthey, for instance, believed that the primary challenge was to show hermeneutics possessed a methodology that could compete with the natural sciences—a methodology “which could be held together on the basis of a coherent theory of understanding” (150). This required that the diverse procedures of classical hermeneutics such as classical philology and biblical exegesis be subordinated to a more general, unified theory of historical knowledge (150). Ricœur contends that Dilthey’s attempt to describe this process left his hermeneutic theory “forever oscillating between a desire for a general theory of historical knowledge, on the one hand, and a Lebensphilosophie rooted in a regional psychological paradigm, on the other” (151-52). Ricœur notes that if hermeneutics should not be understood in terms of the search for the psychological intentions of the author concealed behind the text, and if it not to be reduced to interpretation designed to the dismantling of the text’s structures, then what remains to be interpreted? (155-56). As Graves says, Ricœur’s answer is the “world of the text”—no textual discourse is so fictional that it does not connect up with reality (157). The world of the text is irreducible to the mental life of its author or to the immanent structure of the work itself (156). The text, hence, opens the pathway to revelation. After all, if revelation is an encounter with the divine which somehow “transcends, shatters, or pierces through the humdrum of everyday reality,” then the text is the most appropriate site for such an encounter (158). For Marion, language and concepts are viewed as a kind of filament imposed upon the given. But for Ricœur, the given is always already linguistic in character (179). The latter’s notion of revelation as the revelation of the world of the text consequently weaves together a hermeneutic theory of textual mediation and a phenomenological theory of being-in-the-world. This avoids the problem of counter-contamination. But in doing so, there is another potential problem.

In characterizing the world of the text as he does, has not Ricœur destroyed any basis for distinguishing sacred texts from secular texts? If every literary or poetic text possesses the power to carry one beyond the everyday world of manipulable objects, what is unique about the Bible? (159). The standard answer is to appeal to inspiration. In the case of a revealed text, there is said to be a double authorship, insofar as God is behind the voice of its human author. However, because Ricœur strongly rejects this conception of revelation as inspiration (166), the problem of distinguishing a sacred from secular text remains. While Ricœur’s hermeneutic theory of revelation represents a gain, insofar as it avoids the pitfalls of psychologism or subjectivism, how is one to know it is God speaking in the text? (170) Here, the temptation would be to appeal to some originary or fundamental phenomenon said to lie behind or beyond the text, yet Ricœur has expressly ruled out that option.

This all comes to a head in Ricœur’s own example of the phenomenon of conscience. As Graves explains, Ricœur’s “long route” differs from Heidegger. Whereas Heidegger’s ontological project entailed a logic of presupposition in which phenomenology would be autonomous from the positive sciences, Ricœur insists on maintaining a creative tension between ontology and the so-called ontico-positive sciences (177). In principle, this would seem to allow Ricœur to avail himself of theology in ways that Heidegger cannot. This would be important, because no matter how long the route one takes, any phenomenological account must eventually face the question of how it is to name the phenomenon that has encountered it. In the case of conscience, Ricœur notes the peculiar modality of otherness belonging to it: its “voice” seems to be coming from another. This is the phenomenon’s enigma: its call issues both from within me and beyond and above me (182). Contrary, however, to what one might expect, here Ricœur, like Heidegger, claims what or who exactly the other is cannot be determined (182), and thus he bars any straightforward identification between God and the call of conscience even at the level of a theology (183). For even Ricœur, the problem of revelation (at least insofar as it concerns the phenomenon of conscience) ends in indeterminacy. As Graves notes, however, setting the particularity of conscience aside, the hermeneutic approach to revelation generally maintains the possibility that the call is already named, that revelation is already determined by the historical, cultural, and textual conditions through which one encounters it.

This has been a very long review. However, in digging into the details to the extent I have, I have still only scratched the surface of what Graves’s book contains. Let me conclude with some final comments regarding the questions that remain to be answered in light of the new ground broken by Graves in his excellent study. As someone sympathetic to radical phenomenology myself, I can say that Graves has developed a number of very important, and compelling, challenges to Heidegger and Marion. In response, I wonder whether turning to Michel Henry might go some way to addressing those problems. This is certainly an odd suggestion, I recognize, as one might think that whatever problems beset Marion’s radical phenomenology are likely to even more so plague Henry’s own. This is because Henry is far more dismissive than Marion of the need of hermeneutical interpretation and textual mediation for revelation. For Henry, there is no call or response structure said to be at work—the revelation of Christ is immediate, ineffable, and unavoidable within the interiority of life. In Marion’s case, Graves correctly emphasizes that the distinction between revelation (as possibility) and Revelation (as actual) leads to the problems of counter-contamination and material indeterminacy. Graves attributes both of these to Marion’s conception of the relation between language and revelation, a view which implies that language does little more than impose meaning on a phenomenon which forever defies any such imposition. In short, the claim is that Marion’s attempt to accommodate the need for hermeneutic interpretation of the saturated phenomenon ultimately fails, because the given itself is always inherently indeterminate, and indeterminate because it is thought to be non-linguistic. In his most recent work, however, Marion has arguably taken a different approach. In D’Ailleurs, la révélation, he assigns a central role to the parable—according to Marion, the revelation that takes place through the words of Christ in the form of parables is a distinctly linguistic phenomenon. The parabolic discourses first disclose a mystery, which is in turn resolved by those who have “ears to hear” and “eyes to see.” It would be interesting to hear from Graves about the extent to which, if at all, he thinks Marion’s analysis of the parable (and in turn the Trinity) addresses the previous problem of Revelation’s material indeterminacy.5 For with the parable, initially Revelation proves mysterious, yet ultimately determinate—Christ reveals himself to be the Son of God.

Of course, Marion’s employment of the parables will elicit the familiar objection that he is guilty after all of doing theology rather than phenomenology, but this is fine, if one thinks, as Graves does, that the ideal of philosophical rigor guiding such an objection, one that had previously led Marion to insist upon the distinction between revelation (as possibility) and Revelation (as actual), is not worth preserving. The question Marion asks in light of the mystery put forth by the parable is a good one: why do some of those who encounter these words of Christ recognize him to be the Son of God, while others do not? Notice that the problem of revelation here is not only linguistic—the problem is not whether one knows (or how one knows that one knows) that the Bible is indeed the word of God. The problem, therefore, is not limited simply to those who encounter the parables in the context of what Ricœur says is considered to be a sacred text by believers. For the problem was already salient for those said to have been directly contemporaneous to Christ. While the problem of revelation is perhaps further complicated by textual mediation, this later complication is only derivative of the more primary problem, one which confronted those who encountered Christ face to face just as much as it does anyone today. If Graves opens his study by recounting the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century critiques of revelation, here it is fitting to mention two figures who sought to defend it: Hamann and Kierkegaard. For Hamann and Kierkegaard, when read in the spirit of Christ, Scripture will address one as the word of God, and the inspired status of its meaning, which is otherwise veiled, becomes accessible. If one fails to do so, no revelation takes place. How, then, does one know it is God speaking in and through the text? Ultimately, it is not possible to demonstrate this to others, nor to deduce it by discursive reason, historical evidence, or any other such public criterion. This is because, even in the case of a revelation that would appear to be mediated linguistically, it is the Word who speaks. This was Henry’s point, and I think it is an unavoidable one, no matter how long a hermeneutic route Ricœur or others first travel in order to finally work up to it. Although it causes philosophical offense, radical phenomenology, I think, is right to insist that revelation always requires a salto mortale.6   


1 One should also mention the recent publication of another text in this same vein, Joseph Rivera’s Phenomenology and the Horizon of Experience: Spiritual Themes in Henry, Marion, and Lacoste (London: Routledge, 2022).

2 Such was the conclusion F. H. Jacobi drew amid the pantheism controversy. It was he who introduced the term “nihilism” into the philosophical lexicon.

3 To speak of a single Enlightenment, as if it were one unified intellectual and geographical movement, would be an oversimplification. There were French, German, Scottish, and English Enlightenments. And although today we tend to treat Enlightenment and deliberate secularization as synonymous, in the case of the seventeenth-century English Enlightenment, at least, disputes regarding the relationship between reason and faith originated within a religious milieu seeking to clarify the so-called “rule of faith”: whether it was the church, Scripture, or inspiration possessing the last word on what constituted religious truth. There was hope reason might adjudicate the issue. That the elevation of reason for this specific purpose would precipitate the broader atheistic and secularist developments it later did was something the Great Tewmen or Cambridge Platonists did not foresee or intend. See Frederick C. Beiser, The Sovereignty of Reason: The Defense of Rationality in the Early English Enlightenment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996).

4 For an excellent examination of the way in which Heidegger attempts to formulate a phenomenological method successfully navigating the danger of theological “contamination,” see Ryan Coyne’s Heidegger’s Confessions: The Remains of Saint Augustine in Being and Time and Beyond (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Tarek R. Dika has argued that this attempt of Heidegger’s ultimately fails; the theological content of the existential analytic’s fundamental categories is ineliminable, Dika argues. See “Finitude, Phenomenology, and Theology in Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit.” Harvard Theological Review 110 (4) 2017: 476–494.

5 Although some of the material in question was already available in other sources, such as his 2014 “Givenness and Revelation” Gifford Lectures, D’Ailleurs, la révélation itself only appeared in print after Graves had completed his own study. For a discussion of the way in which the parable is said to accomplish Revelation, see Marion, D’Ailleurs, la révélation (Paris: Grasset, 2020), 336-51. An English translation of D’Ailleurs is currently in preparation by Stephanie Rumpza and Stephen E. Lewis.

6 I would like to thank Adam Graves for extending me the invitation to write this review.

Steven DeLay: In the Spirit: A Phenomenology of Faith

In the Spirit: A Phenomenology of Faith Book Cover In the Spirit: A Phenomenology of Faith
Steven DeLay
Christian Alternative Books: John Hunt Publishing
2022
Paperback
173

Reviewed by: Sarah Pawlett Jackson (St Mellitus College and University of London)

In the Spirit is a short text comprised of nine chapters and a conclusion. Each chapter has a loose thematic centre, which it explores associatively. The author draws out different existential threads in conversation with the Christian scriptures and a range of different works of art. There is a particular journey that the book hopes to take its reader on, although I didn’t fully appreciate this until I got to the end. Starting in darkness, with the soul asleep, journeying through resistance to conversion to a life renewed, the book ends with a vision of perfection and the pattern of a divinely ordered life.

The opening chapter – ‘A Drunkard’s Sleep’ – takes drunkenness as its phenomenological and theological meditation. In this chapter DeLay draws substantially on Adriaen van Ostade’s Drunkards in a Tavern to illuminate his various conceptual forays on this theme. He goes in a number of different directions exploring the image and experience of drunkenness. Intoxication by alcohol is associated variously with sleep, dreaming, lying, illusion, blindness, restlessness, simmering rage, hardness of heart and a failure to be satiated. These different qualities of the drunk and the addict find obvious correlates in the existential and spiritual realm. For DeLay, that which the drunk’s restless thirst longs for is ultimately the living water which Christ offers the Samaritan woman in John 4; the water that is himself. Yet the drunk ‘dulls his sensibility’ (12) to this living water, which is why there is a wakefulness, a ‘sober-mindedness’ (16) needed before it is even possible to drink from that which will satisfy. There is a particularly interesting reflection in the midst of this meandering exploration, on two types of blindness. DeLay takes us to Christ’s diagnosis in Matthew 11:18-19 of those that reject both he and John the Baptist, but for different reasons. John is rejected for his sobriety while Jesus is rejected for his so-called gluttony. As DeLay puts it: ‘Doubt, then, comes in two forms of blindness: with John, an unduly suspicious seeing that does not see what meets the eye, simply because it does not want to see it; with Christ, a self-servingly shallow seeing that sees only enough to be able to remain blind to whatever more it does not want to see.’ (18) DeLay puts the question to us – where else do these two types of blindness show up (or fail to show up) in the reader’s life and experience – the not seeing what is there and the only seeing what is there?

The second chapter – ‘The Strong Wind and a Still Small Voice’ – majors on the theme of dependence. It focuses on the Biblical story in 1 Kings 19 where the prophet Elijah is fed by an angel after waking alone and exhausted in the wilderness. DeLay considers the weakness, fragility of Elijah in his moment, which leads him to a broader reflection on the vulnerability and dependency woven through the human condition, requiring a posture of something like Løgstrup’s ‘basic trust’. He notes the ways we can resist this part of ourselves and try to maintain an illusion of independence. DeLay considers different artist’s impressions of this moment in Elijah’s story (Escalante, Bol, Maggiotto and Moretto.) These different ways of depicting the moment give us, as the reader, a way into imagining different possible postures – both of resistance and of receptivity – in Elijah in this moment, and in ourselves.

The third chapter – ‘On the Broad Way’ – circles around the theme of desire. It considers both desires locked into their own sense of themselves, as well as the possibility of a desire that leads to divine transcendence. DeLay tells us, starkly, that ‘Desire’s transfiguration, from inattentive or feverish, on the one hand, to attentive and judicious, on the other, is an upheaval of everything, that great moment of lucidity marking the fear of God.’ (35) This chapter circles back to themes from the previous two, picking up the narcotising theme from the first chapter. He again uses different pieces of visual art (Rodin and Munch) to invite us to consider different ways of seeing-as-artist, and so different ways of desiring. With echoes of Levinas he identifies the desire which hoovers the world into one’s own totalising artistic project, and an alternative which is receptive to the interruption of God.

Chapter Four is called ‘The Golden Calf.’ As its title suggests, this portion of text riffs on the theme of idolatry. Here DeLay engages with the contemporary prevalence of social media, thinking phenomenologically about the pressure it exerts to keep us preoccupied with images of ourselves. He diagnoses a new very and yet very old phenomenon, traced back to the myth of Narcissus. In an enjoyable pun, he diagnoses: ‘Narcissus, in fact, is the ancient predecessor of what for us has become rampant, a transcendental egoism consisting in the illusion of independence and self-sufficiency from God, a shallow pride leading to the pursuit of self-adoration, thereby culminating in an existence whereby one becomes one’s own idol, one’s own golden calf.’ (54) Taking this pronouncement further, he claims that this narcissism becomes ‘demonic’, because ‘divorced from the goal of becoming wise, the task of being oneself meets with failure. For underestimating evil, it fails to take adequate refuge from it.’ (65)

Chapter Five – ‘Through the Veil of the Word made Flesh’ – is something of a hinge chapter. Here DeLay tells us retrospectively what he has been seeking to do so far, and why: ‘If, then, the preceding chapters have aimed to establish one thing, it is to disclose the stupor in which we grope when we are estranged from God, whatever the particular reason is. Having fought for however long it may be to live apart from God, how will coming to know him be achievable after persisting alone? What form can a reconciliation between God and us take?’ (66) This chapter tries to illuminate the moment of conversion, where the inverted, self-satisfied ego is taken out of itself and transformed. This, then, is the frame with which to read this chapter, and the whole of the second half of the book. The exploration of a phenomenology of the closed-off life becomes an exploration of the phenomenology of conversion becomes an exploration of the phenomenology of the spiritually open and given-over life. DeLay’s orthodox answer to the question of what form divine-human reconciliation might take, is that ‘the incarnation changes everything.’ (66) It is the incarnation of God that ruptures our experience (of drunkenness, independence, feverish desire and idolatry) and addresses us. The recurring image – once again explored through the eyes of various artists, but particularly in this case, Caravaggio – is of St Paul’s Damascus Road conversion. It is Paul’s confrontation with the incarnate and reconciling person of Christ that knocks him (and us) off our horse. DeLay describes it thus: ‘The haze lifts. The riddle dissolves. Life ceases to be a Promethean project of forging an identity by way of the purposes we choose to determine for ourselves. Now, it instead takes on the pure form of a divinely appointed vocation, a task God gives us…Henceforth, the incarnation points the way for us, because Christ, while in earth, dwelling among us, leaves the pattern of life by which reaching eternal life is possible.’ (68) In the second half of this chapter he starts the constructive work of articulating what a phenomenology of this life so patterned involves. He offers a rich description of the ‘spiritual senses’ – what-it-is-like to have spiritual sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch (the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and hands of the heart, as it puts it) awake and attuned.

The sixth chapter – ‘The Purple Robe’– takes evil as its theme, particularly evil’s resistance to the conversion held up in the previous chapter. Different manifestations of the resistance to conversion are explored, but DeLay’s focus is evil’s pattern of denial of the truth followed by violent attack on the truth. The counter-pattern of the converted life works against this grain of denial-and-attack: ‘Displaying the futility of evil’s will to destroy the truth, Christ’s personal victory over death takes on universal significance. Having passed through suffering unto death, and back to life, his resurrection guarantees the good’s ultimate triumph over evil. Even when evil seemingly has overpowered the truth to the point of putting it to death, it fails, for the truth only rises again. This is the eternal power of the good originating beyond the world, a good having issued its first word with creation, and its last word with the resurrection.’ (102)

Work and rest are the central theme of the seventh chapter, titled ‘Apparitions of the Kingdom’. By implicit contrast to the locked-in desire and restlessness explored in earlier chapters, this is an examination of a work redeemed and a true rest that springs from outside of the self. As we find in all these chapters, DeLay offers a taxonomy of experiences. Of particular interest here is his distinction between different types of restoring rest – rest found through connection with the whole, and rest found in meditation on the dignity of the details, which he demonstrates in his discussions of Turner and Monet respectively. Again, what is offered is a phenomenology of the life spiritual – after the pattern of Christ. Rather than embroiling himself in classic philosophical debates about work and rest (usually cashed out as activity and passivity, or freedom and determinism) he rather points us to the fact that ‘metaphysical questions regarding God’s relation to creation and the relation between divine and human action are resolved simply by imitating Christ.’ (109)

‘Paul and the Philosophers’, DeLay’s eight chapter, takes wisdom as its theme. Paul’s famous sermon to the Greeks at Mars Hill is explored through various painterly depictions (Raphael, Ricco, Fortuny, Pannini and Rothermel.) The wisdom that is the pattern of Christ DeLay describes as ‘a third way’ (120) between the wisdom of the Greek philosophers (both Stoic and Epicurean) and the Jewish wisdom tradition from which Paul himself comes. Most pertinently for the philosophers reading this text, DeLay puts forward the suggestion that intellectualism’s sceptical posture can be destructive not only as a form of idolatry, but also as a form of superstition. For ‘when the truth has been revealed, and one persists in ignorance, what previously had been an admirable attitude of epistemic modesty itself becomes superstition, for it clings to an ignorance that has ceased to be warranted.’ (125) By contrast, Paul preaches obedience to the truth revealed, the person of Christ himself.

Chapter Nine, ‘The World’, considers the theme of overcoming. The Biblical stories paired and explored through artworks here are that of St John’s Revelation on the island of Patmos, and Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. The connection hangs on Patmos as a site of temptation similar to that of Christ’s wilderness. Drawing on both stories, DeLay gives an account the work and experience of overcoming – overcoming the world, overcoming temptation and (rightly) overcoming oneself. Christ is again the pattern book for this existential task. In refusing Satan’s attempts to get him to use his power in the wilderness he shows us, for example, that real power does not always need to show itself, and this is the kind of overcoming that our more spiritually alive selves are called to.

We come to the Conclusion, which is titled ‘Perfection’. The telos of the journey is held before us to continually elevate us, to remind us of the nobility that is possible and to-be-pursued. ‘Existence assumes the form of faith, for it becomes a stretching forth, a perpetual exodus always in patience seeking after the heavenly city, rather than turning back to idle aimlessly where it had begun.’ (150) And yet lest we forget, we are reminded – ‘nobody begins elsewhere than with mercy.’ (151)

My experience of reading this book was that each chapter was something like a homily – less primarily a piece of conceptual analysis (although this is wound through DeLay’s prose) and more of a moral, spiritual and existential exhortation. Or perhaps the foreground use of artworks makes this book feel like visiting a gallery with someone, attending with them, jointly attending and seeing what they see. I could imagine a sermon or lecture companion series to this text. Knowing now the homiletic quality of the text, I might have chosen to read it differently. I suspect that the best way to approach this book is not to read it too quickly, but to treat each chapter as a meditation, pausing between each. There are strands of connection between the chapters, but similarly, one could easily read each chapter as standalone. As so much of the book involves discussion of unseen works of art, reading in a space where one has access to a high resolution screen to search for the images will probably serve this more tuned-in and contemplative reading. (Learn from this reader’s mistake – don’t read on the London Underground with no Wi-Fi to search for images). In an ideal world this book would have included all the images it refers to, but there are a huge number of artworks engaged, which would no doubt have been a huge cost and headache to compile.

Although I want to say that this is a homiletic piece of work, it is also certainly reads as a primary piece of phenomenology in the tradition of Christian existentialism. DeLay’s energy is not directed towards any secondary analysis of any other thinkers – the text is focused on making its own declarations, analyses and exhortations. The prose has a meandering and associative quality, with themes built on implicitly, and in a non-linear way. The form of the book seems to want to evoke some of the texture of our experiential and existential existence. It has no introduction, no framing, no signposting, no overview. We are dropped straight into the meditation on drunkenness and sleep with the question: ‘Am I in darkness?’ Initially I found this jarring and disorientating, but, in settling in to DeLay’s prose, I take it that this abruptness is intentional, evoking our thrownness and the disoriented sense of waking from sleep, not knowing quite where we are or what it is to find ourselves awake (or are we?)

As a work of phenomenology, the extent to which the reader will find it valuable will be the extent to which the rich phenomenological descriptions that DeLay paints resonate with the lived experience of the reader, or not. For this reader, there were many points at which the text spoke to my lived experience – see above, on blindness and intellectualism particularly. On this point I would be fascinated to speak to others who have also read the text. This text is accessible to the engaged and interested reader of any stripe – no previous expertise in philosophy is needed, although my suspicion is that the book may split a room. This is a book that I wish I had been able to read with others, to find out what did and didn’t resonate with them, what they saw, felt or noticed in reading this book that I didn’t, what rubbed them the wrong way. I am particularly curious as to how the book’s assertions might land with those who do not share the theological commitments that are made foreground. For this reader, immersed in and committed to the Christian faith, the theological assumptions are a familiar landscape in which I live, move and have my being. But how might the non-believer respond to the assertion that ‘the incarnation changes everything?’ This of course raises something of the meta-question of the nature, significance and legitimacy of the theological turn in phenomenology, although I think DeLay is rightly unapologetic in assuming that this kind of theological phenomenology is legitimate. I am interested less here in the meta-philosophical question and more in the interpersonal and experiential one: what-is-it-like for an atheist to read this book? There are many kinds of atheist, of course, so there will not be one answer to this question. My sense is that there are flavours and textures of human experience which DeLay puts words to, in conversation with art and scripture, which make this work the kind of site where theists and atheists can dialogue…but I seek the atheist’s opinion here.

In a similar vein, I am also curious as to how the tone and feel of the book is received by a non-Christian audience. The sermonising quality of DeLay’s writing has a certain severity or heaviness to it. This is a descriptive rather than critical point – again, the quality of a primary existential text (as we find in the likes of Kierkegaard, Levinas and friends) definitionally has a confronting tone. I would love to know for whom else this is a holy confrontation, and whether there are those for whom it leaves cold as moralising. One person’s aphorism is another’s cliché. Maybe all existential writing runs this risk, and there is a boldness to DeLay’s unironic frontal delivery which, in a philosophical landscape typically concerned with caveats and an obsession with narrowing the scope of a set of claims, is refreshing. As I say – I am curious to know where this text leads others.

Jerry Z. Muller: Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes, Princeton University Press, 2022

Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes Book Cover Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes
Jerry Z. Muller
Princeton University Press
2022
Paperback $39.95 / £30.00
656

D. Andrew Yost: The Amorous Imagination, SUNY Press, 2022

The Amorous Imagination: Individuating the Other-as-Beloved Book Cover The Amorous Imagination: Individuating the Other-as-Beloved
D. Andrew Yost
SUNY Press
2022
Paperback $31.95
209

Eric S. Nelson: Levinas, Adorno, and the Ethics of the Material Other

Levinas, Adorno, and the Ethics of the Material Other Book Cover Levinas, Adorno, and the Ethics of the Material Other
SUNY series in Contemporary French Thought
Eric S. Nelson
SUNY Press
2020
Paperback $34.95
480

Reviewed by: Kristóf Oltvai (The University of Chicago)

In Levinas, Adorno, and the Ethics of the Material Other, Eric S. Nelson advances, via these two key interlocutors, a “materialist ethics of nonidentity” (14) that would critique nothing less than “contemporary capitalist societies in their complexly interconnected cosmopolitan neoliberal and neomercantile nativist and nationalistic ideological variations” (260). Such great expectations, and mouthfuls, populate the whole continent of this nigh-five-hundred-page tome, which, alongside its protagonists, surveys, enlists, or corrects thinkers as diverse and challenging as Enrique Dussel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Ernst Bloch, Jürgen Habermas, Axel Honneth, Jacques Derrida, and Iris Murdoch. While such breadth – to say nothing of Nelson’s frequent and fascinating asides to Asian philosophies – reveals a deep erudition, the study’s verbosity often belies its chief argument: that Emmanuel Levinas’s phenomenological defense of ethics as ‘first philosophy,’ if informed by and reinterpreted through Theodor Adorno’s concept of negative dialectics, offers up a useful framework for rethinking our ethical obligations to dehumanized human and nonhuman Others in the Anthropocene. Admittedly, Nelson tips his hand quite late when he writes that “[t]he alternative interpretative strategies outlined throughout this work…point,” not to some reconstitution of “a republic of rational spirits or community of communicative and dialogical agents” à la Habermas and Honneth (Nelson’s whipping boys), but to an “an-archic and unrestrained solidarity…between material existents” (332). His concerns seem, in the final analysis, ecological, while his conclusions share a family resemblance with object-oriented ontology.

The text’s primary theoretical contribution is its concept of “asymmetry”: if ethics is founded on ontological equality, then one’s moral obligations to certain humans, and even more so to nonhuman or flat-out nonliving beings, is impossible. We must thus develop, Nelson claims, ways to think moral obligation in ontologically asymmetrical conditions. Even putting stylistic issues aside, the argument is vexed by a central difficulty, namely, an inability to articulate what sets its solutions apart from the behemoth it means to criticize. While he does offer some recommendations, Nelson frequently jumps from first-person phenomenological description to third-person, extremely concrete public policy positions, or puts forward an idea that “the ‘saintliness,’ ‘genuine humanity,’ and ‘greatest perfection’ that transpires in the insufficiency and incompletion of everyday life in ordinary acts in which one places the other before oneself” (337). The former confuses distinct levels of philosophical analysis, while – to echo Slavoj Žižek’s criticism of Levinas, one that Nelson himself considers (299) – the latter risks a sentimentalism unable to deconstruct global capitalism. Both fangs of this problem arise from Nelson’s underdeveloped account of the precise epistemological connection between phenomenology and critical theory, as well as from a conflation of liberalism and capitalism his own sources reject. The Ethics of the Material Other thus ultimately finds itself unable to decide whether liberalism’s wholesale rejection, or just its reformulation, is in order.

After an introduction meant mainly to acknowledge Adorno’s and Levinas’s diverging philosophical idioms, Nelson divides his study into three parts: “After Nature,” “Unsettling Religion,” and “Demanding Justice.” In “After Nature,” Nelson turns to Marx’s and Adorno’s idea that ‘nature,’ as an ideological category, is dialectically-materially constructed, first using this idea to critique Habermas and Honneth, and then suggesting it helps us get around Levinas’s anthropocentrism. The basic point here is easy to grasp. ‘Nature’ and ‘culture’ are not static ontological spheres; rather, ‘nature’ is itself historically conditioned, and, in late capitalism, serves as both “the environment,” a mere “background for human activity” (38), and as a fetishized reservoir for consumers’ ‘sublime’ experiences. The “natural and human worlds” should thus be rethought, Nelson argues, “as historically intertwined and mutually co-constituting” (46), with ‘nature’ now defined, with Adorno, as the material τόδε τι that confronts and resists reason’s dialectic. In contrast to Habermas and Honneth, then, for whom the Marxian “expression ‘domination of nature’…is [only] a metaphor extended to nature from the domination between humans in misshapen relations” (44), Nelson recovers Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s sense that, in fact, the real exploitation of nature grounds, and is interwoven with, specific forms of dehumanization. In other words,

[i]nsofar as humans are worldly bodily beings, with practical material lives, it is debatable whether the nondisposability of humans can be preserved in a world where everything else is disposable… In not listening and responding to animals, environments, and the materiality of the world… numerous human forms of life and suffering are silenced (48).

The extent to which Nelson himself actually embraces the “nonreductive, aporetic, and ethical praxis-oriented…materialism” (49) he finds in the older Frankfurt School is another question, as his examples of ‘natural’ phenomena still seem oriented by romanticism; we hear of “melting glacier[s]” and “polluted wetlands” (128), for example, but few of the more discomfiting candidates from radical ecology. Nelson wonders, for example, if “[i]t might be the case that there can be an ethics that is responsive to and responsible for animals, ecosystems, and environments without presupposing or requiring any concept or experience of nature” (114), without interrogating what concept of ‘nature’ underlies the three ethical subjects with which he begins that very sentence. The extent to which “bodily suffering” (81) motivates Nelson’s ethics – and restricts them – is likewise open to debate, and downplays, in his account, the extent to which ‘nature’ remains, for Adorno as it was for Hegel, an epistemological category. Nonetheless, Nelson’s use of Adorno to overcome Levinas’s alleged “antinaturalistic and antibiological” (91) is convincing. Levinas’s critique of ‘naturalism’ is indeed oriented by his desire to steer clear of anti-humanist romanticism, especially in its reactionary modes; if we jettison a romantic construction of ‘nature,’ then, granting an “alterity and transcendence to life and living beings insofar as they are ethically rather than biologically understood” (116) does become possible. This reinterpretation also dovetails with the one advanced by Megan Craig and others, namely, that Levinas’s descriptions of the ethical encounter are just extended epistemological metaphors, meant to ground a radical empiricism. This would fit nicely with Adorno’s own defense of empiricism, in his Metaphysics lectures and elsewhere, against idealism’s alleged hatred of the empirical.

In his study’s second part, “Unsettling Religion,” Nelson focuses on the notion of ‘prophecy,’ primarily in Levinas’s philosophical interpretation of Judaism. Before jumping into this, though, he begins by overviewing Ricœur’s three ‘masters of suspicion’ – Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud – and their critiques of religion. In what amounts to a methodological exercise, Nelson admits that while “[r]eligions operate as ideological disguises and hegemonic regimes of this-worldly power that demand ascetic and sacrificial practices and exact heavy costs in lives and suffering,” they are simultaneously “expressive of prophetically inspired hope for forgiveness, happiness, and justice” (150). He expends particular energy evaluating Nietzsche’s views on religion in On the Genealogy of Morality, affirming the Genealogy’s ‘prophetic’ elements while rejecting its crypto-virtue ethics and justification of suffering through amor fati. Nelson then turns to the meat of the argument in this part, which is Levinas’s confrontation with Kierkegaard over the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. For Nelson, this contrast illustrates two fundamental ‘religious’ modes: Kierkegaard’s, that of fundamentalism and theocratic tyranny, of “the religious constituting the suspension of the ethical,” as against Levinas’s ‘prophetic’ “interruption of [God’s] command by the ethical demand not to kill” (181). For Levinas, Kierkegaard’s positive valuation of Abraham’s decision in Genesis – to carry out God’s command to sacrifice Isaac despite its patent immorality and absurdity – shows that Christianity is “an egotistical and self-interested search for consolation, redemption, and salvation.” Judaism, on the other hand – which Levinas identifies with the angel intervening to stay Abraham’s hand – is “not even primarily about God” (184), but about “the humanism of the other.” This is “the ethical truth of monotheism,” which Levinas actually finds in the later Kierkegaard, in Works of Love, not “faith and its subjectivity” (183). Through this analysis, Nelson provides evidence for the theory that – as Samuel Moyn has argued – Levinas’s concept of ethics norms his construction of ‘Judaism,’ not vice versa. This is why, for example, he can praise “atheism” in one moment “as the break with mythic absorption and monistic participation” while lambasting it as “the denial and absence of the transcendent” (213) in the next.

Nelson then turns to Bloch, for whom the “the radical potential of prophecy in Judaism and Christianity, the prophetic denunciation of exploiters, despots, and masters… prepared the way for the communist communities of love from which” – on Bloch’s reading, at least – “primordial Christianity emerged” (230). Finally, “Unsettling Religion” concludes, in a somewhat disjointed way, with a chapter on Murdoch and the Danish Lutheran thinker Knud Ejler Løgstrup. Apart from Løgstrup’s apparently “underappreciated” (243) status in contemporary philosophy and his use of Kierkegaard, I found this excursus confusing, especially given that Nelson would have had to unpack Murdoch’s metaphysical commitments in a more sustained way to make the comparison of her and Levinas other than external. Also meriting scrutiny is the “category of the religious” Nelson claims his analysis has uncovered – namely, one that, “through its prophetic and redemptive moments and in its dreams, hopes, and visions formed and expressed in abject, damaged, and wounded life… heighten[s] the radical republican and social democratic alignment in the direction of equality (fairness), liberty (autonomy), and solidarity (love)” (259). After all, his frequent gestures to Asian religious and philosophical concepts notwithstanding, Nelson’s proponents of ‘prophecy’ here all work within one textual reception history – that of the Hebrew Bible. Can we cleave this ethically- and politically-oriented prophetism from its scriptural origins, ethos, and legitimation? If not, we may need to resist identifying it with ‘religion’ sans phrase; “messianism” (232), per Nelson’s own suggestion, may be more accurate.

“Demanding Justice,” the study’s final part, attempts to think through how a Levinasian ethics, having passed through the clarificatory crucible of the first two parts, might reorient contemporary political theory. I stress ‘Levinasian’ because, at this juncture, Nelson’s use of Adorno recedes into the background, even as earlier adversaries like Habermas and Honneth return as the “high priests” (to repeat Žižek’s quip) of global capital. Nelson’s guiding question here is whether “there [is] in the Levinasian motif of the ‘language of the other’…the possibility of an alternative to both the false universality of liberal and neoliberal cosmopolitanism and the false concreteness of communitarianism and racialized particularism” (320). These two frameworks are, for Nelson, secretly complementary: neoliberalism preaches universal equality and ‘human rights’ while materially erasing those distinct ways of life – human and nonhuman – unable to be integrated into the free market’s logic, and finds itself quite comfortable with new forms of nationalism and chauvinism that stratify intrasocietal wealth as long as global capital flows remain unimpeded. He takes especial issue with the classical Enlightenment concept of freedom, which he sees as having been perverted into an ideology whereby “appeals to one’s own freedom function to justify power over others and deny the freedom of others to live without coercion and violence” (285). Where this disfiguration is not carried out by the state, it is done so by the ‘culture industry’ and other homogenizing social and economic mechanisms, as diagnosed by Adorno, Horkheimer, and Alexis de Tocqueville. This ideology finds its quintessential expression in the fact that the modern subject is told her freedom is absolute while she finds the most primal experience of freedom – the freedom for meaningful political action – denied her. “Freedom from society robs the individual of the strength for freedom. Asocial freedom limited to an absolutized private self, and divorced from the sociality of the other, is…a denial of the freedom that participates in and helps shape society” (303).

Now, Nelson is aware that Levinasian ethics does not have an obvious answer to this problem; he repeatedly cites, for instance, Žižek’s objection that Levinas, by hyperbolically exaggerating the self’s infinite responsibility for the Other in the ethical encounter, just shifts the burden of society’s sins onto the atomized subject. Nelson claims in response that Levinasian ethics serves as a corrective to existing egalitarianisms rather than a full-blown political counterprogram. Because “Levinas’s political thinking is in multiple ways…an ethically informed and other-oriented transformation of French republican thought” (321), it aims at “disrupting and potentially reorienting self and society, immanently within and yet aporetically irreducible to being, its unity or multiplicity, or other ontological determinations” (332). “Instead of offering an ethical program of cultivating virtues or duties, or setting up procedural normative guidelines,” then, “Levinas speaks of the other as a who. This ‘who’ cannot be defined by ethics in the sense of a normative theory or moral code” (324). Nelson, however, and in a way that I will momentarily question, then turns to define and elucidate precisely such a theory: a “cosmopolitanism of the other,” one “not only concerned with universal and abstract justice” but with “the singularity and particularity of those forgotten and suppressed by the universal as incarnated in the current social-political order” (340). This new cosmopolitanism would “require…a radically an-archic res publica, a republicanism of unrestricted civic associations, public spheres, and solidarities that contests the overreaching powers of the state, the market, and manufactured public opinion” (338). Moreover, it would extend from the human into the nonhuman world, “[n]ourishing and cultivating the life of material others…in fairer forms of exchange and distribution of goods and of intersubjective and interthingly recognition” (332). Ethics of the Material Other closes by suggesting that, although it has successfully gestured toward the ethical and theoretical foundations of this ‘cosmopolitanism of the other,’ only a “political economy oriented toward alterity and nonidentity” would complete its task. Such a political economy would “address” itself to the same themes – “the modern domination of nature that has resulted in disappearing species, deteriorating ecosystems, and the wounds of damaged life” (356) – with which Nelson framed the first part, underscoring the text’s ecological orientation.

Nelson’s fundamental contribution here is his use of Adorno to refine Levinas’s concept of alterity and thereby extend the latter’s phenomenology of the ethical encounter to explicitly include nonhuman Others. This detour through Adorno is not, strictly speaking, necessary. Otherwise than Being can, in particular, be read as an empiricist epistemological treatise, in which Levinas uses a prolonged interhuman metaphor to express the radical exteriority, objectivity, and claim on the conscience, not just of the human Other, but of the truth as such. Nelson’s decision to implicate Adorno is nonetheless insightful insofar as the latter’s later work not only concerns itself with the fact that the history of “metaphysical” (Levinas would write “ontological”) thought identifies the particular as negative and meaningless, but with the particular’s epistemological function, as the concretum of experience, without which reason loses contact with reality. The connection between human materiality and particularity on the one hand, and the functional meaning of these two terms on the other, is thus clearer in Adorno’s oeuvre than in Levinas’s, where Otherwise than Being has to flesh out the genetic phenomenology of reason that remains underdeveloped in Totality and Infinity. Nelson’s ‘asymmetry’ productively borrows this ontological-into-epistemological fluidity from Adorno. Asymmetry characterizes my relationship to the culturally, biologically, and, ultimately, even the epistemically Other, such that I might have, for example, an asymmetrical responsibility to a work of art, to my cultural traditions (‘the past’), or to coming generations or states of being (‘the future’). Access to the Other’s internal states or experiences, nay, even to their external characteristics, need not be a prerequisite for ethical relationship. That Nelson himself seems to sometimes ground these relationships in some shared quality – “sentience,” for example, as in “Buddhist ethics,” “or the equal consideration of interests in Peter Singer’s utilitarian animal ethics” (74) – suggests that certain political aims, such as environmentalism, motivate his project, but it does not obviate the fact that his conclusions align with some of our most important moral intuitions: the care for landscapes, landmarks, sacred sites or objects, and institutions. Whether or how these intuitions can be translated into political aims, however, is a more difficult question.

It is here that Nelson’s argument runs into its central difficulty, namely, in its attempt to map what is, for Levinas, a first-personal phenomenological description of the ethical encounter onto a third-personal normative prescription for political action. Otherwise than Being provides Levinas’s own account of how this transition takes place: although my obligation to the other is experienced as infinite, as soon as another other, “the third,” also places its unlimited demand on me, there takes place an ethical compromise whereby these two others’ needs are compared before I act upon them. This tragic but necessary choice, whereby I must not respond to the other’s infinitude for the sake of a ‘third’ just as transcendent, is the abiogenesis, not just of ethical speech, but of reason and language as such. It is in this paradoxical “comparison of the incomparable [that] there would be the latent birth of representation, logos, consciousness, work, the neutral notion being.”[1] For Levinas, then, what marks any given politics’ ethicality is not whether it does in fact respond to each and every claim of alterity – an impossible task – but the degree to which it allows itself to be challenged by such claims at all. “It is then not without importance to know if the egalitarian and just State in which man is fulfilled…proceeds from a war of all against all or of the irreducible responsibility of the one for all… It is also not without importance to know, as far as philosophy is concerned, if the rational necessity that coherent discourse transforms into sciences, and whose principle philosophy wishes to grasp, has thus the status of an origin…or if this necessity presupposes a hither side…borne witness to, enigmatically, to be sure, in responsibility for the others.”[2] What Levinas offers us in Otherwise than Being is a genetic phenomenology of human politics, linked to one of rationality. These are accounts of how all such discursive and social formations have in fact come about, as is evident from how Levinas explicitly juxtaposes them against two other universal accounts, namely, Hobbes’s theory of the state of nature and Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. Levinas is not prescribing, then, a certain form of government, let alone specific policy recommendations – although, if his account is true, and rationality is born of the ethical encounter, then a politics that flouts its hetero-foundation may risk unreason and collapse, as natural law theory believes tyrannies do.

Nelson acknowledges this several times (277, 281, 282) only to then jump to specific cases; “the denial of healthcare” (296) and “the use of capital punishment” (323), for example, are said to be incompatible with Levinasian commitments, as is liberal capitalism. “[E]quality cannot be limited to symmetrical rational agents exchanging reasons or rights. Such an abstract ideal misses the reality of exchange as structured by desires and interests, relations of power, status, and wealth, and the social-economic reproduction of society” (283). This diagnosis of liberalism – shot through with unseen power dynamics and guided by bellicose competition – sits uneasily with Levinas’s genetic account for both structural and epistemological reasons. The structural reason is that Nelson’s argument effectively, in an odd Hobbesianism, hypostasizes the State; it places the State in what is, for Levinas, the subject’s phenomenological position, expecting the State to experience and respond to alterity in the way the subject does. The epistemological reason is that Levinas’s phenomenology, like phenomenology in general, assumes a transparency incompatible with a transcendental hermeneutic of suspicion applied to the same object of analysis. If we accept Levinas’s account of political formation, in other words, we cannot accept a (broadly) Marxian one at the same level.

We are left with three possibilities. Either (a) Levinas’s account is accurate, and liberalism is simply a social formation that necessarily forgets its ethical genesis; (b) liberalism is compatible with societies’ ethical genesis, but has only contingently forgotten it; or (c) the Marxian account of liberalism is accurate, and Levinas’s is an ideological concoction. Because Nelson’s study does not develop a rigorous epistemological link between their phenomenological and critical-theoretical analytic registers (in the vein of, say, Maurice Merleau-Ponty), it cannot firmly decide between these three options. Instead, Nelson wavers between them. Many passages seem to opt for (a): because liberal capitalism has so deeply failed morally, its normative presuppositions are shams. “Abstract liberal arguments against oppression that leave capitalist forms of power essentially unquestioned are complicit with systems of subjugation that exploit, marginalize, and systematically reinforce powerlessness and vulnerability. They are compelled to sustain the machinery of global capitalism” (341). Or, again: “The liberal priority of justice over care, charity, and republican and communistic solidarity functions as a veil of indifference for excusing injustice, given the structures of domination imbedded in the institutions and practices of social-political life” (323). Nelson, rhetorically at least, seems to prefer (a); not unproblematically, however, his conclusion’s writ actually leans toward (b) or (c).

Nelson himself provides an important formulation of (c) in the form of Žižek’s and Stephen Bronner’s objections to Levinas (299, 305): does Levinas’s ethics, by placing a burden of infinite moral responsibility on the individual, not surreptitiously excuse the State or society of their structural injustices? Secondly, does this shift not privatize ethical discourse, obviating the need for social critique and collective action? Thirdly, does a phenomenology of infinite indebtedness to the Other not preclude moral criticism of that Other, “turn[ing]” society, in effect, “into a set of competing cultural ghettos” (314)? Nelson does not provide robust answers to these concerns. His alternative to particularistic communitarianism, the ‘cosmopolitanism of the other,’ remains underdeveloped, its only seeming quality a promise to avoid the mistakes of past cosmopolitanisms. Even more strikingly, there are moments where Nelson’s interpretation of Levinas as a theorist of ‘small acts of kindness’ meshes with Žižek’s view of him as a bourgeois sentimentalist. In his chapter on Levinas, Murdoch, and Løgstrup, for example, Nelson embraces their idea that “the good can occur through both uncultivated and cultivated human attitudes and practices of goodness, such as the small everyday acts that all three philosophers elucidate to different degrees” (249). We are told that Levinas is, in fact, “the opposite of the moralizing and ethically privileged perfectionist imagined by his detractors. Ethics does not consist in moralistic perfection, not even as a regulative ideal, but in the ‘saintliness,’ ‘genuine humanity,’ and the ‘greatest perfection’ that transpires in the insufficiency and incompletion of everyday life in ordinary acts in which one places the other before oneself” (337). Nelson’s emphasis on the quotidian may assuage Žižek’s worry that Levinas presses for a “hyperbolic yet ultimately empty responsibility” (272), but not its corollary, that “asymmetrical freedom is inherently conservative and elitist in negatively privileging myself over others, as if injustice were solely my responsibility” (299). Indeed, Nelson’s answer to this specific charge – that Levinas can be placed in the French republican tradition and was sympathetic to socialist causes, and hence would surely not endorse a “neoconservative” policy of American exceptionalism (319) – substitutes biography for philosophy. The question is not where Levinas’s personal political proclivities lay, but whether his ethics structurally endorses a quietism or separatism (as in Totality and Infinity’s phenomenology of family life) that frames individual political involvement as morally irrelevant or, at best, unfulfilling. Given especially Levinas’s known antipathy to Jean-Paul Sartre’s phenomenology of social life,[3] Nelson could have probed this angle further.

In yet other moments of his argument, however, Nelson seems to opt for (b). Levinas, he says, does not proposes any formation to replace liberal capitalism and its grounds in Enlightenment universalism, but rather offers up the encounter with the Other as its continual corrective. “[A]symmetrical ethics signifies a way of correcting,” rather than replacing, “standard liberal and socialist categorizations of social-political equality.” Again: it “indicates a noteworthy way of revising the contemporary discourses of ethical and critical social theory.” Or, yet again: “Levinas’s articulation…is not so much a rejection as it is a critical transformation of the categories of modern universalism” (281). While these sorts of statements get closest to Levinas’s actual position, they are not compatible with Nelson’s siding throughout his text with (a). We cannot claim that encountering the Other urges us to revise our political priorities within an existing liberal framework while also claiming that liberalism is fundamentally an ideological obfuscation. This contradiction stems, in Nelson’s account as in many others’ in contemporary continental thought (including, say, Agamben’s), from a conflation of liberalism with capitalism. Defining ‘liberalism’ as just free markets, and the unitary state power that enforces these (333), makes this conflation possible. Liberal theorists like Tocqueville and Hannah Arendt (to name two of Nelson’s own interlocutors) argue, however, that liberalism requires, above all, ‘civil society,’ the ‘thick,’ face-to-face communities that make deliberative rationality possible. Nelson’s most programmatic gesture, toward “a republicanism of unrestricted civil associations, public spheres, and solidarities that contests the overreaching powers of the state, the market, and manufactured public opinion” (338), fully fits into this richer concept of liberalism, his protests notwithstanding. Classing Levinas with Arendt among capitalism’s liberal critics should lead us, however, to a more nuanced parsing of the relationship between alterity and communality than what Nelson offers here. After all, the point Arendt makes about refugees and human rights in The Origins of Totalitarianism, which Nelson cites in this context, is not really one of “an inclusive republic that would welcome the stranger, the exile, and the stateless who have lost the very right to have rights” (321). (To be fair, Nelson’s misreading here is now so widespread in Arendt reception as to have become an interpolation.) Arendt certainly lauds such welcome, but her basic argument is Burkean. Universal human rights are an aspirational norm, but they are meaningless outside of a concrete political community; the nation-state’s particularism is thus the vehicle that realizes the universal. Arendt would agree with Levinas that “justice remains justice only, in a society where there is no distinction between those close and far off, but in which there also remains the impossibility of passing by the closest,”[4] but would stress that said ‘society’ must be bounded if we wish to retain a lived and practical meaning for ‘passing by’ the neighbor. Ultimately, then, Nelson’s embrace of “unrestricted solidarities” (2) may contradict some of his sources’ terms. I can have an unrestricted sense of responsibility for every possible Other, or a solidarity with the actual others I encounter in my embeddedness in my particular context, but unless ‘the face of the Other’ is but a cipher for a universal ontological determination (which Levinas would surely reject), I cannot have both. It is past due for the ‘negative political theologies’ inspired by Levinas, Adorno, Derrida, Hent de Vries, and others to acknowledge this fact and so to begin shifting their analyses from the insistence on ‘alterity’ to asking what political procedures and norms make – or could make – regular encounters with the Other a feature of public life.


[1] Emmanuel Levinas. 1998. Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence (1974).  Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne Univ. Press, p. 158.

[2] Id., p. 159.

[3] Dominique Janicaud. 2000. “The Theological Turn of French Phenomenology” (1991). Trans. Bernard Prusak. In Phenomenology and the “Theological Turn”: The French Debate. New York: Fordham Univ. Press, p. 44.

[4] Levinas, Otherwise than Being, p. 159.

Ethan Kleinberg: Emmanuel Levinas’s Talmudic Turn: Philosophy and Jewish Thought, Stanford University Press, 2021

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Martin Koci: Thinking Faith after Christianity: A Theological Reading of Jan Patočka’s Phenomenological Philosophy

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2020
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Reviewed by: Erin Plunkett (University of Hertfordshire)

Jan Patočka is not an obvious place to go looking for Christian theology. While his writings have a clear emphasis on Europe and its Greek-Christian heritage, his explicit remarks on Christianity appear most often as a matter of intellectual history, part of the attempt to understand the intellectual and spiritual framework of modernity. The philosopher is of course best known for inspiring a generation of Czech intellectuals and dissidents in his role as spokesperson for the human rights appeal Charter 77, a role which ultimately cost him his life. Drawn to this dissident legacy and to Patočka’s vision of a post-European Europe, there has been a renewed interest in Patočka among contemporary political philosophers.[i] His work as a scholar of Husserl continues to be read and appreciated in Husserlian circles. But there have been few attempts to read him as a religious or Christian thinker.

One might expect otherwise, given Patočka’s closeness to Heidegger on a number of issues, and given Heidegger’s importance to the so-called ‘theological turn’ in phenomenology in the latter part of the twentieth century. Judith Wolfe, author of Heidegger and Theology characterises this turn as ‚an attempt to responding to the call of the divine without turning God into an idol by metaphysical speculations’ (Wolfe 2014, 193-194). Beyond what Patočka has to say about Christianity explicitly, many themes in his work—sacrifice, conversion, the nothing, care for the soul—are ripe for a theological reading in the above sense. Jean-Luc Marion and Jacques Derrida’s efforts in this direction are perhaps the best known and most thought-provoking; both read Patočka’s conception of sacrifice in a religious light, as a phenomenology of the gift. Yet a religious approach to Patočka’s work has yet to be taken up in any sustained way in contemporary scholarship.

In English-language scholarship, the special issue of The New Yearbook for  Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy 14 (2015), on ‘Religion, War, and the Crisis of Modernity’ in Patočka’s work, edited by Ludger Hagedorn and James Dodd, is the most substantial offering on Patočka’s religious  import and his thinking about Christianity. Hagedorn, Martin Ritter, Eddo Evink, Nicolas De Warren, and  Riccardo Paparusso have given important readings in this vein though none in a book-length study. Martin Koci’s book is therefore a welcome and important contribution to an underdeveloped field. It reflects an extensive knowledge of continental theology and offers an admirably clear view of the terrain at the present moment, as well as suggesting how Patočka may help  to shape this terrain.

Patočka as Post-Christian Christian Thinker

Koci sees Patočka as anticipating the theological turn in phenomenology that began with Marion’s Dieu sans l’etre (1982). Although, in Koci’s view, Patočka’s social and political environment did not permit him to fully explore the religious resonances in his own thought, he can credibly be read as a post-secular thinker avant la lettre. Koci’s aim to establish Patočka as a serious thinker of Christianity contrasts with the standard line taken by Czech scholarship that Patočka is ‘a pure-blooded phenomenologist with no interest in theology’ (216). Those who are sceptical of a theological approach have plenty of support from Patočka’s texts, where he insists on a definite boundary between philosophical activity and religion. However, this need not prevent a reading of Patočka as a phenomenological thinker of theological import. Furthermore, there are reasons to think such an approach is not against the grain of Patočka’s own thinking. Patočka was raised by a Catholic mother and was a believer as a young man, though he grew dissatisfied with a religious framework as he began to study philosophy. He engaged seriously with numerous theological thinkers, in particular his fellow Bohemian John Amos Comenius (1592-1670), and he maintained a long friendship with the (Barthian) Protestant theologian Josef Bohumil Souček, with whom he discussed matters of faith and the meaning of Christianity. In his later years, Patočka gave lectures on theological topics to his students. Patočka’s engagement with Christianity increases in his writings from the prolific period of the 1960s and 70s, which present his mature thought.

Following Ludger Hagedorn, Koci’s study is an exercise in what he calls ‘after’ thinking, in this case, as the title suggests, thinking what Christianity might continue to mean after the death of God, and in the face of the various (related) crises of modernity. Yet, he explains, the project is not to develop a Christianity that ‘works’ in a postmodern context. It is rather to develop a Christian theology that challenges and questions the status quo and offers the possibility for transformation. ‘Christianity after Christianity does not therefore refer to the current state of religion in a post-Christian age. The “after” is not a relation to the past but an opening to the future’ (171-172). Christianity, as Koci understands it, always involves this dimension of ‘after’, since it a way of thinking that is oriented toward the not yet, harbouring the seeds of its own undoing and remaking. Within this framework, it becomes clearer how Patočka can be of value. Patočka’s own conception of history or historical life (a life in truth) involves an awareness of ‘problematicity’, a radical openness to possibility that calls for a repeated dismantling of what one takes to be solid truths.

A single sentence from Patočka’s late work Heretical Essays provides the refrain throughout Koci’s study:

By virtue of this foundation in the abysmal deepening of the soul, Christianity remains thus far the greatest, unsurpassed but also un-thought-through human outreach (vzmach, upsurge, élan) that enabled humans to struggle against decadence. (Patočka 1999, 108).

Koci attempts to make sense of this suggestive and somewhat obscure remark by exploring a number of interrelated issues in Patočka’s thought: from the crisis of modernity, issuing in nihilism or ‘decadence’ (Ch 2) to his critique of metaphysics (Ch 3), to ‘negative Platonism’ (Ch 4), to the three movements of existence (Ch 5) to ‘care for the soul’ and sacrifice (Ch 6-7). The emphasis of Koci’s analysis of the above remark falls heavily on the notion of the ‘unthought’ dimension of Christianity to which Patočka alludes, and he interprets this along the lines that Hagedorn develops in his article ‘“Christianity Unthought”—A Reconsideration of Myth, Faith, and Historicity’ (2015). Quoting Hagedorn,

Christianity unthought would then indicate the maintenance of some core of Christianity even after its suspension, and through its suspension […] in the sense of metaphorically reclaiming some resurrection after the Cross. […] It is the signal for an investigation into what is left of the Christian spirit without being confessional or credulous (Hagedorn 2015, 43).

The Anselmian understanding of theology of fides quaerens intellectum—faith seeking understanding—in Koci’s hands becomes both 1) an affirmation that faith is ‘a way of thinking’ and 2) an explanation for why Christian theology must involve the continual questioning of itself, must relate to its own unthought. Christianity is, in this sense, a thinking of the unthought. Yet this could easily be misconstrued. Thinking the unthought does not mean ‘neutralizing’ (59) the unthought by bringing it in into the totalising framework of closed reason (the framework of modernity). Put in Heideggerian terms, the unthought signifies an openness and responsiveness to being, beyond the metaphysics of beings. Koci reads Patočka’s account of Christianity in the context of his account of the crisis of modernity and modern rationality, which has become closed in on itself (Patočka contrasts the ‘closed’ and the ‘open’ soul). In Koci’s words, ‘religion breaks with the modern enclosure precisely because it allows the others, the otherwise, and, last but not least, the Other to enter the discussion’ (60).

Regarding Christianity’s ‘abysmal deepening of the soul’ Patočka places special emphasis on the soul’s ‘incommensurability with all eternal being’ (Patočka 1999, 108) because of the soul’s placement in history and its call to responsibility by virtue of being in the world (See the fifth heretical essay for this discussion). Quoting Koci, the soul becomes:

the locus of our engagement with problematicity; it is where we experience the upheaval of being-in-the-world. The soul is the organ of reflection upon the concrete historical situation into which we are thrown; it is the flexibility to think, to question, to challenge given meaning in order to search for a deeper meaning, time and again. The soul is what leads us into thinking (194).

The final word of this exposition is key. Christianity is the ‘greatest, unsurpassed’ struggle against decadence, against any account that would seek to settle things once and for all and close off further thinking. This is important for the overall project here, which is, in part, to use the un-thought of Christianity to challenge both philosophical and theological thinking. The proposal is that we take Christianity seriously as a way of thinking and continual questioning that can help to awaken us from our dogmatic slumber, whether the content of this dogmatism is instrumental rationality, nihilism, secularism, or traditional metaphysics.

It might be wise to pause and return again to Patočka’s claim that Christianity is the ‘greatest, unsurpassed’ movement in the fight for meaning. At first glance, this remark looks like an example of what Koci calls ‘Christian triumphalism’, proclaiming the supremacy of Christianity. Indeed, Christianity does occupy a privileged philosophical position in Patočka’s thought, for reasons that have been explained in part above. But I agree with Koci’s assessment that reading Patočka as a Christian triumphalist, as John D. Caputo does in The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida (1997), mistakes his aim altogether; he is not calling for the triumphal return of Christendom as a political power (Koci surmises that the only way Caputo could make such an error is by not having read any Patočka). On the other hand, Koci’s insistence that ‘for Patočka, Christianity is not “better” than other religions’ (193) is less convincing. He claims that:

Patočka does not understand Christianity in Hegelian terms and is far from situating Christianity on top of the religious tree. Neither does Patočka understand Christianity in Kantian terms as the highest moral call […] I see the “unsurpassed” nature of Christianity [in Patočka’s remark quoted above] as referring to a recontextualization of the soul advanced by Christianity.’ (194).

It is true that Patočka does not understand Christianity in either a Hegelian or a Kantian light; these would be grave misreadings (Caputo appears to be the main target here, since he is guilty of mistaking Patočka for a Hegelian). But it is nevertheless apparent across Patočka’s texts that Christianity is the only religion Patočka takes seriously as properly historical-philosophical; others are relegated to mythical thinking. So by Patočka’s own philosophical standards Christianity is ‘better’ than other religions, better not by virtue of its confessional content but by its contribution to being in the world. In Christianity, the soul is understood in all its problematicity and openness. This is a controversial claim, to be sure, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Patočka does in fact situate Christianity ‘on top’.

Koci argues that there are three features of Christianity that Patočka allows us to see which have serious bearing on contemporary philosophical and theological thinking. First, Patočka:

reintroduces the centrality of Christianity as a new “religiosity” of thinking. In thinking, Christianity overcomes both mythos [a mythical thinking is characterised by the maintenance of life and by adherence to the past] and logos [closed rationality]. (172)

This religiosity of thinking goes in the opposite direction of a demythologization of Christianity. In Patočka’s picture, the world is reenchanted, in contrast to the disenchantment of the scientific-rationalist picture. We open ourselves to the world anew. Koci reads this shift as proposing ‘more Christianity rather than less of it […] Of course, this is not a return to anything from the past. Nonetheless, something is coming, and this something is related to Christianity’ (172).

Second, Christianity ‘becomes an existential category whose basic expression is faith as openness to the future’, ‘faith that is a radicalized, philosophical notion—the care for the soul’ (172). This rather dramatically removes the specific confessional content of Christianity, a move to which I will return below. Third, Christianity is an ‘existential thinking’ that realises itself in ‘acting and living’, living as a person who cares for the soul (173). The authenticity of such an attitude is found in the willingness to take responsibility for life through self-surrender or sacrifice, ‘in the name of a truth beyond positive contents’ (173). Patočka’s emphasis on the ‘experience’ [or activity] of sacrifice, in Koci’s reading, contrasts with the language of ‘participation’ in the absolute gift in both Derrida and Marion, which he reads as more of a conceptual schema than an existential one (see Ch 6 and 7 for an extended discussion).

Does Koci make a convincing case for the value of reading Patočka theologically? I had not been inclined to interpret Patočka along these lines prior to reading Koci’s book, but I see enormous value for Patočka scholarship in opening up this line of thought. Koci’s reading of Patočka as a post-Christian Christian thinker is creative and thought-provoking for those familiar with Patočka and for anyone interested in how to think about faith meaningfully in a contemporary postmodern context.

I have two criticisms, centred around the style of exposition in the book and the unresolved tension between the philosophical and the specifically Christian.

One feels that there is a good deal of stage setting in this work: offering context for Patočka’s thought by way of an exploration of the death of God, the crises of modernity, twentieth-century phenomenological thought, and contemporary continental theology. This is all relevant and helpful to the project of thinking about what Patočka has to offer, but the sustained engagement in the details of Patočka’s own account, especially sustained reflection on the writings that are meant to be of theological interest, is less developed. Koci is well-versed in both continental philosophy-theology (see his recent edited volume on the French philosopher Emmanuel Falque) and in Patočka’s writings, yet the former threatens to swallow up the latter in this book; it is only toward the end of Chapter 5 that Koci asks the question: ‘what is Patočka’s Christianity?’ (p 165), and only in Chapters 6 and 7, in comparisons with Derrida and Marion, that one sees a sustained attention to the details of this Christianity. What I miss in the breadth of the author’s treatment is the depth that comes from close textual analysis, especially when dealing with texts as condensed as Patočka’s.

There are perhaps unavoidable reasons for the thinness of detail in the present account of Patočka’s post-Christian Christianity. It may be the result of Patočka’s own writing, which does not lend itself well to systematic treatment, especially in the case of his writings that might be deemed of theological value, which are naturally scattered across various works. Furthermore, Patočka’s writings often have a provisional quality, not lacking in depth but with a tendency toward ellipses, presenting many rich ideas but often leaving the reader wanting further explication. Whether the root of this elliptical quality is to be found in Patočka’s philosophical commitments, in his own idiosyncrasies as a writer, or in the extremely straitened historical circumstances in which he was forced to work is a question with no definitive answer. However, this quality of Patočka’s writing is especially pronounced when he speaks about quasi-Christian themes such as sacrifice and mystery (see 233-234 for an example). Koci intelligently reads these silences—pace Kierkegaard and Derrida—as pregnant with significance. One of Koci’s examples of this is Patočka’s failure to explicitly name Christ in his writings, though he makes significant allusions to him, as in the discussion of sacrifice in the end of the 1973 Varna lecture and the reference to the Passion narrative in the ‘Four Lectures on Europe’. Koci also speculates that Patočka might well have developed his post-Christian ideas more explicitly given a different intellectual and political climate. Both assessments seem plausible to me.

That said, other than the excellent description of kenotic sacrifice in Chapter 7, the present book is rather thin on the details of what Patočka’s Christianity might look like. One example is the very truncated discussion of Christian community that ends the book. These considerations were, to me, very ripe for development, and I would have liked to hear more of Koci’s own vision of what forms a Patočkian Christian community could take, what forms of worship, what shared rituals. Koci is inspired by Patočka’s key idea of the ‘solidarity of the shaken’ from the Heretical Essays, and other scholars could certainly build on Koci’s groundwork. Naturally questions of post-Christian ritual and worship go beyond the scope of Patočka’s own writings, but Koci’s reading of Patočka raises these questions and invites imaginative responses. Such exercises in filling out Patočka’s own account may risk heresy to the master, yet without them, one is left with a portrait of Christianity that does not differ very much from a purely philosophical account: each person strives to ‘care for the soul’, living in a full awareness of the problematicity of finitude, dedicating themselves to a truth that is not embodied in anything present or actual.

Beyond Patočka’s writing style, there may be another reason for the sense of thinness I noted earlier, and this is one that Koci addresses directly, namely that Patočka’s understanding of Christianity is not a positive theology. There is no content, per se, no dogma in Patočka’s understanding of the divine or in the way of relating to the world that is taken up in an attitude of faith. While this kind of theological approach has an impressive pedigree, reading Patočka in this tradition raises the question anew of how and to what extent Patočka’s Christianity differs from a wholly philosophical account. Christianity in Patočka can easily be seen as having philosophical value, value for the question of how to orient oneself in the world, but I remain unconvinced that the lessons that Patočka draws from it are fundamentally different from the lessons he draws from Socrates. A distance from true being and a recognition of the limits of knowledge are, to Patočka’s mind, the distinctly Christian intellectual contributions. This is distinct from Platonism, to be sure, but Hannah Arendt, for one, draws the same lessons from Socrates.

Koci to his credit directly tackles the question of whether the features that he identifies as Christian in Patočka’s work may just as well be called Socratic. Patočka’s ‘care for the soul’ and ‘sacrifice’ can—and have—been read either way. On the topic of sacrifice, Koci offers a comparison of the deaths of Socrates and Christ to see which best accords with Patočka’s understanding of a sacrifice for nothing, elaborated in his 1973 lecture ‘The Dangers of Technicization in the Sciences According to E. Husserl and the Essence of Technology as Danger in M. Heidegger’ and in the Heretical Essays. In Patočka, sacrifice for nothing, as opposed to a transactional sacrifice for some specific end, is a central concept; sacrifice in the radical, non-transactional sense discloses the ontological difference, elaborated by Heidegger, between specific beings or things—taken individually or as a set—and being proper, which is no-thing and is not of the order of beings (see the postscript of Heidegger’s ‘What is Metaphysics?’ for the origin of this discussion). In an act of sacrifice, an individual brings this ontological difference, otherwise hidden and supressed, into view. A new understanding of truth is thus affirmed.

Construed in this way, Socrates and Christ both seem equally apt examples of a sacrifice for nothing—both die for a truth that is not obvious or present (and certainly not recognised by those around them) but which they nonetheless affirm by being willing to give their lives. Neither of these deaths could be thought of as transactional. Koci’s reading of these deaths focusses on a different feature, however. Socrates is serene, even happy in the face of death, requesting that his friends remember to sacrifice a cock to Asclepius—for ridding him of the malady of life. Koci points to this attitude and to passages in the Phaedo as evidence that Socrates thought of death as a welcome release from life, that his serenity came from the certainty that he would finally be in direct contact with higher being and would be able to know what he only glimpsed in part. Christ, by contrast, utters the anguished cry ‘eli eli lama sabachthani’. While Christ accepts that he must sacrifice himself, he does not understand it. Rather than embracing death in the certain knowledge that immortality was preferable, he holds onto finitude and it remains problematic for him. Patočka quotes Christ’s final words in his ‘Four Seminars on Europe’ (Patočka, ‘Čtyři semináře k problému Evropy’, 403–404 and 412–413), suggesting his attention to this aspect of the passion narrative. Christ’s kenosis or self-emptying is, for Koci:

a scandalous provocation to shift from a simple life and its preservation to thinking about human being. It seems that herein lies the motivation behind Patočka’s plea for fighting for the Christian legacy, albeit in a deconstructed and demythologized manner, for the post-Christian world (215).

Ultimately Koci admits that one cannot decide on a purely Greek or Christian reading of sacrifice since Patočka himself tends to read Socrates through the lens of Christ and Christ through the lens of Socrates. For Koci, this ambiguity reflects a deeper one in Patočka’s work: Christian theology is a response to (Greek) philosophy, but philosophy must learn lessons from Christianity if it to break free from its own dogma. It is only in the relationship between the two that an authentic orientation to the world emerges.

I am sympathetic to the project of this book, and I am greatly attracted to ‘Patočka’s Christianity’, as Koci presents it. However, I remain unsure of the legitimacy and value of putting this account under the heading of ‘Christianity’, or even ‘post-Christian Christianity’, I freely admit that this may have more to do with my own understanding of Christianity, and it is certainly rooted in my understanding of philosophy. Koci writes in Ch 4, ‘I am convinced that Patočka invites us to think about a certain vision of philosophical faith (147).’ I agree much more readily with this formulation. I am convinced that the texts themselves authorise a ‘post-secular’ reading; it seems to me the natural result of good philosophical thinking, that, like Patočka’s, it remain open to transcendence.

 

References:

Hagedorn, Ludger and Dodd, James, eds. 2015. The New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy XIV. Religion, War and the Crisis of Modernity: A Special Issue Dedicated to the Philosophy of Jan Patočka. London: Routledge.

Hagedorn, Ludger. 2015. ‘“Christianity Unthought”—A Reconsideration of Myth, Faith, and Historicity’. The New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy 14: 31–46.

Patočka, Jan. 1999. Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History. Translated by Erazim Kohák and edited by James Dodd. Chicago: Open Court.

Patočka, Jan. 2002. In Sebranné spisy Jana Patočky, vol. 3. Péče o duši, III: Kacířské eseje o filosofii dějin; Varianty a přípravné práce z let 1973–1977; Dodatky k Péči o duši I a II. Edited by Ivan Chvatík and Pavel Kouba. Prague: Oikoymenh.

Wolfe, Judith. 2014. Heidegger and Theology. London: Bloomsbury.


[i] See e.g. Meacham, Darian and Tava, Francesco, eds. 2016. Thinking after Europe: Jan Patočka and Politics. London: Rowman and Littlefield.

*For those interested in reading more of Patočka, the forthcoming Care for the Soul: Jan Patočka Selected Writings (Bloomsbury, 2022) will offer a number of his texts available in English for the first time.

Hermann Cohen: Writings on Neo-Kantianism and Jewish Philosophy, Brandeis University Press, 2021

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Philipp von Wussow: Leo Strauss and the Theopolitics of Culture

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SUNY series in the Thought and Legacy of Leo Strauss
Philipp von Wussow
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2020
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Reviewed by: Andrew Oberg (Associate Professor, Faculty of Humanities, University of Kochi, Japan)

The “Faith”-ful Social: von Wussow on Leo Strauss’ Legacy

 

I. Orienting: A Premise

Philipp von Wussow has given us an excellent and engaging study of Leo Strauss’ oeuvre in his compact and accessible Leo Strauss and the Theopolitics of Culture (SUNY Press, 2020). In the below, although I will consider the book generally, particular focus shall be given – as von Wussow himself does – to the centrality and importance of Philosophy and Law, Strauss’ publication of 1935, and then to a lesser extent his 1967 talk/essay “Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Reflections”, which repeated Philosophy and Law’s underlying thematic thrust. With the reader’s permission I will endeavor to do so from my own perspective, one prompted both by Strauss and by von Wussow’s interaction with Strauss, a viewpoint which situates itself around the idea that, as with every human structuring, politics of course always gets involved in religion; but further: religion itself (as revelation, as a social(ly-oriented) phenomenon) is political. What this means for praxis, ritually and conceptually, we shall try to draw out, and thus we join the game of Strauss that von Wussow teaches and illumines. While we may be unlikely to find any hard conclusions therefrom, we might nevertheless arrive at some enlightening reflections of our own.

II. Philosophy and Law: Finding the Religiopolitico

Von Wussow declares this text to be “one of the greatest philosophical works of the twentieth century, along with the Tractatus, Being and Time, and Dialectic of Enlightenment” (p. xvi; referencing Wittgenstein 1921, Heidegger 1927, and Adorno and Horkheimer 1944, respectively). These are extraordinarily illustrious fellows, and the assertion immediately alerts us to the esteem with which von Wussow holds Strauss’ book. We are advised to read Strauss as an author who made “directional” arguments, indicative of and instructional on comprehensive movements. He wrote philosophy as drama, with the concepts being the characters in the play (and I do intend “play” here in both senses of “theatre” and of “amusement”); already we may remark on how such an informed approach stands philosophy against yet within religion: exterior to the sturdiness of a belief as that-which-is-accepted (full stop), but interior to the shifting flow(s) of a being-in-the-world. Strauss indeed is said to be a proponent of the rational in the ‘reason versus revelation’ debate (as “Jerusalem and Athens” would consider too), but the outright impression one gets from von Wussow is that this was never definitively settled for Strauss, that even for him the question was one of (perhaps undecidable) struggle. Each was a type of wisdom, and the tension in the dialogue between we shall need to consider in the next section of our review. Still, for Strauss (and, we might add, for us) it is necessary for philosophy to differentiate itself from the thinking of a numinous lifeworld; whether or not such is truly (totally) achievable in any philosophy which includes a robust metaphysics and does not merely parade logical tools and/or associated analyses as its entirety may also be an open question. (In philosophy – as we who practice it know all too well – sooner or later one often simply has to take a stand; at such times any boundary between that “stand” and an arguably quasi-faith type “belief” is a blurry line at best, a broken one at worst.)

Von Wussow begins by giving a background to the book and its historical setting, doing so in a very accessible manner which is open to all readers regardless of familiarity with Strauss and his works (and kudos to the author are well deserved on this). Moving first through the text’s Introduction we are informed of Strauss’ fundamental position that “compromises and syntheses are untenable”, that “a new movement remains entangled in the premises of what it opposes” (68), and thus in his (i.e. Strauss’) reaching back to Maimonides and medieval reasoning in the manner he does a way of thinking/approach might thereby be found which need neither be one of the Enlightenment nor of the orthodox sort vis-à-vis a rational methodology fit for the present age. The insight here Strauss yields is that:

one can believe in miracles, in God’s creation of the world, and His [sic.] revealing Himself [sic.] to man [sic.]; and there is no decisive counterargument as long as one believes in a thorough and sincere manner… Religious or nonreligious beliefs and attitudes are a matter of choice, an act of the will. Religious and antireligious discourses are a matter of rhetorical persuasion. (71)

Every matter within these discourses (and indeed every other) are already interpreted, we come to understand, and interpretation itself is a matter of the will (this point is given its Nietzschean due); hence ultimately, we might infer, the entire issue – the “clearing” in which we stand and wherefrom our vantage point extends (stealing (and slightly distorting) some Heideggerean imagery here) – becomes non-consciously derivative from the default influence(s) of said prior choice (employing our own terms now; the emphasis being on the aspect’s absence of cognitive awareness while it yet retains a deep psychological reach). Let us then think about what it might entail to “take a stand” in such a manner in light of our own opening (our orienting) central premise that religion is itself political.

Maimonides (or Rambam) and his Islamic predecessors and contemporaries (a member of the Sephardic Jewish community, he was born in Spain in 1138 CE and died in Egypt in 1204 CE, living in and under the rule of the Islamic Golden Age) placed philosophy (“reason”) as justified through revelation, indeed even divinely commanded to be pursued by those capable of it (the born thinkers; this is an elite). Thus for these medieval theo-philosophers there simply was no ‘battle’ to be had between reason and revelation: one stood under the other, and it took its place and purpose from that positioning, as did its practitioners. Although – to my knowledge – this was not explicitly stated in the historical record that has been bequeathed to us, upon examination the profoundly political stance of such is manifest: reason/philosophy is hereby a device designed (by “Heaven”?) to be employed for the service of revelation (religion), as both apart from yet paradoxically housed within. (We might further add that in this facet at least it is not terribly unlike how Christian medieval theologians were arguing, only with very different means and – as compared with the Christians – vastly more unfettered in form). Philosophy here, as under Law (Torah), is one of a suite of tools for the service of religious self-structuring and religiously inflected societal edifice building. This is critically not an interplay, not an interaction, but instead is the twinned existence of religion and the appended political functioning of the metaphysical, the ontological conclusions; in short, the result is an emergent religiopolitico: a singularity. Conceptually, and probably practically, Law does have precedence in that philosophy takes its rationale thence; yet given its divine sanction – and again, even command – philosophy becomes not merely a potentiality of religion but a necessary aspect of it. Revelation instructs (demands) reason to be a part of it; revelation does not ‘birth’ reason so much as bodily adhere it: analysis as a prophetological prosthesis, and that carried always into the social realm. (The call of the prophet may be a voice in the wilderness, but it is one that is heard.)

If the Enlightenment Project was designed to safely rid the world of orthodoxy (but notably, as is visible from such systems as Deism, not eliminate faith per se) – and this orthodoxy is understood as a cipher for Law – then clearly it has failed, as Strauss pointed out, von Wussow discusses, and we can surely agree with. This reflection in itself shines fascinating new light (from an older source) on the current ‘culture wars’ and reaffirms how very relevant Strauss’ book is for our times today, already approaching a century from its publication (which itself is hard to think; 1935 a century ago?). Revelation, religion, the meanings for and in human lives; these are impulses apparently destined to ever be with us (there are echoes here of Pascal’s famous “God-shaped vacuum”). Strauss, in this work, calls on us to return (a supremely Jewish idea: our, everyone’s, teshuvah); not, of course, to an orthodoxy for ourselves, but rather that we re-attune our comportment in facing the challenges that confront us. As von Wussow puts it, quoting from Strauss:

Strauss instructed his imaginary readers to make a change in perspective and consider the possibility that the situation is insoluble only “as long as one clings to the modern premises.” Hence, the entire discourse on orthodoxy and the Enlightenment, and the indefatigable insistence on the insolubility of the conflict between the two, serves as a preparation for the turn to medieval philosophy: “One sees oneself induced…to apply for aid to the medieval Enlightenment, the Enlightenment of Maimonides.” (p. 89; p. 38 in Philosophy and Law)

Having thus placed his audience/partner, Strauss moves to a consideration of his contemporary Julius Guttmann’s efforts on the history of Jewish philosophy, arguing against many of Guttmann’s conclusions based on understandings of the parameters and implications of “culture” (as variously defined, and over whose definition many arguments were themselves then being made, particularly in wider extant scholarly contexts). Here Strauss proposes that religion (and the political) cannot be found within a cultural framing since such “are not spontaneous products of the human mind” but somehow “transcend” culture (p. 97). This is somewhat curious, and unless one is willing (again: a willed, determinedly chosen interpretation) to grant a literalness to revelation (an actual exotericism to it) it is hard to accede that what are ultimately abstractions may exist prior to the brain processing them. Personally I have difficulty agreeing with Strauss on this point since I take whatever numinousness there might be in the cosmos (about which I have no unshakable dogmas) to of necessity work through the existentially given; in this I suppose Strauss might accuse me of being insufficiently Maimonidean (i.e. reason within revelation, philosophy under Law), and he may be right. Perhaps then we have a clear example of the need for the very third path Strauss has been proposing, and I am revealed to be ‘too Enlightenment’ myself.

Strauss continues working with/against Guttmann to present a “resolute return” wherein the political philosopher’s task is to take revelation as relevant; it certainly was heavily influential in medieval thought. For Islamic and Jewish philosophy of the period (which is represented in Strauss by Averroes (Ibn Rushd, 1126-1198 CE), Maimonides, and Gersonides (Levi ben Gershon (or Gershom), 1288-1344 CE)), “philosophy is commanded by the law, free before the law, and bound by the authority of the law… By presupposing the law, the Islamic and Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages are continuously referred to something beyond human reason.” (p. 112; emphasis in the original) A presumption of this sort would obviously provide the foundation for the transcendence which I seem to be having trouble with; our question is: Why accept it? Why should we – in will, in chosen lifeworld interpretation – follow suit? Strauss thinks this allows us to philosophize better, that revelation can therefore become a topic (an object) for reason, but “not the first or most important one…although – or precisely because – the law is not the most important topic of philosophy, it attains a systematic omnipresence in the whole of philosophy”, and – to my mind the most tenuous – “this inconspicuous systematic omnipresence of the law ultimately safeguards the rationality of philosophy.” (117) Philosophy can certainly become midrash (as it were), but Strauss has still not convinced me of why this stance if preferable over one which, for example, simply rejects revelation as a grounding for religion and shears it away from religion, replacing the latter as a culture (product of the human mind) and tabling the former (epoché) for sheer inability to know what to do with it (the struggle over/for a faith). Nevertheless, in its incessant referral to the Law, Strauss saw in medieval philosophy a radical foundation whereby its version of rationalism attained superiority over modern incarnations. Von Wussow very helpfully summarizes Strauss’ endpoint:

for a rationalism with belief in revelation there is no excess of revelation over the sphere of reason. Nothing in the content of revelation transcends reason [recall that the transcendence alluded to above was over culture]. The content is identical with reason, and reason is capable of knowing this content. There is no conflict between reason and revelation. (118)

That last – “there is no conflict” – is perhaps the ultimate consequence in that it therefore ‘solves’ the conflict inherent in the entire revelation versus reason debate, transforming its entirety to the effect that the “versus” becomes an “encompassing”, or maybe even a “cradling”: revelation as mother to reason, whose babe then looks upon her with eyes of a loving search. This establishes Strauss’ other contention – with which I have no qualms about agreeing – that prophetology must be taken as a part of the political. Only thusly, Strauss argues, can there be an explanation for its purpose and “final end”: why else rely on prophets? There is a kind of Platonic element at work here (I am thinking along lines drawn from Republic), but the added layer of revelation certainly does contribute to the interest of the view being espoused. Further, Strauss puts forth that such a comprehension, as against the psychological take on prophetology, enables political objectives to override any mantic ones. This is quite striking, and so let us briefly pause at this juncture: what is being claimed is that the politics – which we understand as social, as policy for the body politic – actually supersedes the divinatory aspects of the prophetic utterance. Reason as within revelation has already blurred the distinctions that might have been made, but ‘the political’ is not necessarily ‘the rational’. (Indeed, looking around one the thought hits that it is hardly ever so!) However, in the doubly tweaked religiopolitico monad we have proposed this does make sense; yet it does so without the need for a substantive revelation, and thus we are still somewhat at odds with Strauss (unless of course I misunderstand him, which is entirely possible).

Strauss has an answer for this, and it too calls upon Plato, in explaining how the medieval philosophers (and therefore too how we ought to become) were contextualized as bound, but thereby unexpectedly free:

The Platonism of these philosophers is given with their situation, with their standing in fact under the law. Since they stand in fact under the law, they admittedly no longer need, like Plato, to seek the law, the state, to inquire into it: the binding and absolutely perfect regimen of human life is given to them by a prophet. Hence they are, as authorized by the law, free to philosophize in Aristotelian freedom (p. 130; pp. 132-133 in Philosophy and Law; emphases in the original)

By having the outlines, their being-in-the-world, defined and determined at the outset through revelation (or “revelation” if we do not will the belief as such), philosophers of this ilk are declared liberated to thereby pursue other issues. Yet I must protest here that for me at least the really crucial question in being is that of being: I want to search a being-in-the-world, even if I recognize how much easier life is in having such gifted. Perhaps I am ungrateful in this desire, but the reader may understand. Whatever we might or might not feel in this regard, I think von Wussow is correct to highlight that Philosophy and Law “forces us to rethink the social and political responsibility of philosophy” (132), and if our small offering in this review (religiopolitico) is at all valid then that duty must apply within any religious system possibly even more so than it does without, for the two – the religious and the political – are not two, they are one.

III. “Jerusalem and Athens”: Thinking further on the Religiopolitico

Von Wussow judges “Jerusalem and Athens” to be a beautiful text but one without a great deal of depth; in the large I agree. It is very readable, highly interesting in parts, contains some wonderful remarks and comments, but does not boast any particularly provocative prods. Perhaps this is due to its inception as an inaugural address in a series of public talks (the Frank Cohen Memorial Lectureship at City University of New York), or for other reasons personal, mundane, or the like. (The entirety can be found in the collection: Leo Strauss, Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity: Essays and Lectures in Modern Jewish Thought, ed. and intro. by Kenneth Hart Green (Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 1997); pp. 377-405.) As von Wussow explains, “the guiding question of ‘Jerusalem and Athens’ is how to approach the Bible and Greek philosophy.” (p. 262; emphases in the original) Does one favor one or the other? It seems impossible not to; yet which? Why? On this query of method, Strauss begins by stating that, “By saying that we wish to hear first and then to act to decide, we have already decided in favor of Athens against Jerusalem” (in Jewish Philosophy, p. 380). In other words, through the assertion of an initial openness one has – possibly without meaning to – enacted a closure: revelation is shut off because it, by its nature, requires an initial act of acceptance, not restraint. Choosing not to choose is itself a choice, and it is the philosopher’s (Athens’) choice.

Yet when regarding this topic, this “and/versus”, we are dangerously apt to apply anachronisms, and these manifest clearly in the “tension between its [the West’s] double heritage [i.e. Jerusalem and Athens, revelation and reason], or its two foundational traditions”, as per von Wussow (271). For example, it is a simple enough matter for a contemporary person to reject miracles outright, without the slightest bat of an eye, and thence dispose of large parts of revelation and its sacred books; Strauss, however, wisely teaches that “we cannot ascribe to the Bible the theological concept of miracles, for that concept presupposes that of nature and the concept of nature is foreign to the Bible.” (Jewish Philosophy, p. 381) Hermeneutically we start from our “prior defaults” (as above), and busily go about reading into what was never intended (since not thought: disparate “prior defaults”) in any body of a claimed revelation. How does this affect the debate, the dialogue, the flowing and the tremor betwixt letter and eye?

It is a matter of some importance, particularly for Strauss, of whom von Wussow writes, “By the late 1920s, Strauss had convinced himself that the conflict between belief and unbelief was the everlasting theme of philosophy”, and that “the right and the necessity of philosophical reason could become evident only vis-à-vis revelation” (i.e., it could only be questioned or challenged on religious grounds; 272 and 274, respectively). Reason (philosophy), it seems, is not only justified by revelation (religion) – as with Maimonides – but actively needs it to establish itself; one apparently cannot even have reason without revelation, if we correctly follow this lecture and its place within Straussean thought. Again, though, we have hereby circled back to the issue of transcendence, and whence to our same doubts, our troubles – our discomfort – in what appears a necessitated embrace of the unempirical and the aethereal; what (for or by us) is to be done? Strauss, regarding the “ingredients” of the admixture here (Plato/reason/human nature as unchangeable on the one hand (Athens) over that of prophets/revelation/human nature as changeable (Jerusalem) on the other), states: “Since we are less certain than Cohen [i.e., referencing the context of the Memorial series] was that the modern synthesis is superior to its pre-modern ingredients, and since the two ingredients [i.e., the two triads just mentioned] are in fundamental opposition to each other, we are ultimately confronted by a problem rather than by a solution.” (Jewish Philosophy, p. 399) Or, as von Wussow expresses it, we arrive at a “standstill”: summarizing the figurative argument of “Jerusalem and Athens” as a “Socratic atheism” – i.e., the restraint on human thought and the refusal of divine thought preceding revelation (and that last presumably agreed upon as being undeniable) – he writes: “The enigmatic figure of Socrates assisting the god by trying to disprove the god’s reply [re: Apollo proclaiming through the oracle at Delphi that no one was wiser than Socrates, which Socrates then set out to challenge], only to find out that it is true, is the image in which the whole semantic process eventually came to a standstill.” (282)

In reading through and trying to work out along with Strauss – ‘along with’, but also alongside-cum-beside(s) (paralleling) him – this abiding doubled call of revelation and reason as alternative foundations, we discover the forked path remains forked (a dead end?), and we are yet adrift. That is, unless perhaps we might trade out that conjunctive in the title (and further still: all conjunctives) such that there is neither an “and” nor a “versus” in our “Jerusalem…Athens” binary, but rather a grouping more akin to: “Jerusalem under/with/enclosing Athens”, or “Athens on/of/in Jerusalem”. If we decide here – if we will it – a positivity, then we might understand the complex as a required never-ending work in progress, a dialectic bound to give more strength than it takes. (To borrow a phrase from Torah study: We turn the religiopolitico and turn it again, for all is in it.). We might do this; we might seek a resolution through an either/both and a neither/nor: it is a choice, it is a will, it is a belief. Religion is political, reason is political; what politics do we want? What social do we seek?

IV. Generalities: Contents and Tangibility

Strauss, in later university courses he gave on his chosen “great books” of collective Western heritage, encouraged his students to read so that they might “free the text from the debris of its own afterlife” (285) as von Wussow puts it, and naturally he would have us do that for Strauss too; and so we should, indeed. In this excellent labor on, over, and within the decades of Strauss’ scholarship, von Wussow surveys: Part I: Strauss’ relationship with the Neo-Kantians of his time, the then relevant debates over the categorization and systematic elements of ethics and politics (five chapters); Part II: the main work Philosophy and Law (in great detail, as expressed above; four chapters); Part III: his arguments on “German Nihilism” and the roots of National Socialist thought (two chapters); Part IV: ideas on culture and relativism (especially as related to developments in anthropology; four chapters); and Part V: “Jerusalem and Athens” (one chapter) with a final conclusion on the “natural way” of reading (one chapter). Throughout von Wussow’s book is highly readable, always enjoyable, and often quite gripping. Von Wussow writes with evident passion for his topic and displays an enviable erudition.

Physically speaking (I was sent an e-copy for review, but who can stomach e-copies? I bought the paperback), the work is very attractive, packaged exceedingly well by SUNY Press in a pleasant layout with a becoming format, logically adjusted margins and a font and print size that are easy on one’s eyes (if only Routledge could learn a thing or two from SUNY on these matters). As one might expect, there are numerous notes to the main text; these are grouped together in a single section at the end. While I typically prefer footnotes, in this case von Wussow’s extras beyond the usual referencing material are not overly done, and thus they might be skipped without any harm coming to one’s comprehension of and appreciation for the subject. Here again we can compliment von Wussow and the production team. I would happily recommend this book to any reader interested in twentieth century German and/or German Jewish thought and culture, its interstices with American schools during and after the Second World War, and of course with the nexus that is religion and politics as bound into culture: what we have called the religiopolitico. To such may we find ourselves “faithful”.

Colby Dickinson, Hugh Miller, Kathleen McNutt (Eds.): The Challenge of God, Bloomsbury, 2021

The Challenge of God: Continental Philosophy and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition Book Cover The Challenge of God: Continental Philosophy and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition
Colby Dickinson, Hugh Miller, Kathleen McNutt (Eds.)
Bloomsbury
2021
Paperback $35.96
184