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”.
The Oxford Handbook of Levinas provides another key step on the way to entrenching the possibility of continued scholarship on the rich thought of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, as well as providing an accessible entry-point into the ever-growing body of commentary on his works. Although at times the structure of the handbook makes gestures toward necessary contributions that are currently absent, both in outlining the field of Levinas’s influences or interlocutors, and in terms of key engagements with contemporary concerns, it has also amassed an exciting range of discussions from a diverse array of scholars. Contributions are well-researched, insightful, and make Levinas’s notoriously difficult thought comprehensible and intriguing. Further, certain departures with conventions of reference texts in the composition of contributions—he articles being of comparable length to those of scholarly journal’s—creates space not only for informative but critical treatments, as well as facilitating dialogue and challenge.
The editor, Michael L. Morgan is a prolific scholar in his own right in Jewish studies and on Levinas specifically. He has authored other introductory texts including Discovering Levinas (2007), The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas (2011), and recently published on his ethico-political thought and practice in Levinas’s Ethical Politics (2016).
There are certainly benefits to a handbook both of this magnitude and this breadth. The text is a nearly nine hundred page collection of thirty-eight entries, including contributions from notable Levinas scholars such as Robert Bernasconi, political philosopher Annabel Herzog, Levinas translator Bettina Bergo and editor of The Levinas Reader (2001) Seán Hand. Also certainly, a text of this kind provides a crucial opportunity for a multiplicity of scholars of varied backgrounds to contribute—scholars of history, religion, philosophy, ethics, politics, classics and art, who contextualize Levinas’ expansive works and biography through critical, interpersonal, dialogical, feminist, hermeneutic, theological frameworks. It is divided into six section with entries on a wide range of topics and themes by which one could enter into scholarship: covering Levinas’ life and influences, key philosophical themes, religious thought, ethics, and critical assessments of his work.
One of the potential drawbacks of a ‘handbook’—and consistent with all genres of reference texts more broadly—is the prefiguration of a conversation as one in which specialists communicate information to non-specialists, rather than opening the possibility of dialogue and interpretation. The pragmatic context of a ‘handbook’ still makes it unlikely that professional scholars will refer to this text as an entry-point into key controversies and as a site of engagement even over more specific collected volumes. A text like this, then, fills the space of a general reference and guide into the multiplicity of avenues that Levinas’ thought might open, and in its capacity as a general reference book it does well, even though it is competing with a number of more specific works on Levinas—whether reference volumes, essay collections or single-author monographs—that are also available for Anglophone scholars with an equally wide breadth; works on Levinas’ engagements with Martin Buber and other Jewish thinkers, with Asian thought and with ancient philosophy, on Levinas’ contributions to hermeneutics and theological exegesis, a swath of texts on Levinas’ ethics, on his interlocutions with poststructuralist and deconstructive thought, and texts that (re)situate and seek for his ethics to speak to their own and our socio-political contexts. In this way, a reference text of this sort helps best to locate oneself in relation to a veritable library of Levinas scholarship, and to identify those signposts, even if often as an index to an index.
Accordingly, the handbook attests to an emerging polarization of Levinas scholarship concerned with two key conceptual constellations in his ethical thought; on responsibility and vulnerability. The former has perhaps been considered the central aspect of Levinas’s work traced to the importance of the text most often called his magnum opus, Totality and Infinity (2011 ). Not merely the outline of ‘responsibilities,’ Levinas’s conceptualization of responsibility grounds his fundamental claim that ethics is first philosophy. Not just in the content of responsibility, but in the provocation or the desire (later he will call this intrigue) to respond to and respond for the Other, Levinas finds the opening of ethics as an infinitely asymmetrical relation grounded in the unconditional command to be for the Other. In its poetic force and uncompromising gesture, one’s responsibility for the Other and on their behalf is perhaps the aspect of Levinas’s work that draws most scholars to him. It also becomes the rich ground from which he rejects conventional and general practices of philosophy as projects of securing, organizing and reorganizing both ontology and metaphysics as the totalizing structure of ‘the Same.’ Beyond the sort of A=A identity, the structure of the Same is all that operates under the heading of ‘Being’ and at the disposal of the privileged Self. Thus, where philosophy in general and phenomenology in particular meet, Levinas finds a notion of the Self within a world that they might appropriate, incorporate, or otherwise violate as if it were exclusively ‘their own.’
In contrast, Levinas finds an entirely unappropriable and thus infinitely transcendent disruption of the structure of the Same in the encounter with the Other, where the face to face meeting and the very face of the Other themselves, escapes all such appropriative attempts to fix them in place within the horizon of the world of the Same. Instead, the face of the Other seems to call to the Self with a commandment, the fundamental interdiction “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” further disrupting the absolute enjoyment (jouissance) that would otherwise be the prerogative and entitlement of the Self within its own world. In place of this enjoyment is the unsatisfiable desire to be with, and be for, the Other, the ground upon which an infinite and unconditional responsibility emerges. Then, all subsequent thought is a matter of bearing out the implications of this unconditional and infinite responsibility for the Other in its applications and tensions.
Incrementally, this picture, as outlined by readings of Totality and Infinity, has expanded as more scholarship has turned toward the ‘other pole’ of Levinas’s work as represented by Otherwise than Being (2016 ). No longer willing to accept the ‘Self’ as originally in a position of comfort, chez soi, or at home with oneself, Levinas reconsiders the place of the encounter with the Other as both fundamental for thought and fundamental to the very existence of the subject before subjectivity can be claimed. In the exchange of the ‘word’—even the word that proclaims ‘I am I’—the Self is less so in proximity to an unchallenging world of their own, than they are in proximity to an Other. In this most basic sense, vulnerability is the fundamentally disruptive trauma of recognizing that the self comes after an encounter with the Other (see Bergo’s chapter as well as Staehler’s). Robert Bernasconi theorizes vulnerability in two particularly interesting ways. On the one hand, he notes that responsibility operates on the subject as disruptive enough to veritably tear the subject apart, what Levinas calls dénucléation. He explains, “Dénucléation is apparently a word used to refer to the coring out that doctors perform when, for example, they remove an eyeball from its socket while leaving everything intact. Levinas used this same word to describe breathing as a dénucléation of the subject’s substantiality, albeit in this context it also has an association with transcendence” (pp. 268-69).
Although Bernasconi will motivate a reading of Levinas that prefigures the need to defend both the subject and its subjectivity, he summarizes his exploration of the notion of vulnerability that is too traumatic to ignore: “I showed that he went out of his way to say that the exposure to outrage, wounding, and persecution was an exposure to wounding in enjoyment. This is what qualifies it as a “vulnerability of the me.” It touches me in my complacency. But vulnerability extends to the trauma of accusation suffered by a hostage to the point where that hostage identifies with others, including his or her persecutors” (p. 269). He continues that this fact of vulnerability, then, is compelling enough to enact an experience of substitution in the subject, as if the subject is provoked to experience themselves as Other.
Following these considerations, I would like to make note of two particularly useful aspects of the handbook, and to applaud Morgan and the contributors for them. Firstly, some of its richest content is the contribution to an Anglo-American readership on the scope of Levinas’ writings of which we currently do not have complete access. Pieces by Sarah Hammerschlag and Seán Hand rectify this condition with stimulating discussions of his wartime notebooks and his early poetry and novel fragments respectively. Still an English-speaking public does not have access in particular to either the Carnets de captivité, nor to his wartime literary works in Éros, littérature et philosophie, both of which were recently posthumously published in French.[i] With Hammerschlag’s survey of Levinas’s wartime notebooks, though, (spanning, in fact, from 1937-1950), and Hand’s reconceptualization of Levinas in light of the literary dimensions of these personal writings, they make stellar contributions to Anglophone Levinas scholarship by filling those gaps. For this alone, the handbook is already an invaluable resource for scholars of all sorts.
Secondly, the fourth section of the handbook, dedicated to applications of Levinas’ thought beyond his own sphere is truly effervescent. Special attention should be paid to this section in its eclectic reach, where the very notion of a foundation (the presumed objective constraining any ‘handbook’ faces) opens up into a display of generative and rich ideas. Exactly where the ‘cut and dry’ necessity of a text of this kind breaks down, we are treated to an array of interventions and interpretive supplements that carry Levinas scholarship forward in great leaps. Again, Seán Hand’s resituating of Levinas’ works in light of early literary engagements is a delight, as well as Kris Sealey’s far-reaching discussion of Levinas’s contributions to critical race theory (which I will discuss further below). Moreover, not a single contribution in this section fails to illuminate and extend the possibilities of scholarship—from more traditional surveys of the possibilities of attending to philosophical thought within other domains of academic inquiry, such as psychology (David M. Goodman and Eric R. Severson), law (William H. Smith) and Levinas’ comments on war (Joshua Shaw), as well as his contributions to pedagogy (Claire Elise Katz), film (Colin Davis), and his use of food metaphors (Benjamin Aldes Wurgraft).
Similarly, Kevin Houser’s attempt to position Levinas across the Continental-Analytical divide is admirable. This is similar to Morgan’s attempts himself to have Levinas’ work placed in proximity to Bernard Williams, Charles Taylor, Christine Korsgaard, Stanley Cavell and others. In this piece, Houser finds Levinas speak to concerns of linguistic objectification embedded in the notion of reason as metaphysics against which he poses what he calls the ‘absolute interlocutor.’ He extends this discussion by placing him in conversation with P.F. Strawson on freedom and resentment. Houser’s claim is that “de-facing reason,” and not “reason itself as the practice of de-facing generalization,” is what is at issue in Levinas’s work. However, perhaps Houser’s reading can come off as reductive given that he seems not to be willing to take his own critical stance as far as Levinas would. That ultimately an analytical account of reason is valorized through a complementary reading of Levinas and Strawson would also be a grounding condition for the possibility of such reconciliation between reason and the face of the Other. Yet, this is something Levinas seems consistently to reject, and why Houser must work so hard to reconcile the positions in the first place; the position of reason itself with the positioning of a refusal of reason (not merely an ‘unreasonable’ or even ‘pre-rational’ stance).
Houser’s final discussion regarding the generalizability of ‘reason’—as something that is specifically not my reason, but a reason (p. 604)—bears many possibilities to build from, perhaps also anticipating a challenge to Levinas by deconstructionist linguistics. One can also imagine such a reading figuring importantly into the prefiguration of Otherwise than Being, which seems to bear out the not-yet-subject specifically in light of the pre-existence of language in the demand to speak as ‘giving reasons’ (see Baring, Coe and of course Bernasconi’s chapters). It also helps to reconcile how, for example, in Oona Eisenstadt’s chapter, she finds Levinas capable of saying that three rabbis in the Talmud—Ben Zoma, Ben Nanus and Ben Pazi—can offer three different answers to the question, “which verse contains the whole of the Torah?” where each will make a different universal claim as a manner of expanding upon the last (p. 462). Nevertheless, it would seem that the reason-and-objectivity oriented language of analytical thought does not prepare one to bear out this tension between the particular and the general in a way that is non-totalizing; it answers the question of responsibility rather than responding to it. As such, it substitutes the sphere of representational description in place of the vocative dimensions of language as address. In the end, even capturing the dialogical subject in relation to the absolute interlocutor, one is still speaking about language as if no one else is there, a sort of monological ‘dialogue,’ lest the reason they give may be contradicted. The Other seems to have faded into the background.
I would like to address, though, a potential drawback of the handbook. What is at times a lack of much needed general study of Levinas’ engagements not merely with particular thinkers—both predecessors and contemporaries, if not friends but fields of scholarship—can often leave the reader without proper orientation. No doubt, the task of presenting an exhaustive groundwork specifically for Anglo-American scholarship is at best aspirational, and to his credit, Morgan himself identifies certain oversights in the handbook that should be noted. In terms of groundworks, he rightly mentions that the handbook would have benefited from contributions that survey Levinas’s engagements with foundational Jewish thinkers from Maimonides to Buber and Rosenzweig. There is also no specific account of Levinas’s debts to Russian literature. Finally, general overviews of both Levinas’s situation within French thought broadly from the 1930s to the 60s would have been extremely helpful to orient readers, even if they still find much needed context especially in Kevin Hart’s discussion of the relationship between he and Blanchot, and Edward Baring’s account of his encounters with Derrida. This is so as well for the absence of a general account of Levinas’s predecessors ‘at large,’ although one is able to orient themselves with texts on Husserl (Bettina Bergo), Heidegger (Michael Fagenblat), as well as Platonic or Aristotelian thought (Tanja Staehler), early modern thought (Inga Römer), and the German Idealists (Martin Shuster).
There are other oversights that a large reference text is especially beholden to ensure don’t go unnoticed that we might categorize as ‘essential additions’ to these groundworks. Increasingly important is a critical appraisal of eurocentrism and colonialism. It would also be imperative to outline Levinas’ reading of the Torah on ‘Cities of Refuge,’ something only tangentially touched upon by Annabel Herzog in her daring discussion of Levinas and Zionism. One might argue that Levinas’s statements on the State of Israel in particular are critical for understanding some of the most recent explorations of a sort of Levinasian cosmopolitanism—especially where it intersects with Jacques Derrida’s (1999) explorations on the issue (and because it would seem Derrida’s encounter with the notion of cosmopolitanism is in large part due to their relationship). This is perhaps a particularly difficult oversight to reconcile because, as Morgan notes, readers of Levinas “…are drawn to him by the centrality of his insight that our responsibilities to others are infinite. To them, Levinas is the philosopher of the dispossessed, the displaced, the refugee, the impoverished, the suffering, and the hungry. He is the spokesperson for the weak and the oppressed; his philosophy, for all its difficulty and obscurity, in the end speaks to our most humane and caring sentiments” (pp. 4-5). Unfortunately, these concrete engagements are conspicuously absent in the handbook.
Kris Sealey has the sizeable task, then, of orienting readers looking for critical responses to Levinas relating to Eurocentrism, colonialism, and theories of race and racism. In that measure, Sealey does a spectacular job finding inroads between Levinas with both critical race and postcolonial scholars including Paul Gilroy, Orlando Patterson, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Michael Monahan. She also performs such an important task of bridging scholarship on critical race theory and Levinas studies by focusing her discussion on a review of literatures published in the 2012 volume of Levinas Studies contending with race, which included contributions from Lisa Guenther, Oona Eisenstadt (also present in this handbook), John Drabinski and Simone Drichel.
Sealey’s contribution, though, may also give pause especially insofar as there remain some crucial tensions in her work with Levinas’s. Particularly, she draws her conclusions in a way that notions of race are ‘reified’ not on biological but communal and relational grounds that are perhaps difficult to square with Levinas’ statements on the ‘nudity of the face’—as much as they are in tension with Paul Gilroy’s (2000) rejection of both biological and cultural formations of ‘race.’ Sealey’s turn toward Michael Monahan seems to authorize the possibility that, “we can be against racism without being against race” (p. 653 n. 41). The statement from which this note arises is quite important, and perhaps should be quoted at length:
In an important sense, a creolizing subjectivity bears witness to her rootedness in the world, insofar as she is constituted by the ways of that world. But, as creolizing, she also bears witness to her transcending of that world, insofar as her antiracist praxis will invariably be an active contestation of the meaning of race. In other words, she is both obliged to her materiality and positioned to take a critical stance against that materiality as well. That critical stance calls for a vigilance that never ends, lest she succumbs to the inertia of a purity politics and the racist structures for which it codes. Might we not see, in this, echoes of what Levinas calls for in “The Philosophy of Hitlerism”? Is this not a recognition of incarnation (of one’s rootedness in, or entanglement with, history) without the essentialization and stagnation of biological determinism? (p. 644)
Here we might identify a key contention—the ground for what may be a generative controversy in the transposition of Levinas’ thought to an Anglo-American context. Levinas’ contention against the ideology of Hitlerism is not reducible to its relation exclusively to biologism, but speaks to a desire to escape the very notion of ‘incarnation’ itself (see Eaglestone, Fagenblat, and Giannopoulos’s chapters). Hitlerism itself is not exclusively a biologist ideology; rather it binds a notion of spirit with the materiality of the ‘body as much as it fetishizes that body as the material symbol of ‘racial purity,’ or the ‘spirit of a people,’ as an incarnation—the becoming-flesh of spirit. It’s not clear if any notion of identity, not even one proposed to be hybridized, socially and historically determined, or relational escapes this logic. One might point out how Sealey’s creolizing subject, recognizing their rootedness and transcendence, isn’t necessarily difficult, as both are already coded as positive identifiers in an unambiguous metaphysical structure, even if they contradict one another, and occlude the disruptive primacy of the Other. Being rooted—rather than being imprisoned or entangled—and transcendence—above, beyond, outside of the world—both already speak to their own ideals. But one finds in Levinas’ work instead both a potentially failed desire to escape (On Escape [2003/1982]being an aptly titled expression of this unabiding arrest in his early works), and an uneasy navigation of the rooted interior of identity.
We find further that the not merely biological implications of Hitlerist ideology entails also that—as Annabel Herzog notes of Levinas’ critical stance against the State of Israel—the entrenchment of the ‘Self’ within the soil (as in the Nazi slogan, ‘blood and soil’), and the attachment to land or territory remains also a critical site upon which Levinas rejects this manner of reification. That is, rather than being—or under the pretense that one ‘recognizes themselves to be’—rooted in their world, Levinas finds instead in political practices of justice a certain exilehood on Earth represented in the call of the Other and the asymmetrical responsibility that follows. This grounds the particularity of his claims on Judaism and often against the State of Israel (see below), even when he concedes that an otherwise uncompromising ethic needs account for survival. Thus, there remains a tension between justice and survival that is not comfortably set aside in order to commend one’s being ‘rooted in their transcendence,’ but always uneasily attested to as the disruptive and traumatic condition upon which a foundational ethics preceding ontology, an ‘ethics without ground’ which refuses to appeal to the world and the comfort of being rooted in it is asserted.
We might fashion two contrapuntal examples of scholarship that refuse these dynamics in the extremely careful readings offered by Annabel Herzog on Levinas’s relation to Zionism and Cynthia Coe’s feminist analysis of his works. Herzog has quite admirably explored a controversy well beyond even the scope of the academy by contending squarely with Levinas’s writings on Zionism in relation to his conceptions of ethics and politics. Even in the form of her analysis we can see a principled refusal to allow her representation of him to be anything other than embroiled in a complex set of concerns, where she presents first his defense, and then his criticism of the State of Israel. Of the former, it would seem that Levinas finds in the State of Israel the every-present possibility—a particularist possibility for Judaism—for the concrete actualization of his ethical ideal as justice. Such a state could make an ethic of dialogical solidarity, refusal of violence, and refuge for the Other practically real. It is also one that merges these ideals with the enduring need for survival following the Holocaust. Perhaps this rendering bears similarities to Sealey’s account of a creolizing subject.
On the other hand, though, the State of Israel is also always in a position to reject or neglect these ideals; where notions of space and place are re-instituted in the territory, in the very soil, or where the Other is banished from that territory. This is much like Sealey’s comment that valorizations of the logic of ‘race’ demands constant vigilance lest one find themselves once again under the inertia, and in the realm of a politics of purity. Herzog cites a telling instance in which Levinas refused to leave the tour bus while attending a conference on Martin Buber after hearing that Bedouin communities in Be’er-Sheva were required to burn their tents to be eligible to receive stone houses from the government (p. 478).[ii] She follows this tension up until the events of the First Lebanon War, and the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982 when his statements on the matter of Israel become dispersed and infrequent, even if he does not waver in his defense by the time of his 1986 interview with Francois Poirié. It would seem, in this case, that the vigilance Sealey advises, and the enduring possibility of ‘purity politics’ reemerging finds a real example in Levinas’s subsequent silence. But leaving this possibility open seems already to speak to the need to refuse attenuation of a Levinasian ethic in the first place both in practice, and in the theoretical refusal of ‘rootedness’ or ‘incarnation.’
Cynthia Coe’s reading of Levinas is equally nuanced in its ability to balance a careful analysis of his works with an unwavering commitment to feminist scholarship. This is so even where she marks a delineation between—and within—texts of his that represent heterocentric and masculinist presumptions in his philosophy, and where concepts and arguments are coded in gendered language, while also being potentially capable of disrupting those structures. Particularly early Levinas (as Simone de Beauvoir attests regarding Time and the Other) seems to find ground for a narrative framework where a masculine protagonist is compelled to depart from totality. He does so by situating him in the dichotomy of a conception of the feminine as inessential and inabsolute alterity to a totalizing and interiorized masculine counterpart.
However, in this, and especially in her reading of Otherwise than Being, there remains a seed from which the disruption of this framework is enacted or can be enacted. Firstly, the reversal of values in Levinas’s work—rejecting totality in favour of a more ambiguous infinity, and subsequently masculinity for the feminine—begins this process, if in a way that remains deeply flawed. Secondly, Levinas’s subject is increasingly characterized, even by the time of Totality and Infinity, by events and experiences that are wildly outside of their control, not least of which is the face to face encounter with the Other. Thus, the notion of a masculine subjectivity ‘always in control’ is undone by their vulnerability to the Other. Finally, in Otherwise than Being, Levinas begins with the incomplete subject, one who is subjected to a responsibility primordial to themselves, before themselves as a traumatic disruption Coe also terms vulnerability. As well, she finds in Levinas (without romanticizing) the possibility that a mother might pass away in childbirth to be an expression of vulnerability which demands one reckons with a responsibility that interrupts their self-possession. This, by the way, is rendered also in Giannopolous’s discussion of Levinas and transcendence in terms of ‘paternity’; where one—coded as the ‘father’ in this case—must reckon with the birth of their child as “a way of being other while being oneself” (p. 230).[iii]
Potential tensions one might identify in one or another contribution are perhaps another way of branching some key difficulties the handbook faces on a structural level with its own self-contextualization. Morgan identifies the handbook as being a resource specifically for Anglo-American scholarship on Levinas—perhaps because in English-speaking contexts globally, or in the European context, Anglophone philosophy is already in proximity to Francophone and multi-lingual continental thought to ignore it. However, the reductive potential of such a translation—not merely into an English idiom, but into an Anglo-American one—seems to allow the possibility that conclusions like Housers’s which valorize rather than critique a notion of reason, and Sealey’s which affirms rather than contending with the logical structures of race, find little response in other places in the handbook. Morgan should be lauded for gathering together a diverse array of scholars from many backgrounds, even when he already notes that most are located in North America. It is also, perhaps, not feasible to engage a global scope of scholarship for a project like this. However, the implications of a foundational reference-work bearing such absences are reflected in the non-universal dialogue that manifests itself within its pages.
Even with these problems in view, there is no doubt that The Oxford Handbook of Levinas makes an important contribution to scholarship in the diversity and richness of its philosophical engagements, and in the explorations and controversies attested to. If it is any indication, studies of the profound works of Emmanuel Levinas are likely to continue, and perhaps even to expand in new and unforeseen ways. If so, this handbook will stand as a testament and signpost for all those looking to enter the field.
Derrida, Jacques. 1999. Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas. Translated by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.
Gilroy, Paul. 2000. Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Levinas, Emmanuel. 2003. On Escape. Translated by Bettina Bergo. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
———. 2009. Carnets de captivité suivi de Écrits sur la captivité et Notes philosophiques diverses. Edited by Rodolphe Calin and Catherine Chalier. Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur.
———. 2011. Parole et silence, Et autres conferences inédites. Edited by Rodolphe Calin et Catherine Chalier. Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur.
———. 2011 . Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.
———. 2013. Éros, littérature et philosophie: Essais romanesques et poétiques, notes philosophiques sur le thème d’éros, Edited by Jean-Luc Nancy and Danielle Cohen-Levinas. Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur.
———. 2016 . Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.
Malka, Salomon. 2006. Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy. Translated by Michael Kigel and Sonia M. Embree. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.
Morgan, Michael L. 2007. Discovering Levinas (2007). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
———. 2011. The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
———. 2016. Levinas’s Ethical Politics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
Morgan, Michael L. ed. 2019. Oxford Handbook of Levinas. Oxford University Press.
[i] Emmanuel Levinas, 2009, Carnets de captivité suivi de Écrits sur la captivité et Notes philosophiques diverses, ed. Rodolphe Calin and Catherine Chalier, (Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur). Emmanuel Levinas, 2013, Éros, littérature et philosophie: Essais romanesques et poétiques, notes philosophiques sur le thème d’éros, ed. Jean-Luc Nancy and Danielle Cohen-Levinas, (Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur). These two texts were issued as part of a (currently) three-part collection by publishing house, Éditions Grasset, of the complete works of Levinas. The other volume gathers early lectures given at the invitation of jean Wahl to the Collège Philosophique. See: Emmanuel Levinas, 2011, Parole et silence, Et autres conferences inédites, ed. Rodolphe Calin et Catherine Chalier, (Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur).
[ii] This anecdote was quoted from: Salomon Malka, 2006, Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy, trans. Michael Kigel and Sonia M. Embree, (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press): p. 217.
[iii] The passage is a quotation from: Emmanuel Levinas, 1969, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis, (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press): p. 282.
“It is,” writes Steven DeLay, “a serious responsibility to be human” (125). Whatever else one thinks philosophy is, one of its tasks is undoubtedly to figure out what our human responsibility is. And that responsibility must be connected in intelligible ways to the reality of what we are, the nature of the world at large, and what, given our powers, we are supposed to achieve. If goods and evils do exist, and if it lies within our powers to introduce or eliminate them, philosophy should have something to say about what those goods and evils are, and how to do that. As Augustine puts it, “to obtain the supreme good and avoid the supreme evil–such has been the aim and effort of all who have professed a zeal for wisdom in this world of shadows” (Augustine 1958, XIX.1, 428).
DeLay certainly has a “zeal for wisdom,” and his book is, ultimately, about how to identify and obtain the “supreme good.” The short answer lies in the title: we should live our lives “before God.” The long answer can only be acquired by reading the book. For what DeLay offers is a series of powerfully written and insightful reflections on what a life lived before God looks like for the one who lives it. It is an “exercise in subjectivity,” not in the Cartesian sense, but in the phenomenological sense—an exercise in how human life and its responsibilities manifest themselves for one who lives in the confidence of the immense value of the human person and in God’s redemptive plan for us. It is phenomenological in a further sense, insofar as it spells out intelligible and in many cases essential connections among the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of one who lives their life before God. DeLay’s analyses draw heavily on the phenomenological and existential traditions, and his insights into some of the classics of those traditions are genuinely eye-opening. Many of DeLay’s insights are novel, especially those he applies to contemporary life. And many are knowingly part of a long spiritual and philosophical tradition, whose central point can be expressed by saying that to live before God is to repudiate the values and the invidious distinctions lying at the basis of nearly all worldly life and its political, social, and institutional expressions and manifestations. It is to take up a radically different form of life, one in which selfless love extends beyond one’s family and friends to one’s neighbors and even one’s enemies. At the same time, it is to look to God, and not to power, pleasure, prestige, or group membership for redemption. It is to “grow in doing good,” which is “to want what is good for others” (62), even those who do us wrong. It is to regard God as “the living One to whom we owe all” (3).
At the heart of DeLay’s exercises lies a contrast that hearkens back to Kierkegaard’s contrast between being a self and being part of a crowd, Augustine’s contrast between the City of God and the City of Man, and, of course, Paul’s contrast between a life of the spirit and a life of the flesh. “We are most defined,” DeLay writes, “by our capacity to decide whether we will an existence of being-in-the-world, or one instead of being-before-God” (124). The choice of being-in-the-world has a familiar outline, and DeLay allows the existentialists to describe much of it. It is, as Heidegger says, in large measure the customary, conformist, inauthentic way of doing what “one” does, thinking what “one” thinks, and feeling what “one” feels. On this point Kierkegaard agrees. This world is, moreover, widely agreed to be a place of immense pain and disappointment and despair, most of it caused by humans themselves. Here too Kierkegaard agrees.
But against Kierkegaard, and DeLay, the atheist existentialists more or less agree that the natural and human world is all there is and, most critically, that whatever redemption we can fashion must come from willing or resolving upon a certain order of values for and by ourselves. Our lives are essentially bound up with those of others and their self-centered projects, and our relations with them are for the most part instrumental or adversarial. From the point of view of being-before-God, others are made in God’s image, and we are required to treat them as such (see 76). From the point of view of being-in-the-world, as Sartre famously characterizes the matter, other people are hell with the magical power of defining, in their total freedom, who and what we are, and the best we can hope for is to stop serving them and to fashion and define ourselves. The task for the atheist existentialists remains what it was for Kierkegaard: to become a self rather than a crowd. But whereas Kierkegaard says in a thousand different ways that one can only be a self in relation to God, the atheist existentialists hand what they can of God’s powers over to us. At its height (or depth, as the case may be) this involves becoming creators of value or, perhaps even more absurdly, of our own essence or nature. Failing that, it is to at least live “authentically.” In any event, there is little recognition that anything we have, including life itself but also our powers of mind and body, is a gift, or any acknowledgment that these gifts are to be received in gratitude, held with humility, and employed in a life of service and love.
Does this mode of thinking and living exemplify a “zeal for wisdom”? If DeLay is right, it is the opposite, a view that “leads whomever follows it badly astray” (6). All of its proponents declare God to be dead far too hastily and, in many cases, too eagerly. For Heidegger, with whom DeLay engages most closely on this point, the reason is putatively methodological: the philosopher must practice “methodological atheism.” DeLay has a great deal to say about the questionableness of that methodological choice. But, more importantly, as DeLay notes, it is obviously quite more than a methodological choice. Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein as being-in-the-world is not supposed to be an account of what we would be if there were no God, but what we are. As DeLay puts it, Heidegger’s decision to characterize Dasein as “anxious fundamentally” is “not at all to bracket the question of God, but to reject directly the idea that we are made in the image of God” (6).
For DeLay, this is both catastrophic and philosophically irresponsible. Indeed, in the very first page DeLay rejects the traditional distinction between philosophy and theology. “Are philosophy and theology really so distinct” (1)? To affirm that they are, for DeLay, is to carve up disciplinary boundaries that do not correspond with the things themselves or the structure of our concern about them. “If it is impossible for any individual life to evade the question of God entirely forever …, how could a philosophy that aims to understand human existence do so itself” (3)? Well, quite simply, it can’t. One must, in one fashion or another, come to terms with the question of God. If philosophy is to speak to our condition, to aid us in identifying and seeking the highest good, it cannot simply bracket God as beyond or beneath its concern.
That philosophy cannot responsibly evade the question of God through mere methodological means seems rather clear. So what are the alternatives? DeLay writes: “where Heidegger recommended methodological atheism as philosophically crucial to transcendental phenomenology, why cannot we claim the opposite and insist on a methodological theism” (27)? Well, I think there may be an answer to that, and one that rules out both methodological atheism and theism. In transcendental phenomenology, we are concerned with essential relations among acts, their objects, and their contents. “To elucidate [the] connections between veritable being and knowing and so in general to investigate the correlations between act, meaning, object is the task of transcendental phenomenology” (Husserl 2008, 434). We bracket the factual existence of the world, for instance, not in order to doubt it, but just to prevent irrelevant premises from being imported into an eidetic investigation. It’s really no different from bracketing propositions about empirically real shapes when doing geometry, a procedure compatible with the absolute certainty that such shapes exist. Comparing the two disciplines, Husserl writes: “Geometry and phenomenology as sciences of pure essence make note of no determinations about real existence” (Husserl 2014, 147).
Now it would be objectionable to bracket God if that meant that in phenomenology we can say nothing about God or the consciousness of God. If phenomenology deals with what we are conscious of and the nature of our consciousness of it, then “by what authority can God’s phenomenality be discarded as illegitimate, as unimportant to phenomenological philosophy’s concern” (27)? That’s a great question, whose answer is, I think, just what DeLay thinks it is: by no authority whatsoever. This does not, however, amount to methodological theism. Nor is it methodological agnosticism. It is, well, bracketing—simply not considering the matter within the context of phenomenology, in the same way that a geometer brackets the color of shapes without thereby confirming, denying, or even remaining neutral on the question of whether shapes have colors. Bracketing the existence of God is compatible with phenomenological inquiries into the nature of the consciousness of God and the form of a life lived before God. We can talk about God and a conscious life lived before God all we want in phenomenology, as DeLay insists. And—here I think I may disagree with him—we can do so without violating any of Husserl’s strictures regarding the phenomenological method. The reason is that provided there is a consciousness of something, the nature of that consciousness is fair game for phenomenology. And you cannot discuss the nature of the consciousness of something without saying quite a bit about the nature of that very something: “the description of the essence of consciousness leads back to what, in consciousness, one is conscious of” (Husserl 2014, 254). (And I hasten to add that “what … one is conscious of” when one is conscious of God is God, and not, say, a God-noema.) Since people, including methodological atheists, are obviously conscious of God, that consciousness is a suitable topic for phenomenology, in all of its various forms of love, hate, and indifference. In the same way, phenomenology can talk about the nature of perceiving a physical thing, even without positing the actual existence of a single physical thing. The reason to bracket God—or trees, tables, or anything else—isn’t because their existence is dubitable. It’s because phenomenology is an eidetic discipline that posits the existence of no actualities at all.
From the beginning, as at all later stages, its scientific statements involve not the slightest reference to real existence: no metaphysical, scientific, and, above all, no psychological assertions can therefore occur among its premises (Husserl 1970, 265).
This—and the whole process of bracketing—has exactly nothing to do with epistemic caution. It has to do with the fact that phenomenology does not posit the existence of a single real thing. Indeed, among the things we don’t posit in phenomenology are individual acts of consciousness themselves (see Husserl 2014, 102). This partly explains why believers and unbelievers alike can learn a great deal from works like DeLay’s. Even without positing God, one can grasp, in some fashion, the nature of a subjective life lived in the consciousness of being before God.
Clearly, however, DeLay is right that philosophy as a whole cannot simply proceed on the assumption that God does not exist, or go on bracketing God’s existence indefinitely. Not, at least, if its task is to provide a metaphysics, an ethics, a proper ontology of the human person, and, finally, a path toward a good life. Now I don’t think this quite means that philosophy and theology are not distinct or even that they overlap—though, of course, they might. But in any case, I think this division is not what’s really at stake in DeLay’s view. For there are reasons to think that, at least on one conception of what those disciplines are about and what they require in terms of our wills, and despite the fact that both disciplines must address the question of God and the nature of a life lived before God, they cannot lead us all the way to God anyway. The reason is that knowing God is not principally a matter of how smart one is. As Delay puts it, “if God will be known, he must be loved” (18). Since a love of God is necessary for a knowledge of God, but is not necessary for doing philosophy or even theology, doing philosophy and theology cannot be sufficient for knowing God.
Before moving on, I should point out at once that DeLay addresses the worry that this is circular. His response is that the kind of knowledge at stake is knowledge by acquaintance rather than a deductive proof (18-19). A life lived before God is not the same thing as a life lived with a convincing argument for God. I think the point could be summed up by saying that surely one must have some conception of God in order to love and desire to encounter God, but that this conception and love does not presuppose the knowledge of God that it itself makes possible. Simply put, we all have some conception of God as an all-powerful and morally perfect spiritual being, one who meets human wrongdoing with mercy. Some of us love and desire to know God, and hope that this world could somehow be redeemed by him. Some of us, by contrast, would be quite relieved if God did not exist, since his ways and our ways do not agree. In fact DeLay very artfully turns the tables on those who charge the believer with “wish-fulfillment.” As he puts it, “the denial of God’s existence might equivalently be interpreted as someone’s not wanting to love what is there” (19). The prelude to acquaintance is loving, or at least not resenting and hating, the object of this conception. The principal problem for the atheist, on DeLay’s view, is that “he persists looking in a way that guarantees he will come up empty-handed inevitably, so long as he wants to” (19).
But why should a love of God be required to know God? Might we at least secure an argument for his existence if an encounter is out of the question? Part of DeLay’s answer seems to be that this is just a special case of a more general principle. It is, as DeLay points out, a familiar fact that while ordinary physical objects show up to anyone with properly functioning senses, many things do not. A hardened heart will not detect kindness or love when others exhibit them, or the beauty that lies in a piece of art or music (17). Nor is our will inoperative when we grasp arguments outside the “terrain of certainty” (19). “Knowing is entwined with what we want to know, or want to be. In a very subtle yet relevant way, just affirming an argument’s conclusion takes an exercise of love” (19).
I am not confident that this last claim is quite right. Many scientific theories, for instance, are uncertain, but we affirm them without any detectable exercises of love. But even if it is right, there may be a different reason why God, in particular, will only show up for those willing to encounter him. It is that God “does not impose an encounter with himself, because to do so would be incompatible with the love defining him” (18). And here, I think, DeLay’s work can be profitably supplemented with insights from, among others, Max Scheler and Paul Moser. God is a person, and as Scheler points out, persons, and only persons, can be silent (Scheler 1960, 335). Now Scheler is quick to add that it would be incompatible with the goodness of God to remain silent for all people and forever. But he may well decide to be silent for some people some of the time. And as Moser points out, his reasons for doing so would be motivated by and intelligible in the light of his perfect moral goodness. As he puts it, “God typically would hide God’s existence from people ill disposed toward it, in order not to antagonize these people in a way that diminishes their ultimate receptivity toward God’s character and purposes” (Moser 2013, 200). That is, the issue isn’t that certain spectacles will only appear to those favorably inclined. Rather, it is that God isn’t available via “spectator evidence” at all. Because he is a person, and a person primarily concerned with our moral characters rather than our beliefs, “God would not use spectator evidence for self-authentication” (Moser 2013, 105).
All of that seems perfectly in line with DeLay’s own claims about the conditions for encountering God. Like appreciating a work of art or recognizing nobility and excellence in another, it requires a certain loving attitude on our part. But unlike those cases, it also requires that God voluntarily reveal himself in ways suitable for our moral development. If we persist in the “wisdom” that characterizes being-in-the-world, we can expect God, out of love for us, to remain out of reach, just as DeLay says (19). But it does put pressure on DeLay’s framing of the relation of philosophy to theology. Much of the content of those disciplines is available to “spectator evidence.” They call upon powers primarily of intellect rather than of character. But the encounter with God does not. He will hide from the wise and manifest himself to children (Matthew 11:25). And given God’s personal prerogative to remain silent, and his reasons, grounded in love, for doing so, establishing the reality of God is quite possibly where both philosophy and theology stop short. I think that almost certainly follows from Moser’s position, and I suspect that it follows from DeLay’s as well. The alternative is that philosophy and theology do require a love of God to be done properly—a position that, I think, DeLay might endorse when he favorably characterizes the “ancient schools” of philosophical thinking for regarding philosophy as a partially “therapeutic” activity designed to “elevate those who pursued it above the quotidian life,” and which “requires more than conceptual clarity” (33). In either case, the important point of DeLay’s work stands: not just anybody is going to encounter God, and there are powerful reasons lying in both the subject and the object why that is so.
Whether that is so, a further and related point is amply substantiated by DeLay’s book, and that is that philosophy conducted “before God” can arrive at insights that would escape a philosophy of being-in-the-world. Or, more precisely, actions and attitudes that might look absurd from the perspective of being-in-the-world take on a whole new character of obviousness when viewed from the perspective of being before God. “A faithful life, led by its distinctive form of evidence, involves a comprehensively new way of seeing things in their totality, one with wide-reaching implications for how we grasp everything…” (28). So, for instance, Nietzsche accuses Christians of denying life, and bills his own philosophy of will to power as an affirmation of life. But what is being affirmed here is not life per se, nor a good life on any defensible understanding of it, but being-in-the-world with all of its brutality, arrogance, egoism, exploitation, and needless suffering. From the perspective of being-before-God, hatred of “the world,” so construed, is the very opposite of a hatred of life. “To the contrary, hatred of the world affirms life” (159). DeLay’s book is full of such insights.
Here is another example that, I think, goes straight to the heart of contemporary life. Being-in-the-world is marked by conflict at every level of human interaction, from the personal on up. That conflict often erupts into violence. And it always involves an enemy. One’s attitude toward an enemy might involve “rancor, resentment, hatred or even wrath” (103). But that, typically, is not how enemies are made. Enmity is normally, rather, the “bad fruit of egoism” (103). My enemy is my enemy because, originally, “he simply stood in the way of my desires” (103). Once this opposition is established, the “bad fruit” of enmity begins to grow. Far too often, the result is violence, followed by more violence, in a brutal cycle of retaliation and revenge. Hence the religious prohibitions on lust (103), which, judging by the widespread efforts to provoke it, much of the contemporary world seems to find arbitrary. Political solutions to these problems often simply substitute personal violence with institutional violence which, again, is typically born of people trying to get what they want, and coming to hate and oppress those who stand in their way. “Violence, when it concerns the lack of peace with others, originates in the strife produced by the desire to get what we want, sometimes at any cost, even should the cost mean the horrific suffering of others” (109). Following Dostoevski, DeLay insists that political solutions to violence do not get to the root of the problem: “true change would require everyone first beginning by revolutionizing themselves” (112).
For DeLay, this personal revolution means living before God. When I regard others as made in God’s image, I will never consent to harm someone for the gratification of my desires, or especially for vengeance. And, given the normal way in which enmity arises, this means that I simply won’t have enemies. As DeLay puts it, “There can be no peace until we learn to live without enemies” (110). Now of course DeLay knows and insists that enmity is not always reciprocal (102). We cannot control whether others regard us as their enemies. And, of course, we might all have unwilled enemies, otherwise the commandment to love one’s enemies would make no sense. But we can control whether we regard others as enemies, whether we are the ones who will the harm or destruction of another. When we love others, we would never want that. Alice von Hildebrand writes:
A fundamental characteristic of love is that all the good qualities of the beloved are considered to be a valid expression of his true self; whereas his faults are interpreted as an unfaithfulness towards his true self (Hildebrand 1965, 57).
And that is exactly the vision that DeLay shares. From the point of view of living before God, not only will we not regard others as enemies, but it will be obvious that we cannot so regard them. Defense of self and others might be called for in certain dire circumstances. But mowing down others or destroying what in their lives is precious in the pursuit of pleasure, power, or revenge for past harms would be out of the question. What is natural and obvious from the point of view of being-in-the-world, namely the genesis of violence in uncontrolled desire and its perpetuation through hatred and retaliation, is nearly unimaginable from the point of view of being before God.
It is in this light, I suggest, that we read one of the more puzzling features of DeLay’s view. In his discussion of lying, DeLay claims that there is no explanation for why people lie (129). And that is because, like Kierkegaard and Henry, DeLay thinks that this is true of all sin and evil (129). Now I admit that lying often involves a kind of bad faith, that “To lie is to trust that I, and not it, am in control. But I am not, and so to breathe it into being is to make myself its dupe” (131). But it is rather implausible, for instance, that there is no explanation for why a criminal on the stand would lie. He doesn’t want to suffer. Lying to avoid great suffering or death is about as intelligible as things come in the sphere of human motivations. Maybe such a liar wrongly thinks that he is in control of the consequences of his lie. But more likely, the explanation is more mundane: telling the truth means certain suffering, and lying means, well, maybe not.
More worrying, though, is that the claim that sin and evil are without explanation entails that the repeated and depressingly similar patterns of wrongdoing that we find in the world have no explanation, that it is a gigantically improbable and horrendous miracle. But DeLay’s own book succeeds in showing, again and again, that being-in-the-world has an inner logic of its own that makes wrongdoing almost inescapable. Equip some very finite but rather clever beings with pride and lust and the will to power, give them contingently limited physical resources and essentially limited funds of prestige and social status, and one might hazard a guess at how things will unfold. And so they do unfold, much as DeLay describes and explains in each chapter of his book, and as other insightful people (Plato, Paul, Hobbes, Nietzsche, Veblen, Murdoch, to name just a few) have described in theirs.
How are we to reconcile DeLay’s position that evil does not make sense with the fact that it does make sense, and that he himself makes sense of it? The answer, I think, refers us again to the contrast between being-in-the-world and being before God. Evil might make sense from the perspective of abandonment, despair, and self-sufficiency that characterizes being-in-the-world. In fact, it makes enough sense that with minimal premises we could deduce it a priori. But from DeLay’s own perspective, that of being before God, doing the right thing is not only possible, but natural and obvious—so much so that evil must, from this outlook, genuinely be unintelligible.
But DeLay makes, and repeatedly illustrates, a further point about evil. Not only is it profoundly irrational from the point of view of living before God, but is so even from the perspective of being-in-the-world. The reason lies in its typically self-undermining character. To return to the lie, the lie has, as part of its own nature, something paradoxical about it. “A lie,” DeLay writes, “is something one assumes will not be identified for what it is … yet what makes it what it is (a lie!) is precisely that it deceives, first and above all else, the one that it has assured it cannot (or probably will not) be discovered” (130). This is the “existential” paradox characteristic of the act of lying. A lie has logical and practical consequences that exceed our intentions, our grasp, and our control. To utter one is to lose control in an attempt to exercise control.
We find the same internal tension in other cases too. Evil, as DeLay points out, is often silent, both in point of fact and more broadly by way of a life shrouded in “a fog of evasions and obscurities” (118). The absentee father, to give one of examples, becomes increasingly silent in this way as his failure at parenting becomes increasingly conspicuous. “Phone calls are left unmade, birthday cards unsent” (118). But the silence intended to cover over this failure makes it all the more evident. “As with the adulterer, the conman, or the spy, the silence required to conceal the double life eventually becomes bizarre; in turn, it only arouses the suspicion of guile it was meant to dispel” (119). Or again: “Undermining itself, the silence not only has failed to hide what it hoped it would. It has disclosed that it has something to hide” (121).
Another, but by no means the final, example is violence itself. Its goal, ultimately, is to put an end to conflict. But it almost never manages to do this. Not only does retaliation typically provoke further acts of retaliation, but the act of violence nearly always leaves the perpetrator of it damaged—especially, we might add, when retaliation amounts to annihilation. Even in those cases which seem most obviously justifiable—the United States’ role in World War II, for example—violence harms everyone, including the victors. This isn’t just because, say, it led to the horrors of Nagasaki or Dresden, in which “to do violence to others is also to have done harm to ourselves” (104). It’s also because the many consequences, both seen and unforeseen, of that conflict. Now DeLay does say that “A purely philosophical justification for unconditional pacificism is admittedly elusive” (106). At the same time, his chapter on “Making Peace” reminds us of the horrific consequences of violence, quite contrary to whatever legitimacy might appear to characterize violence in the first place. Furthermore, according to DeLay, violence is exacerbated by the very worldly attitude of regarding the individual as unimportant and viewing political entities as the really important agents of power and change in the world. This perspective is itself self-undermining because “It worsens the violence it hopes to ameliorate by ignoring the depths of the problem’s source” (109). It is a recurring feature of DeLay’s book how often self-defeating the world’s solutions to its own problems are.
This brings me to an important point about DeLay’s method of philosophizing. In the examples above, DeLay provides empirical evidence for his assertions. But he does not characterize his claims to be empirical only. Regarding the consequences of war, for example, he writes that “empirical reality concerning historic facts confirms the original claim of phenomenological essence” (106). And so it is with each of his analyses. I can imagine some readers being suspicious of these claims of “phenomenological essence.” DeLay does not employ the familiar strategy in philosophy of wandering to the remotest of all allegedly “possible worlds” to see if his claims don’t hold up in some of them. Might there not be some possible world where violence succeeds in putting everything right, where the proud and the self-centered never become enemies, where the power of the State puts an end to all conflict while leaving our inner lives untouched, and where the lie and its offspring have all been tamed by the liar? Well, maybe such worlds are “conceivable,” at least in some empty or inauthentic way. So construed, maybe these aren’t claims of “essence.” But between what is true in every far-fetched possible (or, more often, inauthentically conceivable) world and mere contingency there is intelligibility. The connections among evil and its consequences, and between living before God and its consequences, are not brutely empirical. They make sense, including phenomenological, motivational sense. And DeLay’s method is to make sense of them, within the constraints that reasonable people will probably recognize as framing human life. I imagine that some readers will find this realism to be a refreshing aspect of DeLay’s work. I know I did.
This leads to one final point, however, one where my own doubts run deepest. A strong interpretation of DeLay’s position is that living a life before God is both sufficient and necessary for genuine moral goodness, the kind of robust moral goodness needed to transform human life in the ways so desperately needed. I will leave to the side the question of whether it is sufficient, in part because I think DeLay makes a very strong case that it is—though, and as I suspect DeLay would agree, learning to live before God might be a long road that cannot be travelled by a mere change in belief. But is it necessary? There are, after all, more sober conceptions of a godless and finite life than the being-in-the-world of the existentialists, and it would have been helpful to see DeLay exercise his considerable philosophical skills against some more credible opponents. Iris Murdoch’s philosophy, for example, presents a diagnosis of human wrongdoing very much in line with that of the Christian tradition, and recommends a partially similar and non-legalistic cure of selfless love, “attention” to the real, and humility (see Murdoch 1970). And even when the similarities don’t run as deep, there is a considerable overlap between many secular and religious conceptions of the good person and right action. Seeing the other as treasured by God, for instance, is certainly helpful to seeing the other as a bearer of dignity and rights. But it does not seem to be essential to doing so. Furthermore, as flawed as we and our world may be, normal human life contains goodness too. Love, care, mercy, honesty, courage, self-sacrifice, and mutual respect are familiar aspects of human life which, again, might be strengthened by faith in God, but do not seem to require it. Is there an alternative, then, on which people could be genuinely and profoundly good without faith in God?
DeLay addresses this issue directly, but rather briefly:
…if living a maximally upright life without faith is possible, if caring for the well-being of others is one’s real priority, and if one hates suffering and evil, how does one exist in a world so broken and not die of grief? If anyone can live a comfortable life, relatively apathetic in the face of the supposed knowledge that this is the only world there will be, that there will be no judgment in which good is rewarded and evil punished: can we take this attitude’s declarations of sensitivity and clean-heartedness seriously (144)?
Well, maybe we couldn’t take such claims seriously from the comfortable and the apathetic. But between them and those who die of grief, there remains room for those who do hurt, who do care, but who find that there’s enough goodness in the world—including the intrinsic goodness of doing good—to get by. Perhaps such people would not allow themselves to die of grief, because that would constitute an additional triumph of evil. They might, additionally, recognize in humility that their own powers of healing the world are profoundly restricted, and that they are—like, I suspect, all of us—simply psychologically limited in how widely they can distribute their heartfelt care. I just don’t think anyone has the psychological or spiritual resources to shed a tear for every act of injustice on their block, let alone in the world, no matter how much each one of them warrants it. Extending effective love and care to our “neighbor”—who may also be our enemy—is as much as we can normally do, whether or not we have faith. In any case, I not only think that deeply moral agnostics or atheists are possible, but I am rather confident (one can never know for sure) that I know such people. Many of them are sincere, and their unbelief is founded in genuine difficulties, especially the problem of evil. I don’t pretend to know what resources they draw upon to sustain themselves—perhaps it is God and they don’t even know it—but virtue and unbelief do not seem incompatible. As Dallas Willard puts it, God’s kingdom is wherever his will is done, “the domain where what he prefers is actually what happens” (Willard 1998, 259). And I am confident that there are many more participants in this kingdom than the faithful alone.
That being said, I do think that DeLay’s account of a life lived before God succeeds in its task of shedding light on the world from the perspective of faith. This is in part because while the existence of God might not be a matter to be settled by description or argument, DeLay does provide a rich phenomenological characterization of what living with a secure faith and trust in God involves. It is a work of immense wisdom, compelling arguments, and rich phenomenological descriptions. It is, finally, a refreshing reminder of what draws most of us to philosophy in the first place: to grapple with ultimate questions of human existence, with clarity of thought and expression, and without methodological evasions.
Augustine. 1958. City of God. Translated by Gerald G. Walsh, Demetrius B. Zema, Grace Monahan, and Daniel J. Honan. New York: Image Books.
DeLay, Steven. 2020. Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity. New York: Rowman & Littlefield International.
Hildebrand, Alice. 2017. “Hope.” In Dietrich von Hildebrand with Alice von Hildebrand. The Art of Living, 61-77. Steubenville, OH: Hildebrand Press.
Husserl, Edmund. 1970. Logical Investigations. Two volumes. Translated by J.N. Findlay. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Husserl, Edmund. 2008. Introduction to Logic and Theory of Knowledge: Lectures 1906/07. Translated by Claire Ortiz Hill. Dordrecht: Springer.
Husserl, Edmund. 2014. Ideas I: Ideas for a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy. Translated by Daniel O. Dahlstrom. Indianapolis: Hackett.
Moser, Paul K. 2013. The Severity of God: Religion and Philosophy Reconceived. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Murdoch, Iris. 2001. The Sovereignty of Good. New York: Routledge.
Scheler, Max. 1960. On the Eternal in Man. Translated by Bernard Noble. London: SCM Press Ltd.
Willard, Dallas. 1998. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.