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RELI GI ON AFTER METAPHYSI CS
Howshould we understand religion, and what place should it hold, in
an age in which metaphysics has come into disrepute? The metaphys-
ical assumptions which supported traditional theologies are no longer
widely accepted, but it is not clear how this “end of metaphysics”
should be understood, or what implications it ought to have for our
understanding of religion. At the same time there is renewed interest
in the sacred and the divine in disciplines as varied as philosophy,
psychology, literature, history, anthropology, and cultural studies. In
this volume, leading philosophers in the United States and Europe
address the decline of metaphysics and the space which this decline
has opened for non-theological understandings of religion. The con-
tributors are Richard Rorty, Charles Taylor, Jean-Luc Marion, Gianni
Vattimo, Hubert L. Dreyfus, Robert Pippin, John D. Caputo, Adriaan
Peperzak, Leora Batnitzky, and Mark A. Wrathall.
mark a. wrathall is Associate Professor at the Department of
Philosophy, Brigham Young University, Utah. He has published
articles in a number of journals and has contributed to books in
the Cambridge Companions to Philosophy series. He is co-editor of
Appropriating Heidegger (2000), Heidegger, Authenticity, and Modernity
(2000), and Heidegger, Coping, and Cognitive Science (2000).
RELIGION AFTER
METAPHYSICS
edi ted by
MARK A. WRATHALL
caxniioci uxiviisir\ iiiss
Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo
Cambridge University Press
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Contents
List of contributors page vi
Preface vii
1 Introduction: metaphysics and onto-theology 1
Mark A. Wrathall
2 Love and death in Nietzsche 7
Robert Pippin
3 After onto-theology: philosophy between science and religion 29
Gianni Vattimo
4 Anti-clericalism and atheism 37
Richard Rorty
5 Closed world structures 47
Charles Taylor
6 Between the earth and the sky: Heidegger on life after
the death of God 69
Mark A. Wrathall
7 Christianity without onto-theology: Kierkegaard’s account
of the self ’s movement from despair to bliss 88
Hubert L. Dreyfus
8 Religion after onto-theology? 104
Adriaan Peperzak
9 The experience of God and the axiology of the impossible 123
John D. Caputo
10 Jewish philosophy after metaphysics 146
Leora Batnitzky
11 The “end of metaphysics” as a possibility 166
Jean-Luc Marion
Index 190
v
Contributors
leora batni tzky, Princeton University
j ohn d. caputo, Villanova University
hubert l. dreyfus, University of California – Berkeley
j ean- luc mari on, Universit´ e de Paris I – Sorbonne
adri aan peperzak, Loyola University Chicago
robert pi ppi n, University of Chicago
ri chard rorty, Stanford University
charles taylor, McGill University
gi anni vatti mo, University of Turin
mark a. wrathall, Brigham Young University
vi
Preface
I would like to thank Julie Lund, Andy West, Katie Treharne, James
Olsen, and James Faulconer for their invaluable help in the preparation
of the typescript of this book. Many people and entities at Brigham Young
University contributed time and resources in support of the conference
out of which this volume has grown. I am indebted in particular to Alan
Wilkins, Van Gessel, Ron Woods, Dennis Rasmussen, Andrew Skinner,
and Katie Treharne for their contributions to the conference. It was Bert
Dreyfus who provided the inspiration for this project, and I am grateful to
him for the many conversations and correspondences we have had on the
subject.
vii
chapter 1
Introduction: metaphysics and onto-theology
Mark A. Wrathall
1
Since Plato, philosophers in the West have proposed various conceptions of
a supreme being that was the ground of the existence and intelligibility of all
that is. Inthe works of St. Augustine (and perhaps before), this metaphysical
god became identified with the Judeo-Christian creator God. In modernity,
however, the philosopher’s foundationalist conception of God has become
increasingly implausible. The decline of the metaphysical God was perhaps
first noted when Pascal declared that the God of the philosophers was
not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In any event, by the time
that Nietzsche announced “the death of God,” it was clear that something
important had changed in the form of life prevailing in the West.
Whether Nietzsche’s actual diagnosis of the change is right, most con-
temporary thinkers agree with him that the metaphysical understanding of
God is no longer believable. But several of the most distinguished thinkers
of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – for example, SørenKierkegaard,
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Martin Heidegger, and Nietzsche himself – held that
the loss of belief in a metaphysical god that is the ground of all existence and
intelligibility, and even the loss of belief in a creator God who produced the
heaven and the earth, is not itself a disaster. These thinkers argue that the
absence of a foundational God opens up access to richer and more relevant
ways for us to understand creation and for us to encounter the divine and
the sacred. Thus, the death of the philosopher’s God may have provided us
with new and more authentic possibilities for understanding religion that
were blocked by traditional metaphysical theology (or onto-theology).
A note is in order about the title of this volume, and the idea of meta-
physics and “onto-theology.” This volume grewout of a conference entitled
“Religion after Onto-Theology,” which was held at Sundance, Utah in July,
2001. The term “onto-theology,” as it figured in that title, was popularized
by Heidegger as a catch-phrase for the failings of the metaphysical tradition
1
2 mark a. wrathall
in philosophy. A central problem of that conference, and consequently of
this book, is understanding the consequences of the demise of the meta-
physical tradition for thinking about religion.
In the twentieth century, philosophers in both the analytic and conti-
nental traditions became concerned to free philosophical inquiry from the
dominance of “metaphysics.” The oddity of these parallel calls for the “over-
coming of metaphysics” lies in the fact that the analytic and the continental
camps sawone other as the mainculprit inthe continuationof metaphysical
modes of inquiry. For the analytic, the error of the metaphysical tradition
consisted in its striving for an “alleged knowledge of the essence of things
which transcends the realm of empirically founded, inductive science.”
1
For Heidegger (and the continental philosophers influenced by him), on
the other hand, the analytical “elimination” of metaphysics through logical
analysis and deference to the empirical sciences could, in fact, only lead
to a deeper entanglement in metaphysics. This is because the dominance
of logical, scientific, and mathematical modes of thought is, according to
Heidegger, the result of the prevailing metaphysical understanding of being,
an “alleged knowledge of the essence of things” – one in which beings are
best represented in logical and mathematical terms – which fails to ask
about the foundation of this understanding of being. Indeed, Heidegger
believed that a central trait of metaphysical thought is a preoccupation with
beings and a failure to ask properly about their being: “As metaphysics, it is
by its very essence excluded from the experience of Being; for it always rep-
resents beings (Àν) only with an eye to that aspect of them that has already
manifested itself as being ( € ¨ Àν). But metaphysics never pays attention to
what has concealed itself in this very Àν insofar as it became unconcealed.”
2
According to Heidegger, all metaphysical philosophy was essentially
oblivious to being, because all metaphysics took the form of “onto-
theology.” This means that metaphysics tried to understand the being of ev-
erything that is through a simultaneous determination of its essence or most
universal trait (the “onto” in “onto-theology”), and a determination of the
ground or source of the totality of beings in some highest or divine entity
(the “theo” in “onto-theology”). This amounts, according to Heidegger,
to a profound confusion, for it tries to understand the transcendental
ground of all beings as a transcendent being.
3
In “The Onto-Theo-Logical
Constitution of Metaphysics,”
4
Heidegger argues that the onto-theological
structure of metaphysical inquiry has had deleterious effects on both phi-
losophy and theology: it has prevented philosophy from thinking about
being as something that is not itself a being, and it has misconstrued the
nature of God, thereby obstructing our relationship with the divine.
Introduction: metaphysics and onto-theology 3
It is worthobserving that the contributors tothis volume are anything but
unanimous in their assessment of the details of Heidegger’s critique of onto-
theology, and one can find them disagreeing on issues such as: is it indeed
the case that all philosophy is “always” metaphysical /onto-theological?,
5
or, what precisely is the failing of onto-theological metaphysics?, or even,
is onto-theology something that we should want to overcome?
What does unite the essays in this volume is an interest in the state of
religion in an age in which metaphysics has come into disrepute. And what-
ever their opinion of Heidegger’s critique of onto-theology, the contributors
all tend to think about metaphysics along the lines projected by Heidegger,
rather than along the lines of the analytic opposition to metaphysics. That
is to say, the concern is not primarily with metaphysics as a speculative,
non-empirical mode of inquiry, but with metaphysics as an obliviousness
to the understanding of being that governs an age. In the Heideggerian
tradition, the project of overcoming metaphysics cannot be accomplished
through logical or conceptual analysis, but only through an openness to
the way that an understanding of being comes to prevail. (See Jean-Luc
Marion’s analysis in the final chapter of this volume.)
2
Reflection on religion after metaphysics, then, needs to be understood in
terms of thought about the place of religion in an age where the understand-
ing of being that legitimized certain traditional modes of conceptualizing
the sacred and the divine is called into question. In thinking about the im-
portant changes in the forms of existence that once supported metaphysical
theology, the natural starting point is Nietzsche’s work, and his account of
the history of nihilism and the death of God.
Nietzsche’s declaration of the death of God, as Robert Pippin notes, “has
come to represent and sum up not just the unbelievability of God in the
late modern world, but the ‘death’ of a Judeo-Christian form of moral life,
the end of metaphysics, or the unsuccessful attempt to end metaphysics, or
even the end of philosophy itself” (see p. 7 below). Pippin argues, however,
that the central focus of Nietzsche’s claimis a certain “loss of desire,” which
has rendered us “pale atheists,” unable even to long for the God that is
absent. In the face of the widespread pale atheism that characterizes the
modern age, the challenge for us after the death of God is, on this view,
that of inspiring enough desire and longing to sustain life itself.
For Gianni Vattimo, on the other hand, the death of the onto-theological
God needs to be understood in terms of the impossibility of believing in an
4 mark a. wrathall
objective truth or a uniquely valid language or paradigm for understanding
the world. Without this metaphysical belief in an objective and universal
foundation – that is, with the end of metaphysics – Vattimo argues that
there is now room for a “truce” between philosophy, religion, and science.
This, in turn, leaves us free to respond to the core of the Judeo-Christian
message.
Richard Rorty agrees with Vattimo in reading the end of onto-theology
as the end of a certain metaphysical universalism in religion, thus taking
religion out of the “epistemic arena” (p. 40). But in contrast to Vattimo,
Rorty argues that religion remains a kind of “unjustifiable nostalgia,” with-
out which, Rorty hopes, we can eventually learn to live.
Charles Taylor, rather than seeing in our history a uniform and in-
evitable progress of secularization, argues that the contemporary West is
characterized by the progressive fracturing of a unified understanding of
being into a multiplicity of “world structures.” The predominant world
structures tend to “occult or blank out the transcendent” (p. 66), and
thus marginalize religious practices and modes of discourse. Taylor argues
that the marginalization of religious practices, however, is based on an
“over-hasty naturalization” which, when recognized as such, should yield
to a more open stance toward religious forms of life.
It should be apparent by now that there is considerable room for dis-
agreement over the nature of the death of the philosopher’s God and the
direction in which Western culture is moving. As the next set of essays
demonstrates, there are also sharply contrasting views of what was wrong
with the metaphysical account of God.
Some of the authors see the failure of onto-theology in the way it strips
the divine of all personal attributes, thereby turning God into the God of
the philosophers. If God is made the transcendental ground of the world
and of all intelligibility, the divine no longer is able to have the kind of pres-
ence within the world necessary to give our lives worth. On this reading
of the onto-theological tradition, the challenge facing a religion after onto-
theology is that of reviving the possibility of having a direct relation to the
divine. The next two chapters in the volume explore this vision of a non-
onto-theological God as the basis for responses to contemporary pragmatic
dismissals of religion, typified by Rorty’s chapter. Mark Wrathall reviews
Heidegger’s diagnosis of the ills of contemporary technological society in
terms of the reduction of all the things which once mattered to us or made
demands on us to mere resources. Heidegger believes that the only hope
for salvation from the dangers of technology is a life attuned to the four-
fold of earth, sky, mortals, and divinities. A relation to the divine, on the
Introduction: metaphysics and onto-theology 5
Heideggerian account, is thus not just a matter of personal preference, but
a necessary part of a life worth living in the technological age. Hubert
Dreyfus explores the Kierkegaardian response to the nihilism of the present
age. Unlike Heidegger, Kierkegaard accepts the futility of resisting the ni-
hilism apparent in the levelling of all meaningful distinctions, because he
sees it as the inevitable consequence of the onto-theological tradition. But
rather than seeing this as destroying the possibility for an authentic relation-
ship to the divine, Kierkegaard sees it as clearing the way for us to confront
our despair at being unable to unify the seemingly contradictory factors in
human existence. Christianity, according to Kierkegaard, has shown us the
only way to get the factors together and thus escape from despair: namely,
by “responding to the call” of a “defining commitment” (p. 96). In this
way, Dreyfus argues, “Kierkegaard has succeeded in saving Christianity
from onto-theology by replacing the creator God, who is metaphysically
infinite and eternal, with the God-man who is finite and temporal”
(p. 101).
Rather than seeing the failing of onto-theology in terms of its failure to
admit the possibility of encountering God within the world, Peperzak and
Caputo understand the limitations of onto-theology in terms of a reduction
of God to a being about whom we could come to have a pretension of
theoretical clarity. That is, onto-theology obstructed access to an authentic
experience of the divine by making God a being who could be understood,
whose nature could be categorized, and whose existence could be proved.
The hope for religion after onto-theology is, for these authors, to recognize
that God has a kind of majesty and incomprehensibility that we do not
find in intra-worldly beings. God, Peperzak notes, is “the One who cannot
be caught by any categorical or conceptual grasp” (p. 107). While agreeing
that the onto-theological attempts at trying to get a conceptual grasp of
God “have (at least partially) failed,” Peperzak sees the work of Levinas
as a basis for a “retrieval of the onto-theo-logical project” (pp. 110, 112) of
thinking God simultaneously as a person to whomwe can relate and as that
which makes all relations possible – in Heideggerian terms, that is, to think
God simultaneously as a being and Being. Caputo argues that, after onto-
theology, we can engage in a phenomenology of the experience of God,
which, he argues, is a phenomenology of the experience of the impossible.
The failing of onto-theology, Caputo suggests, was that it was unable to
entertain the possibility of the impossible, and thus it “tended to keep a
metaphysical lid on experience” (p. 129). The end of onto-theology thus
holds out the promise of an authentic relationship to an incomprehensible
God.
6 mark a. wrathall
Of course, in a volume by philosophers on the topic of religion after
onto-theology, the nature of post-metaphysical philosophy is at least as
much in issue as the nature of post-metaphysical religion. And, not sur-
prisingly, a recurring theme in many of the chapters is the question of the
kind of philosophical inquiry appropriate to post-onto-theological religious
experience. The last essays in this book address this problem directly. Leora
Batnitzky reviews the work of Leo Strauss and Emmanuel Levinas in terms
of their efforts to articulate the relation between philosophy and revelation.
If the revelation contained in the Bible “is not concerned with the onto-
theological status of God” (p. 155), then the philosophical appropriation
of the revelation cannot be understood as articulating the metaphysical
essentialism implicit in the revelation. Instead, Batnitzky suggests that the
task for us is to think through the possibilities for a philosophical but non-
metaphysical account of ethics and politics – an account which must be
grounded in the revelation if it is to “defend morality to humanity at large”
(p. 155).
In the final chapter, Marion brings us back to the general question of the
possibilities available for thought at the end of metaphysics – a central issue
which, more or less self-consciously, motivates every other chapter in this
volume. Marion explores the nature of Heidegger’s critique of metaphysics,
and his enduring effort to think through the end of metaphysics. Heidegger,
Marion argues, opens the horizon of, but hesitates before the possibility
of, overcoming metaphysics in and through a thought of the donation –
the giving of a clearing by “something other than being” (p. 183). It is this
opening that, Marion argues, needs to be pursued if there is to be a “radical
overcoming” of metaphysics.
notes
1. Rudolf Carnap, “The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of
Language,” in Logical Positivism, ed. A. J. Ayer (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1959),
p. 80.
2. Martin Heidegger, “Introduction to ‘What is Metaphysics?,’ ” in Pathmarks, ed.
William McNeill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 288.
3. See “Nihilism as Determined by the History of Being,” Nietzsche, vol. iv, ed.
David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 210–11.
4. In Identity and Difference, trans. Joan Stambaugh (University of Chicago Press,
1969).
5. Heidegger, Schelling: Vom Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit, Gesamtausgabe,
vol. xlii (Frankfurt-on-Main: Klostermann, 1988), p. 88.
chapter 2
Love and death in Nietzsche
Robert Pippin
Phoebus is dead, ephebe. But Phoebus was
A name for something that never could be named.
There was a project for the sun and is.
There is a project for the sun. The sun
Must bear no name, gold flourisher, but be
In the difficulty of what it is to be.
(Wallace Stevens, “Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction:
It Must be Abstract,” The Collected Poems
[New York: Vintage, 1990], p. 381)
Section 125 of Nietzsche’s The Gay Science is justifiably famous; it is perhaps
the most famous passage in all of Nietzsche.
1
In it, Nietzsche introduces
a character, der tolle Mensch, the crazy man, who proclaims that God is
dead, that we all collectively have killed him, and that all must bear the
burden of guilt (for centuries) for this horrible murder. Like other famous
images in philosophy, like Plato’s cave or Descartes’s evil genius or Kant’s
island of truth surrounded by seas of illusion, the passage has taken on a
life of its own quite independent of its place and function in what may
be Nietzsche’s most beautiful and best-thought-out book. It has come to
represent and sumup not just the unbelievability of God in the late modern
world, but the “death” of a Judeo-Christian form of moral life, the end of
metaphysics, or the unsuccessful attempt to end metaphysics, or even the
end of philosophy itself.
Yet the passage is also quite mysterious and suggests a number of inter-
pretive problems. The very idea of a death or end to a form of life (rather
than a refutation or enlightenment) is worth considerable attention in it-
self, but the literary details of this little drama are even more striking.
2
The
announcement is made by a crazy man who carries a lantern in the daylight,
seeks a God who he clearly knows does not exist, and after proclaiming
that the time for such an announcement is not right and that he will not
be understood, promptly begins his prophetic activity anew and with more
7
8 robert pi ppi n
intensity, breaking into churches and screaming his message. (He is clearly
crazy, but in what sense is he crazy?
3
)
The announcement itself suggests a kind of insanity. On the face of it,
the announcement that “God is dead” is, even metaphorically, opaque. If
there had been a god, we could not have killed him. If we could have killed
him, he could not have been a god. If “God” existed only as a constructed
object of belief, a kind of collective “illusion” in Freud’s famous claim, then
exposing this illusion might be unsettling and make for much anxiety; and
afterwards, it might be impossible to return to the same illusion, but the
content of such unease could not be about a “death,” or, especially, guilt
at having “caused” it, even if one reads the claim metaphorically. (One
interpretation might be “we destroyed the old illusion that there was a god.”
If that were the literal meaning, the only guilt relevant would have to be
guilt at having allowed ourselves to be so deceived, and could not be guilt at
ending the delusion.) Indeed, Nietzsche himself provides, in his own voice,
not the voice of a persona, a much simpler gloss on the claim and one far
different intone. He explains insection 343 that “The greatest recent event –
that ‘God is dead’” should simply be taken to mean “that the belief in the
Christian God has become unworthy of belief.”
4
So, the oddness of the language in section 125 itself, and Nietzsche’s
own very different gloss (especially since the theme of the later passage
in Book 5 is “cheerfulness,” not guilt), directs our attention to the con-
trasting uncheerful, indeed morbid, tone of the first passage, the famous
locus classicus often cited as Nietzsche’s own “belief ” that “God is dead.”
(Cheerfulness [Heiterkeit] is the important issue here because the most im-
portant interpretive question at stake is the possibility of a “joyous science”
[fr¨ ohliche Wissenschaft] and so not nihilism and guilt.) But it would seem
that Nietzsche is trying most of all to draw attention to, rather than ex-
press or identify with, the “melancholic” tone, both of the announcement
and perhaps of the coming culture of melancholy – the tone appropriate
to the belief that a kind of death has occurred, that we were responsible,
and that this death results only in some unbearable, frightening absence.
So one extraordinary feature of the history of the reception of the passage
is that what seems clearly to be a kind of symptom of a modern pathol-
ogy, for which Nietzsche wants a diagnosis, is often taken as the diagnosis
of the modern “orientation” or mood itself ! Indeed, I have tried to show
elsewhere that Nietzsche is here anticipating Freud’s famous distinction
between mourning and melancholy in reaction to a loss or trauma, suggest-
ing that the madman’s madness is this kind of melancholic obsession with
what has been lost, complete with its narcissistic assumption of grandiose
Love and death in Nietzsche 9
responsibility, lurid details of murder and blood and guilt, and repetitive
compulsion.
5
Freud famously contrasts the genuine work of mourning, in which the
loss of a loved one, or a disappointed expectation or rejection, is finally
acknowledged (something that also presupposes that the genuine separate-
ness of the person or the independence of the world is also acknowledged),
so that one’s libido can be redirected then to other such objects; and the
absence of such work for the melancholic, whose world is so narcissistic
that he believes that he could not have been left, even while, also out of such
narcissism, he also believes that he must have been somehow responsible
for the loss. Both reactions deny the separateness and independence of the
other and so deny the other’s death, preserving in unovercomeable grief
(which Freud points out must be as constantly and repetitively exhibited
and staged as the madman’s) a kind of morbid living presence of the other
and the continuing importance of the subject. It is this pathology, perhaps
the typical pathology of a “modernist” culture of melancholia (Dostoevsky,
Musil, Kafka, Beckett), likewise inspired by a type of narcissism, that Niet-
zsche precisely wants to avoid with his gaya scienza. (Nietzsche’s name for
such an illness is as often “romanticism” as melancholy. He links both in
some of his remarks on Brahms and Wagner, saying of the former that “his
is the melancholy of incapacity; he does not create out of an abundance;
he languishes for abundance”
6
and that it is when Brahms “mourns” for
himself that he is “modern.” This distinction between desire as a lack – and
the death of God as a new lack – and desire as abundance, excess – and
so the death of God as freeing such generosity – will emerge frequently in
what follows.)
The most significant feature of the passage, for our purposes in this vol-
ume, concerns what Nietzsche appears to think the appropriate response to
this announcement should be. In setting the context for the announcement,
especially the audience to whom it is made, Nietzsche goes out of his way
to suggest that what we normally regard as “atheism” is far too simplistic
a description of what it would be truly to “incorporate” this truth. The
opening passage describes, as the madman’s audience, a group of people
who “did not believe in God” and, when they hear the madman proclaim
that he seeks God, jeer sarcastically and joke, “Has he got lost?” “Did he
lose his way like a child?” “Is he hiding?” “Is he afraid of us?” “Has he
gone on a voyage?” But if the madman is mad, these jeering atheists are
clearly portrayed, as they are elsewhere in Nietzsche, as thoughtless, smug,
self-satisfied boors. In other passages, Nietzsche’s Homeric epithet for such
atheists is “pale atheists,” suggesting this lack of vitality or even sickness.
10 robert pi ppi n
(Thus we need to understand why, if the death of God signals a general
end to the possibility of transcendence, religion, morally significant truth,
and so forth, the successor culture would not simply have to be a culture
of such pale [joking, ironic] atheists.)
7
If Nietzsche wants to suggest that
the madman is pathologically wrong to treat the absence of God as a loss,
wrong to take on the burden of a self-lacerating guilt, he seems just as
dissatisfied with these village atheist types who are too easily satisfied with
a secular materialism and so do not understand the aspirations and ideals
Nietzsche elsewhere treats as “a condition of life.”
So my question will be, why does Nietzsche treat these self-satisfied
atheists this way? What are they missing? What does Nietzsche want us to
understand by his rejecting both the notion of a now absent God and the
stance of what appears to be straightforward, Enlightenment atheism? Inhis
ownterms, this means understanding why a life guided by the “old values” is
just as impossible as a life guided by “no values,” or why a “transvaluation,”
an “Umwertung,” of all values is what is now necessary and what it would
be like.
This question already reflects Nietzsche’s earlier way of posing it in The
Birth of Tragedy: the unbelievability of monotheism in no way necessarily
ushers in the age of a-theism, the anti-religion of “last men.” (In The Birth
of Tragedy a modern “polytheism” still seemed possible to Nietzsche.) That
dogmatic anti-dogma (atheism) is hard to understand as a way of life, he
often suggests, as in this evocative passage from The Gay Science:
We are, in a word – and it should be our word of honor – good Europeans, the heirs
of Europe, the rich, well-endowed, but also over-rich, obligated heirs of centuries of
European spirit: as such also those who have grown up and away fromChristianity,
and just because we have awakened from it, because our forebears were Christians
from an unreflective sense of the righteousness of Christianity, who willingly for
their faith sacrificed blood, position and fatherland for it. We – do the same. But
for what? For our lack of faith? For a kind of disbelief? No, you know better than
that, my friends. The hidden yes in you is stronger than all the no’s and perhaps
fromwhich you and your age are sick; and if you have to sail the seas, you wanderer,
something also compels you to do so – a faith!
8
Nietzsche’s most comprehensive termfor the historical and psychological
situation that in the present age requires this “transvaluation of values” after
“the death of God” is “nihilism.” But here again the surface meaning of
these claims about what necessitates a transvaluation has suggested many
different sorts of provocations and so raises questions about how Nietzsche
wants us to understand at the most general level the conditions possible now
(without “God,” in all senses of the term) for the success of that activity
Love and death in Nietzsche 11
he seemed to treat as identical to a distinctly human living: esteeming
(sch¨ atzen), valuing. (“Man,” Zarathustra says, means “esteemer.”
9
)
On the one hand, the problem of nihilism can look like a problem of
knowledge, or at least reasonable belief. What had once seemed known, or
worthy of belief, now seems a “lie,” “unworthy of belief.” A typical version
of this view of nihilism as a crisis of knowledge or reasonable belief is the
following from the Nachlass:
What has happened, at bottom? The feeling of valuelessness was reached with
the realization that the overall character of existence may not be interpreted by
means of the concept of “aim,” the concept of “unity,” or the concept of “truth.”
Existence has no goal or end; any comprehensive unity in the plurality of events is
lacking; the character of existence is not true, is false. One simply lacks any reason
for convincing oneself that there is a true world.
10
Such calmly cognitivist terms suggest an anthropologist watching the
disenchanting enlightenment of a primitive tribe, and so appeal to such
double-edged enlightenment as the best explanation for howwe have come
to be the first civilization that must live self-consciously without any con-
fidence that we “know” what civilized life is for, without “the truth.”
11
On the other hand, especially when Nietzsche is trying to drawa distinc-
tion between what he calls a passive and an active nihilism, what we have
come to claim to know or to believe, while important, is not the whole or
the chief issue. “Active” nihilism is interpreted as a “sign of increased power
of the spirit”; “passive” nihilism as “decline and recession of the power of
spirit.”
12
In passages like these, Nietzsche is more likely to say that nihilism
results when we are threatened with the impossibility of willing at all, of
fulfilling the conditions necessary for decision and commitment – “value.”
We choose instead to try to regard ourselves as willing “nothing,” as bravely
insisting on such an absence, and so are able to construe the realization as
a result of our “active” self-enlightenment, righteousness, and honesty, and
not a passive, merely endured fate. Indeed, many of the passages that seem
to appeal to worthiness of belief alone as the source of the crisis conclude by
suggesting instead that nihilismis at bottoma matter of strength or weakness
of will . The “feeling of valuelessness” passage just quoted above concludes
by saying that the categories “which we used to project some value into the
world, we pull out again; so the world looks valueless.”
13
The force of these passages suggests a familiar skeptical attitude about the
practical implications of any such putative intellectual enlightenment. For
one thing, the emerging modern consensus in European high culture about
the disenchantment of nature, skepticism about teleology, and a spreading
12 robert pi ppi n
atheism are all, on their own, as assertions about the facts, motivationally
or practically inert. This is so because, according to Nietzsche, contra the
cognitivist formulations, it is extremely unlikely that belief in any such
first principle of value or objective moral order originally or subsequently
played any decisive role in commitment to a value or in keeping faith with
it. The justifiability of a belief is, in itself, not one of the practically necessary
conditions of value (although, as we shall see, in special circumstances it
may become so). He is quite explicit about this in The Gay Science:
The mistake made by the more refined among them[among the modern historians
of morality] is that they uncover and criticize the perhaps foolish opinions of a
people about morality, or of humanity about all human morality – opinions about
its origin, religious sanction, the superstition of free will, and things of that sort –
and then suppose that they have criticized the morality itself. But the value of a
command, “thou shalt” is still fundamentally different from and independent of
such opinions about it and the weeds of error that may have overgrown it – just as
certainly as the value of a medication for a sick person is completely independent
of whether he thinks about medicine scientifically or the way old women do. Even
if a morality has grown out of an error, the realization of this fact would not as
much as touch the problem of its value.
14
For another thing, claims about value do not, for Nietzsche, report the
discovery of moral facts, but express, enact, and partially realize a commit-
ment. Accounting for – giving a genealogy of – such commitments (and
the various conditions necessary for these to serve as ways of life) can never
be completed by an inventory of theoretical beliefs; something else must
always be added. It has seemed to many modern philosophers that such an
addition must be a kind of subjective reaction – an outpouring of sympathy,
a recoil in pain, the stirring of a passion – and therewith an imposition or
projection of a “value” as an embrace or rejection of some situation. This
is not Nietzsche’s position, but for now we need only note that while we
can base reasons to act or to undertake commitments on such beliefs, the
strength or weakness of the theoretical claim about “what there is” is not
itself an independent factor in such commitments, in such acts of valuing.
Acting is negating what there is, and so presumes some sort of experience
where some state of affairs becomes unacceptable, not merely noted; it is
experienced as something-that-must-be-overcome. Acting in the light of
this unacceptability is “acting for a value,” and what we are in effect look-
ing for is the source and meaning of such unacceptability in the absence of
any notion of a natural completion or telos, natural law, common human
nature, or some objective ideal or divine legislator. (This is partly the prob-
lem with our pale atheists. They dogmatically believe that the absence of
Love and death in Nietzsche 13
God in itself matters; that a “faith” of sorts can be made of this denial. It
mattering to them, their being atheists, is a reflection of some other lack or
need or fear unthought by the atheists.)
Since whatever else nihilism and the death of God involve, then, they
involve this problem of value, what does “touch the problem” of value? The
passages we have been citing suggest strength of will, resolve, power, and
courage; they focus on the problem of strong and weak will, and have long
been part of the canon of quotations cited in “existentialist” readings of
Nietzsche (of a Kierkegaardian “leap” or Sartrean “condemned to freedom”
variety.)
15
This duality (treating nihilism as a problem either of belief or of will
power) is of a piece with a more familiar, very general tension in inter-
pretations of Nietzsche: that is, the tension between those who focus on
a doctrinal Nietzsche, with radically new answers to traditional problems,
and those who insist on a wholly rhetorical, much more literary Nietzsche,
fiercely resistant to all doctrine. According to this latter Nietzsche, civiliza-
tions should be understood as collectively projected and sustained fantasies
of value and importance, fantasies that have an essentially psychological
origin
16
and a kind of organic “life” and “death” in unceasing repetitions,
periodically requiring some new master rhetorician and fantasy maker.
Every so often, as a matter of luck, some such value-legislator, a Sophocles,
Socrates, St. Paul, Goethe, or Nietzsche, is found. And so too the famil-
iar dialectic in understanding Nietzsche: the doctrinalists or naturalists
or metaphysicians of the will to power look too close to the dogmatists
Nietzsche clearly sweepingly rejects (they still evince a na¨ıve confidence in
the value of truth); the philosopher of will and rhetoric looks like a doctri-
nalist malgr´e lui, not able to keep from asserting a doctrine about rhetoric
and rhetoricality.
What I want to suggest at this point is that we treat the phenomenon of
nihilism in a way closer to Nietzsche’s images and figures and tropes, many
of which were cited at the outset here: images of death, decay, illness, the
absence of tension, a “sleep” of the spirit (he sometimes claims that what is
needed nowis an ability to dreamwithout having to sleep), and perhaps the
most intuitive metonymy of failed desire – boredom. These images suggest
that the problem of nihilism does not consist in a failure of knowledge or
a failure of will, but a failure of desire, the flickering out of some erotic
flame. Noting how often and with what significance Nietzsche refers to life
and the “perspective of life” as the issue of an erotic striving, what makes
possible the origination of such a wanting, what sustains it and the sacrifices
it calls for, and so forth, casts a completely different light on the nature of
14 robert pi ppi n
the “death of God” or nihilism crisis and on what Nietzsche regards as a
possible way out of it. It frames all the issues differently, especially since
the failure of desire can be baffling, quite mysterious, not something that,
in some other sense, we ever “want” to happen, as mysterious as the issue
of how one might address such a failure.
This is not an easy case to make because Nietzsche is famous as a philoso-
pher of “the will,” and as oriented everywhere by the unavoidability and
severity of human conflict. The primary phenomenon for a Nietzschean
is supposed to be such basic conflict and struggle for power, and so the
eternal unavoidability of an exclusive disjunction: either being subject to
the will of others, or subjecting them to one’s will. This is supposed to
be the ur-phenomenon out of which various reactive institutions, like the
Christian religion and morality, grow and which they express (Christianity
being essentially a slave revolt against Roman power), and which modern
institutions, like liberalism, hypocritically ignore. Modern liberalism and
socialism assume that the growth of technological power over nature and
the spread of intellectual enlightenment, especially enlightenment about
the death of God and the futility and eventually unbearable expense of
sectarian war, will make men milder, enhance the possibility of overlapping
consensus and compromise, and so forth. By contrast, Nietzsche is taken
to hold that this is a fatuous delusion, that it is far more likely that there
will be massive and voluntary subordination and more subtle, less visible
oppression than consensus (a herd society), and that whatever mildness
ensues will just be the result of such sheeplike submission to the power of
the herd itself.
But even the surface of these claims is suspiciously simplistic. One seeks
power to effect an end one cares about; victory in a conflict is struggle and
victory for the sake of something one cares about, and there is no more
a priori entitlement, in Nietzsche’s philosophical universe, to assume that
one by nature cares about “maximizing power” (whatever that is supposed
to mean; whatever counts as “maximizing power”) than there is to assume
that one by nature cares about avoiding a violent death, or about having as
commodious a life as possible, or about being recognized as an equal, and
so forth. The famous will to power is always applied purposively, for the
sake of some end, and these ends reflect a striving, negation, and simple
desire not at all reflected in the official Nietzsche (the philosopher of the
will).
But these erotic images are well known in the textual or actual Nietzsche,
and they make clear howmuch closer he stands to his great opponent, Plato,
Love and death in Nietzsche 15
than to Hobbes or Machiavelli (who both accept a modern and so natural-
istic account of the pulls and pushes of the passions). Indeed, these images
occur quite prominently, at the beginnings of all three of Nietzsche’s best-
known books. “Truth is a woman,” and philosophers are clumsy lovers;
17
Zarathustra “goes under” because “he loves man”;
18
“where your treasure is,
there will your heart be also.”
19
And there are the rich associations of The
Gay Science, Die fr¨ ohliche Wissenschaft itself, gaya scienza, with its evoca-
tion of the gai saber, troubadours, or warrior-poets who produce essentially
lyrics or love poems, whose main claim to knowledge was of erotics.
20
(All
such that Nietzsche is also inherently claiming as his subject the one thing
Socrates ever claimed to know something about – eros.) In fact, the Gay
Science as a book is so important because it represents the first concen-
trated presentation of some affirmative post-philosophical activity, after
Nietzsche had abandoned the so-called “romantic” fantasy of a Wagnerian
revival. There is now to be some new form of reflective engagement with
the world and others; the question at issue in such engagement is always
the question of value, but at the heart of that question is the erotic issue,
and all of this somehow is what the gai saber knows. A gay science, in
other words, is a new way of thinking about value, a new kind of thinking
activity and therewith valuing, but one intelligible only if we understand its
unique goal, and why that goal has become important, why we now strive
for it.
Some of the erotic images repeat, become like motifs in Nietzsche’s work.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Zarathustra announces the advent of nihilismas
an erotic problem. “Alas the time is coming when man will no longer shoot
the arrow of his longing beyond man, and the string of his bow will have
forgotten how to whir.”
21
In the preface to Beyond Good and Evil , he notes
that our long struggle with, andoftenoppositionto anddissatisfactionwith,
our own moral tradition, European Christianity, has created a “magnificent
tension of the spirit the like of which had never yet existed on earth: with so
tense a bow we can now shoot for the most distant goals.” But, he goes on,
the “democratic enlightenment” also sought to “unbend” such a bow, to
“bring it about that the spirit would no longer experience itself so easily
as a ‘need.’ ”
22
This latter formulation coincides with a wonderfully lap-
idary expression in The Gay Science. In discussing “those millions of young
Europeans who cannot endure their boredom and themselves,” he notes
that they would even welcome “a craving to suffer” and so “to find in their
suffering a probable reason for action, for deeds.” In sum: “neediness is
needed!” (“Not ist n¨ otig.”
23
) (One of his most striking formulations of the
16 robert pi ppi n
death of desire occurs in Ecce Homo, when he notes what is happening to us
as “one error after another is coolly placed on ice; the ideal is not refuted –
it freezes to death.”
24
)
Attending to this erotic problem in Nietzsche should also help free us
from the grip of the image that has probably the greatest hold on the imag-
ination of Nietzsche’s modern readers, the image of a world discovered to
be intrinsically valueless, without God, thereby calling for the spontaneous
creation and injection of value by creative subjects, and thereby provoking
a kind of crisis of conscience (nihilism), despair that we, the frail, finite
creatures that we are, could do that without the traditional props (nature,
revealed law, Truth, etc.). (This is the most frequent combination of the
cognitive and volitional elements noted above.) But fromthe “erotic” point
of view, all such considerations of what Nietzsche is after start much too
far downstream. Rendering a possible state of character or society actually
valuable would be being able somehow to render it desirable. It would
be to be able to create a longing for such an object, or to find others in
whom a possible spark of such longing could be found and fanned. Such
a possibility is hard to imagine, since no subject, however strong-willed,
could simply inject such erotic value “into” the world from a position “out-
side it” like this. Any such desire can only be found and inspired and
sustained in a certain sort of world, a world where already some intense
dissatisfaction can be balanced by an aspiration at home in that very world;
a world, in other words, lovable enough to inspire as well as frustrate.
25
Consider this summation of the issue (a passage that also renders pretty
irrelevant most of Heidegger’s Auseinandersetzung with Nietzsche as well as
the subjectivist/projection, neo-Humean readings of Nietzsche on value):
The whole pose of “man against the world,” of man as a “world-negating” principle,
of man as the measure of the value of things, as judge of the world who in the
end places existence itself upon his scales and finds it wanting – the monstrous
insipidity of this pose has finally come home to us and we are sick of it. We laugh
as soon as we encounter the juxtaposition of “man and world,” separated by the
sublime presumption of the little word “and.”
26
Passages about eros and about the worldliness of eros have not, of course,
been wholly ignored, but, as alluded to above, they are often folded into
a general discussion of Nietzsche’s views on the body, his supposed natu-
ralism, and what he often refers to as the problem of instincts. And there
is no particular reason not to see this emphasis on constant, powerfully
motivating, human longing (or the enervating experience of its failure)
as an aspect of what Nietzsche talks about elsewhere as instinctual forces
Love and death in Nietzsche 17
(or their absence). He began his career in The Birth of Tragedy apparently
positing elemental longings or drives, either for the destruction of formand
individuation, and for a self-less, Dionysian indeterminacy, or a longing
for determinacy, form, and clarity. He notes also a longing for an “animal”
forgetfulness that required millennia of pain and training to overcome, such
that we could have new longings and become animals capable of keeping
promises; he describes an unavoidable, instinctual striving to render suf-
fering meaningful, and so forth; not to mention that apparently elemental
drive – the will to power.
But a wholly naturalistic account would be much too hasty here. The
very multiplicity and range of the different possible drives appealed to, and
the fact that Nietzsche’s accounts of prevolitional drives and instincts are
often as much historical as organic (tied essentially to a specific historical
self-understanding), indicate already that the basic question for him has re-
mained interpretive, a question about meaning; the basic response a matter
of Bildung or culture, not causality. (So, any question about some pre-
sumed Nietzschean ultimate explainer, like Macht, or power, must always
leave room for the prior and decisive question of what counts as having
power or exercising it.) For example, Nietzsche notes in The Gay Science,
section 334 that all love has to be learned. “Even those who love themselves
will have learned it in this way; for there is no other way. Love too has to
be learned.” (He does not mention here what he stresses in Schopenhauer
as Educator, a difficulty that suggests a tragic pathos to this position.)
It is hard to create in anyone this condition of intrepid self-knowledge because it is
impossible to teach love; for it is love alone that can bestow on the soul, not only
a clear, discriminating, and self-contemptuous view of itself, but also the desire
to look beyond itself and to seek with all its might for a higher self as yet still
concealed from it.
27
The thought itself beginning to emerge throughout these passages is
paradoxical – that we can desire, long, strive (suffer from some burden of
“excess,” of too much meaning, too many possibilities), without knowing
or ever finding what would satisfy that longing, without the experience of a
determinate or natural lack or gap that cries out for satisfaction. We “learn”
in some sense to want and feel in some way, but it is forever impossible to
formulate what wouldultimately satisfy sucha polymorphic longing, relieve
the distress caused by such a burden. On the other hand, what Nietzsche is
getting at is all phenomenologically quite familiar, as familiar as the essential
ambiguity of the great “quest” objects of modern literature and the irony of
those quests, those hopes for resolution and completion and redemption:
18 robert pi ppi n
Quixote’s adventure and windmills, Tennyson’s Holy Grail, Emma Bovary’s
desperate romance, the White Whale, the Ring of the Nibelung, Godot,
K’s trial, Pynchon’s V, and so forth.
But this multiply realizable interpretive activity, I should hasten to add,
is not at all a reflective activity directed at some brute, somatic event that we
can isolate, whose simple causes we can investigate. While there are clearly
desires provoked exogenously by natural objects, clear that the world in
its cold and heat and weather and scarcity provokes a very determinate
dissatisfaction with and so a desire to overcome these natural limitations,
clear that there are fixed human drives, there is another level, the one
Nietzsche is interested in, on which human existence is plagued by a deeper,
categorically different dissatisfaction, and so a longing that is not just such
a response to a lack. (In the familiar words of parents everywhere: we “make
ourselves miserable,” and could, in a sense, stop doing so. But that would
be to live like last men. There is no argument in Nietzsche that we should
not so live, and Nietzsche seems more interested in the question of “under
what conditions” his interlocutors would find such a life shameful rather
than successful.) So, at this level, such dissatisfactions cannot be said to
have simple causes or determinate objects. Rather we continue to try to
express a dissatisfaction we also cannot pin down and so cannot satisfy,
even though without this self-induced dissatisfaction, we would be last
men, for that (that absence of such dissatisfaction or the self-contempt he
had said springs from “love”) is precisely their state. They are, in other
words, happy. Such dissatisfaction exists, then, in a very mediated sense,
only “because of us,” because of what we will not settle for, not because
of our nature or transactions with the world. Such a desire “for more” is
nothing but our determinate expression of a dissatisfaction, and yet that
determinacy can never be fixed with certainty and can no longer be tied
to transcendent aspirations. Thus, from The Gay Science, “when a strong
stimulus is experienced as pleasure or displeasure, this depends on the
interpretation of the intellect which, to be sure, generally does this work
without rising to our consciousness.”
28
And especially in Human, All Too
Human: “Since we have for millennia looked upon the world with moral,
aesthetic, and religious demands . . . the world has gradually become so re-
markably variegated, terrible, soulful, meaningful, it has acquired color –
but we have been the colorists.”
29
There is a gap, an experience of not-being something or other, but we
open up that possibility and hold it open by means of these expressions of
dissatisfaction, even though we obviously do not do so in some individ-
ual, intentional, volitional sense. There isn’t, say, a legitimate authority or
distributive justice problem waiting to be found by philosophers. There is
Love and death in Nietzsche 19
such a problem only if philosophers find a way of picturing “life” in such
a way that life is lacking without addressing such problems. They don’t
impose such a view onto life, because there isn’t, properly speaking, a life
to lead without such a yearning. In the language of the classical German
philosophical tradition, we would call this dissatisfaction and longing a
“self-negation,” that is, a dissatisfaction due to us, a refusal on our part ever
to rest content, rather than a reaction to a natural lack. (Even righteous
subjection to the moral law in Kant, for example, becomes an object of
striving, a matter of possible perfectibility, but only because, as Kant says,
we are the “authors” of such a law; we subject ourselves to its constraint.)
Humanexperience, I think Nietzsche is trying to suggest withhis somatic
and erotic images, is at its core, at a level deeper than everyday dissatisfac-
tions and desires, a great longing, even though not a determinate lack that
must be filled. The odd and somewhat mawkish image Nietzsche often
uses to make this point is that of a bee or hive overloaded with honey. The
image suggests desires well beyond any need, or a surfeit or abundance of
desires (one might even say, desires for ever “more,” for “excess” meaning)
that can be communicated and shared.
30
(In this sense, although Nietzsche
would often poke fun at Kant’s account of aesthetic pleasure, it could fairly
be said that one source for this image of desire in excess, not responsive
to a missing fulfillment or need, but a surplus outside any calculability, is
the post-Kantian understanding of aesthetic experience as preconceptual
and sensual, but not “interested” desire satisfaction.) The generosity and
even potential frivolity in decorating, beautifying, etc., even at the expense
of prudence and sober self-interest, is, Schiller maintained, the first man-
ifestation of a desire that exceeds any logic of calculation. Consider from
Schiller’s letters:
Not content with what simply satisfies Nature and meets his need, he demands
superfluity; to begin with, certainly, merely a superfluity of material, in order to
conceal from his desires their boundaries, in order to assure his enjoyment beyond
the existing need, but soon a superfluity in the material, an aesthetic supplement, in
order to be able to satisfy his formal impulse also, in order to extend his enjoyment
beyond every need.
31
Inthe Nachlass, Nietzsche tries frequently todistinguishhis positionfrom
what he considers the neediness and non-aesthetic status of “romanticism.”
Is art a consequence of dissatisfaction with reality? Or an expression of gratitude
for happiness enjoyed ? In the former case, romanticism; in the latter, aureole and
dithyramb (in short, art of apotheosis): Raphael, too, belongs here; he merely had
the falsity to deify what looked like the Christian interpretation of the world. He
was grateful for existence where it was not specifically Christian.
32
20 robert pi ppi n
And this distinction between romanticism (and romantic pessimism,
Schopenhauer, Wagner) and what he favors, “art of apotheosis,” is said to
be based on a “fundamental distinction.” “I ask in each individual case
‘has hunger or superabundance become creative here?’” and he affirms an
art he says is based on “gratitude and love,” not hunger.
33
“The full and
bestowing” is what he affirms, not “the seeking, desiring.”
34
(He makes the
same distinction in The Gay Science, distinguishing between two kinds of
sufferers: those who suffer from“over-fullness of life,” and romantics, “who
suffer from the impoverishment of life.”
35
)
As noted above, part of Nietzsche’s “experiment” is to suggest that such
an “excess” erotic insistence can come to seem as ennobling as the equally
“useless” impulse for aesthetic production; indispensable in a life being
human, but which, paradoxically (the same paradox we have been encoun-
tering all along), cannot be undertaken for that reason, because we “need”
it “in order to be” human.
That human nature is such as to deny itself satisfaction (in an evolution-
ary metaphor, human beings have evolved to be beyond a natural niche
or function; everything about them that is distinctly human is evolution-
ary excess, waste) is a theme that resonates with many philosophers whom
Nietzsche would disown, but who forman exclusive club. It is the founding
thought of a decisive strand of modern philosophy – Rousseau’s thought –
and thanks to Rousseau it shows up in Kant’s account of our “unsocial
sociability” (ungesellige Geselligkeit), in Hegel’s account of the non-natural
(or “excessive”) claim of the other for recognition, and in Marx’s famous
account of the social (not natural) significance of organized labor. It shows
up for different reasons in Freud’s account of the harshness of the repres-
sion of natural (essentially Oedipal) desire and so our self-division (the
self-division that makes us human allows it to be said that we lead lives,
rather than merely exist or suffer our existence). (Hegel also says in his
Aesthetics Lectures that human existence itself is a self-inflicted wound,
but one which we can also “heal” ourselves.
36
) The somewhat mythic pic-
ture here is straightforward: the natural world is a world without genuine
individuality (just mere particularity, in Hegel’s language); it is formless,
brutal, chaotic, and indifferent, and to live a human life is (and essentially is
only) to resist this, to make oneself anything other than this, all because we
will not accept it and have found a way to provoke such dissatisfaction in
others and for posterity. (Individuality is always a kind of fragile, unstable,
threatened achievement, not an original state of being.
37
) We know in other
words where we don’t want to be, what would be a kind of spiritual death,
without knowing in effect where to go. (And again, it all also means that
Love and death in Nietzsche 21
we can cease to resist, become “last men” because barely human at all once
this tension is lost.)
The best example of what I have been talking about occurs in section 300
of The Gay Science. Nietzsche first claims that necessary preconditions for
modern science were the “magicians, alchemists, astrologers and witches,”
because their “promises and pretensions” “had to create (schaffen mussten) a
thirst, a hunger, a taste for hidden and forbidden powers,” and that much
more had to be promised than could be delivered so that this frustration
would sustain the scientific enterprise until much later the promise could
be fulfilled in the “realm of knowledge.” Then, in comments on religion he
goes on, or goes so far, as to say that man had to learn even to “experience
a hunger and thirst for himself,” and so to learn to “find satisfaction and
fullness in himself.” Religious ways of life, in other words, gave this surfeit
of human desire a form and a goal; it did not respond to, but opened up,
the experience of a gap between me and myself, made it possible for me
to experience myself as somehow dissatisfying so that I had to become a
self, become who I am. And all this just as astronomy does not do bet-
ter what astrologers attempted; it realizes a desire to know about the stars
that had to be originated and sustained, rather than responded to. His
next remark is the most elliptical and, as is usual with Nietzschean im-
agery like this, it creates the very thing it describes; an aspiration to more
meaning:
Did Prometheus have to fancy (w¨ ahnen), first that he had stolen the light and then
pay for that – before he finally discovered that he had created the light by coveting
the light and that not only man but also the god was the work of his own hands
and had been mere clay in his hands? All mere images of the maker – no less than
fancy, the theft, the Caucasus, the vulture, and the whole tragic Prometheia of all
seekers after knowledge. (GS §300)
Prometheus created the light by coveting it is the phrase that says it all; the
incapacity to rest content, the impulse to give away, is treated by Nietzsche
as a kind of luxurious magnanimity and generosity of spirit. The dissat-
isfaction Prometheus felt was not the occasion of this generosity but its
result, and the determinate meaning of what happened, the injustice of
Zeus, the meaning of his suffering represent extensions and consequences
of the kind of dissatisfaction that he opened up and held open; the excess
meaning he creates by his act and that he promises to be able to explain.
One can easily lose one’s hold on these suggestions; looking at things
“from the point of view of life” can look as if it makes what we want,
perhaps arbitrarily and accidentally want, a condition of what we accept
22 robert pi ppi n
as valuable, and that can seem like wishful thinking. And we seem to be
sliding back to some version of the radical rhetorical reading, with meaning
and value originally projected or imposed. Moreover, other philosophers,
notably Hegel, also began with the assumption that “the religion of modern
times is ‘God is dead.’ ”
38
Hegel was happy enough to concede that modern
bourgeois life, with its distributed subjectivity (or radically divided labor
and mundane preoccupations), is prosaic (his most frequent characteriza-
tion in the Aesthetics lectures), without any possible heroism, so devoid
even of beauty, so “liberated” from natural sensibility as to render art itself
marginal, no longer of world-historical significance, and religion a merely
civic experience. But one can understand Hegel as having also wagered
that the realization of freedom embodied in modern law and modern so-
cial institutions like the family and market economy was, one might say,
consolation enough; that allegiance (or erotic attachment) to this ideal was
psychologically and socially sufficient to sustain and reproduce a form of
life. One way of summarizing what we have been discussing is to note
simply that Nietzsche thought that a bad wager; that the evidence was
everywhere that the ideal had become a self-serving venality, and illusions
about it had helped produce widespread chronic social pathologies. So far,
though, in the passages we have looked at, he seems simply to be painting an
alternative anti-bourgeois picture (of nobility, hierarchy of rank, courage,
and so forth) and assuming that we could “choose” it instead.
But we need to remember that the theme in these passages is eros, not
will or spontaneous creativity, and that such attempts to inspire a kind of
longing, to break the hold of need and fear and inspire a kind of reckless
generosity (e.g. like Prometheus), can fail, and that it is very hard to un-
derstand what kind of erotic promises will get a grip and why. It is also
one of the reasons that there is little in the way of a programmatic response
to nihilism in Nietzsche’s texts. The failure of desire and its experiential
manifestations in everyday life – boredom, loneliness, and fatigue – are
very hard to diagnose, and extremely hard to respond to. (The pathos
of romantic failure, the ever-possible sudden disappearance of desire,
the role of illusion in sustaining any such romantic desire, and the total
impossibility of any rational translation of desire into a calculus of mu-
tual satisfaction are major metaphorical variations on the theme of eros
throughout Nietzsche’s writings.
39
) And again, sometimes, the extraordi-
narily enigmatic metaphors and images used by Nietzsche – the eternal
return of the same, the spirit of gravity, the pale criminal, a Zoroastrian
prophet, a gay science – all seemed mostly to provoke what he has said we
need: “neediness” itself; the expectation of meaning, and therewith alone
Love and death in Nietzsche 23
the sustenance of a “noble” human desire, a new kind of victory led by
Nietzsche over our present “weariness with man.”
But, in the small amount of space left in this chapter, it is possible
to note several guideposts in any further reflection on Nietzsche and the
problem of desire. There is, for example, a strict condition that he places
on any such new engagement with the world, one that right away should
dampen enthusiasm for a radically aesthetic or rhetorical reading. The
second paragraph of The Gay Science contains a great contempt for “the
majority” who do not have an “intellectual conscience,” who
[do] not consider it contemptible to believe this or that and to live accordingly,
without first having given themselves an account of the final and most certain
reasons pro and con, and without even troubling themselves about such reasons
afterward.
40
He is describing here a historical situation peculiar to “us,” an aspect of
what we have inherited from the Socratic and modern Enlightenment,
but without which we cannot now live, even though it might have been
otherwise. An earlier formulation fromDaybreak makes the historical point
clear while returning directly to the erotic images. Nietzsche notes that “our
passion,” “the drive to knowledge,”
has become too strong for us to be able to want happiness without knowledge
[or to be able to want the happiness] of a strong, firmly rooted delusion; even to
imagine such a state of things is painful to us! Restless discovering and divining has
such an attraction for us, and has grown as indispensable to us as is to the lover his
unrequited love, which he would at no price relinquish for a state of indifference –
perhaps, indeed, we too are unrequited lovers.
41
In fact, the possibility of such an unrequited love, especially the pos-
sibility of sustaining it, turns out to be one of the best images for the
question Nietzsche wants to ask about nihilism and our response. It is as
consummate and all-encompassing a summation of Nietzsche’s chief ques-
tion as any other offered. It suggests exactly the position that Nietzsche’s
last men would find baffling and contemptible – always wanting more,
in excess of what can be achieved, for which no useful reason can be
given – and that Nietzsche clearly affirms as noble, beautiful, or in
the classical sense, kalos k’agathos. However, it also immediately suggests
an escape from one archetypal modernist pathology into another, from
Dostoevskian melancholy to Proustian hysteria, in which it is only the un-
satisfiability of a desire that sustains desire andtherewithlife itself, a libidinal
cathexis to life and life’s project’s.
42
Just as one could quote Freud’s clas-
sic account of melancholy to explain the madman’s pathos, these remarks
24 robert pi ppi n
about endless erotic striving bring to mind a typical analytic definition
of hysteria as in Juan-David Nasio’s book, Hysteria from Freud to Lacan:
“the hysteric unconsciously invents a fantasy scenario designed to prove to
himself and to the world that there is no pleasure except the kind that is
unfulfilled.”
43
In his own language, given this unavoidable intellectual conscience and
the impossibility of living whatever lie seems most beautiful or pleasing,
the question he wants to ask is: what is the alternative to “last man” con-
tentment, itself quite a consistent turn to a “this-worldly” form of life? By
“alternative,” we mean not only an engagement we can care about, but
one which also looks like some form of this-worldly dissatisfaction, pro-
voked by some not-being that we strive to cancel, to overcome, a form
of self-overcoming without asceticism or transcendence. We want a pic-
ture of striving without the illusion of a determinate, natural lack that we
can fill. To anyone with an intellectual conscience, it will have to feel as
if there just can be no human whole, not as proposed by Plato or Aris-
totle or Christianity or Schiller or Hegel, and so forth, and yet it can’t
just “not matter” that there can be no such harmony or completion, be-
cause all of the ways we have come to think about such desire start out
from these assumptions about caused needs or an incompleteness that we
strive to complete. The “last men” are atheists, scientific secularists, anti-
metaphysicians, and naturalists in ethics. (They look, that is, like many
of the standard interpretations of Nietzsche.) But they provoke only con-
tempt in Nietzsche. (Contrary to his remarks about the last men, there is
always detectable a grudging admiration in Nietzsche for ascetics, priests,
Platonists, and so forth. They “made life interesting,” made it life, inspired
and sustained desire.) Is there an other way, then, of thinking about this
activity?
44
This is a hard question to answer, not only because it is so abstract,
but because it is the sort of question addressed more regularly by modern,
romantic, and confessional poetry than by philosophy. Sometimes, many
times actually, Nietzsche suggests that a good deal of the answer depends
on him, on whether he can portray the heroism and beauty of such fu-
tile attempts well enough, can inspire a sense of nobility not dependent
on guarantees, payoffs, natural completions, benefits, and probabilities.
Looked at broadly, though, the historical answer to Nietzsche’s question is
clearly negative; the experiment with him at the center did not take; his
“truth” could not be successfully incorporated. He did not become a new
Socrates, and his cultural and historical impact has been much more as a
kind of “dissolving fluid,” a value-debunker, an immoralist, than as any
prophet for a new form of life.
Love and death in Nietzsche 25
So, while Nietzsche may have avoided the melancholy of someone inter-
minably mourning the death of God, only to have retreated into a hysterical
fantasy, convinced that all life is like Tantalus’ plight, or, to use his earlier
termof art, simply tragic, the positive, erotic side of the project he proposes
is also on view, and remains suggestive, tantalizing in the way he probably
intends. This is the last erotic “guidepost” I want to mention, and it can
only be mentioned here. At section 276 of The Gay Science, he writes:
I, too, shall say what it is that I wish from myself today, and what was the first
thought to run across my heart this year – what thought shall be for me the reason,
warranty and sweetness of my life henceforth. I want to learn more and more to
see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who makes
things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage
war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse
those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on
the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.
45
notes
1. Nietzsche, The Gay Science (GS), trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage,
1974).
2. Nietzsche is obviously suggesting that this “death” is not rightly understood as
the inability to believe a proposition. (And, if that is so, if the phenomenon is
more like what the religious call “losing faith,” then the original, being religious
or having faith, cannot be originally and solely a matter of belief.)
3. There is, of course, a “romantic” sense of craziness, in which it is the unusual
depth or profundity of the insight itself that drives one crazy, a successor notion
to the mythic belief that God may not be viewed by humans. His absence
apparently cannot be borne either, on such a romantic view. (It is also a view
of Nietzsche’s own insanity that has long fascinated French scholars. I discuss
these aspects of the passage in “Nietzsche and the Melancholy of Modernity,”
Social Research, vol. 66, no. 2 [Summer, 1999], pp. 495–520. This introductory
section is a summary of some aspects of that paper.)
4. GS, p. 279, translation modified.
5. See “Nietzsche and the Melancholy of Modernity.”
6. Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. Walter
Kaufmann (New York: The Modern Library, 1968), p. 643.
7. I acknowledge here a debt to Irad Kimhi for several valuable conversations
about this problem in particular.
8. GS, section 377, p. 340, translation modified.
9. Thus Spoke Zarathustra (TSZ), trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking,
1966), p. 59. I have discussed the relevance of this problem to the problem of
philosophers as a “post-metaphysical,” even post-philosophical, type in “The
Erotic Nietzsche: Philosophers Without Philosophy,” forthcoming in a volume
of conference papers to be published by the University of Chicago Press. I rely
there on many of the same quotations and analysis as here.
26 robert pi ppi n
10. Nietzsche, The Will to Power (WP), trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York:
Vintage, 1968), section 12a, p. 13.
11. One reason why Nietzsche’s thought has become more and more relevant: the
fact that “the West” now lives for the first time since the advent of political
modernity without either the specter or the beacon (depending on one’s point
of view) of any revolutionary aspiration.
12. Nietzsche, WP, section 22, p. 17.
13. Ibid., p. 13 (my italics). This is like a passage from The Twilight of the Idols:
“Whoever does not know how to lay his will into things, at least lays some
meaning into them: that means that he has faith that they already obey a will”
(Twilight of the Idols [TI ], trans. R. J. Hollingdale [Baltimore: Penguin, 1968],
ch. i, p. 24); and compare, “That it is the measure of strength to what extent
we can admit to ourselves, without perishing, the merely apparent character,
the necessity of lies” (WP, section 15, p. 15) and “It is a measure of the degree of
strength of will to what extent one can do without meaning in things, to what
extent one can endure to live in a meaningless world because one organizes a
small portion of it oneself ” (WP, section 585, p. 318).
14. Nietzsche, GS, section 345, p. 285.
15. Moreover, that there are no practical consequences, and hardly any nihilis-
tic consequences, from any intellectual disillusionment is itself an important
claim that Nietzsche wants to make and defend directly. Anyone who thinks
that some sort of action would therewith be required or rendered impossible
is himself willing that consequence, creating it, not inferring it. As he says
frequently throughout his published and unpublished works: “One interpre-
tation has collapsed; but because it was considered the interpretation it now
seems as if there were no meaning at all in existence, as if everything were in
vain” (Nietzsche, WP, section 55, p. 35).
16. For a more detailed discussion of the category of “psychology” as employed by
Nietzsche, see my “Morality as Psychology; Psychology as Morality: Nietzsche,
Eros, and Clumsy Lovers,” in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s
Prelude to Philosophy’s Future, ed. Richard Schacht (Cambridge University
Press, 2001), pp. 79–99.
17. Beyond Good and Evil (BGE), trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage,
1989), p. 1.
18. TSZ, pp. 10, 11.
19. On the Genealogy of Morals, in Nietzsche, Ecce Homo /On the Genealogy
of Morals (OGM), trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1989),
p. 15.
20. See my “Gay Science and Corporeal Knowledge,” Nietzsche-Studien 29 (2000),
pp. 136–52.
21. Nietzsche, TSZ, p. 17.
22. BGE, p. 2.
23. Nietzsche, GS, p. 117.
24. OGM, p. 284. Trying to “refute” an ideal is called an “idealism” (a faith in the
autonomy of ideals) and is rejected.
Love and death in Nietzsche 27
25. See on this topic the discussion by Jonathan Lear, Love and its Place in Nature
(New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1990), pp. 132–55.
26. Nietzsche, GS, pp. 286.
27. Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge Univer-
sity Press, 1983), p. 163.
28. Nietzsche, GS, p. 184.
29. Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge Uni-
versity Press, 1986), p. 20, translation modified.
30. Compare this passage from The Twilight of the Idols. “The genius in work and
deed is necessarily a squanderer [Verschwender]: that he squanders himself,
that is his greatness. The instinct of self-preservation is suspended, as it were;
the overpowering pressure of outpouring forces forbids him any such care and
caution. People call this “self-sacrifice” and praise his “heroism,” his indiffer-
ence to his own well-being, his devotion to an idea, a great cause, a fatherland:
without exception, misunderstandings. He flows out, he overflows, he uses
himself up; he does not spare himself – and this is a calamitous, involuntary
fatality, no less than a river’s flooding the land. Yet because so much is owed
to such explosives, much has also been given them in return: for example
a higher kind of morality. After all, that is the way of human gratitude: it
misunderstands its benefactors” (ch. i x, p. 98) (translation modified).
31. Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters, trans.
Reginald Snell (New York: Unger, 1965), p. 132. Cf. especially the perceptive
use made of Schiller by Volker Gerhardt in “Zu Nietzsches fr¨ uhem Programm
einer ¨ aesthetischen Rechtfertigung der Welt,” in Pathos und Distanz (Stuttgart:
Reclam, 1988), especially p. 67.
32. Nietzsche, WP, section 845, p. 445.
33. Ibid., section 846, pp. 445–6.
34. Ibid., section 843, p. 445.
35. Nietzsche, GS, section 370, p. 328. See also the Second Edition Preface to
GS, where Nietzsche distinguishes a philosophy based on need from one that
understands itself as simply a “beautiful luxury,” the “voluptuousness of a
triumphant gratitude” (pp. 33–4).
36. G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford
University Press, 1991), p. 8.
37. Cf. chapter 6 of Lear, Love and its Place in Nature. I consider this position on
individuality (as a social and psychological achievement) an essential theme in
post-Kantian German philosophy. See my “What is the Question for Which
Hegel’s ‘Theory of Recognition’ is the Answer?’, ” European Journal of Philo-
sophy 8 (2) (August, 2000), pp. 155–72.
38. “Glauben und Wissen,” Werke, vol. ii (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1970), p. 432.
39. See my “Morality as Psychology; Psychology as Morality: Nietzsche, Eros,
and Clumsy Lovers,” and “Deceit, Desire, and Democracy: Nietzsche on
Modern Eros,” International Studies in Philosophy 32 (3) (March, 2000),
pp. 61–70.
40. Nietzsche, GS, p. 76.
28 robert pi ppi n
41. Nietzsche, Daybreak, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge University Press,
1982), p. 184.
42. Proust is relevant in another sense too. The “death of God,” let us say, does
not for Proust occasion a kind of melancholy or despair that the narrative
structure without which a self, an identity, would not be possible has lost all
authority. The problem is rather an excess of meaning; there are too many
possible, possibly authoritative narratives, one of the reasons why Marcel has
such a tough time starting to write.
43. This possibility was suggested to me in a commentary on an earlier version of
this chapter by Eric Santner. I owe the reference to Nasio’s book to Santner:
Hysteria from Freud to Lacan: The Splendid Child of Psychoanalysis (Northvale,
N.J.: J. Aronson, 1997), p. 5. I would want ultimately to be able to showthat the
situation Nietzsche describes is more fruitfully understood as much more like
Schiller’s picture of “useless” and “excess” aesthetic experience (unsatisfiable
because not a lack or a need) than Freud on hysterics, but that must remain a
promissory note.
44. What determines whether this sense of our own eros is dispiriting and ener-
vating and hopeless, simply tiring, or a great field of possibilities, inspiring,
or, in one of his favorite terms for it, “innocent,” is a central question. (To
see being itself as innocent is to see this surfeit and endlessness not as morally
dispiriting, but as not morally anything. It would be to be able to think of it as
the mere play of an innocent child, Heraclitus, pais paizon, in such a way that
to “blame” the world would feel like blaming an innocently destructive and
disruptive child.)
45. Nietzsche, GS, p. 223.
chapter 3
After onto-theology: philosophy between
science and religion
Gianni Vattimo
The twentieth century seemed to close with the end of the phe-
nomenon that has been called secularization. If, just to draw a superfi-
cial parallel, the nineteenth century seemed to end with the triumph of
science and technology (think of the spirit of the belle ´epoque, though
overly mythologized, which already bore the signs of a spleen that burst
into viewin the Kulturkritik of the first decades of the twentieth century), so
the twentieth century, the old millennium, seemed to end with the renewal
of religion. To be sure, religions (I am thinking primarily of the great Abra-
hamic religions, and among themespecially Christianity and Islam) are not
being reborn today. Their new visibility has to do, at least in Europe, with
the weight of religious factors in the fall of communist regimes, and the dra-
matic nature of many ecological problems (broadly defined, ranging from
environmental pollution to genetic manipulation) that have risen from the
application of the life sciences. In other words, while religions (in accor-
dance with the Enlightenment and positivist view) were seen for decades as
residual forms of experience, destined to diminish with the imposition of
“modern” forms of life (technical and scientific rationalization of social life,
political democracy, and so on), now they appear once again as possible
guides for the future. The authority by which the Pope and other repre-
sentatives of the world religions speak on the international stage cannot be
explained by the new ability they have to talk to multitudes through the
mass media. The “end of modernity,” or in any case its crisis, has brought
about the dissolution of the main philosophical theories that claimed
to have done away with religion: positivist scientism, and Hegelian –
later, Marxist – historicism. Today there are no good philosophical rea-
sons to be an atheist, or in any case, to dismiss religion.
In modernity, atheistic rationalism has taken two forms that have often
been blended: the belief that in the experimental sciences of nature lies
an exlusive claim to the truth, and faith in the progress of history toward
a condition of full emancipation. These two kinds of rationalism have
29
30 gi anni vatti mo
often been mixed, for example, in the positivist conception of progress.
Each perspective assigned only a provisional place to religion, which was
regarded as an error destined to be dismissed by scientific rationality, or a
moment to be overcome by reason’s self-unfolding toward fuller and truer
forms of self-consciousness. Today, both belief in the objective truth of
the experimental sciences and faith in the progress of reason toward full
transparency appear to have been overcome.
By now, all of us are used to the fact that disenchantment with the
world has generated a radical disenchantment with the very idea of disen-
chantment. In other words, demythification has finally turned against itself,
thereby acknowledging that the ideal of the elimination of myth is a myth
too. Yet it is not altogether clear whether this means that, having eliminated
all myths, we shall easily get rid of the myth of demythification too, mov-
ing then toward new stages of rationality. This is how Richard Rorty seems
to conceive of this process, though in different terms, when defining our
epoch as a post-philosophical one, analogous to the post-religious epoch
that followed the triumph of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century.
One could object to Rorty that his belief is still underlined by a subtle
historicist faith in the linearity and irreversibility of progress: we overcame
religion in the past, and now we shall overcome philosophy, according to
a linear course of development. However, if we were not de facto placed
before the visible renewal of religion as a social and cultural phenomenon,
this “logical” objection would have no value. My point is not to embrace
again a historicist faith in the rationality of the real, by putting forth the ar-
gument that if religions “win,” then it means that they must be true. Rather,
it is to be able to hear the “signs of the times,” to use an expression from
the Gospels: once the social and political renewal of religion is associated
with the crisis of the rationalist ideologies that in modernity were the basis
of atheism, these signs acquire an extraordinary meaning. This ensemble
of phenomena is not limited to the ethnic-religious wars fought all over the
world (and which cannot be explained exclusively in economic terms), or to
the extraordinary authority recently acquired by the great religious leaders
vis-` a-vis political figures. This picture is also partly informed by the new
permeability of contemporary philosophy to myth, and to the substance of
religious traditions.
Today (continental) philosophers speak increasingly, and without pro-
viding explicit justification, about angels, redemption, and various mytho-
logical figures. This is a practice that, as far as classical mythology is
concerned, is clearly promoted by psychoanalysis. Jungian psychoanaly-
sis, in particular, speaks explicitly of a new polytheism; but even in classical
After onto-theology 31
Freudian theory, the relation with mythological figures cannot be con-
ceived merely as a recourse to metaphors that must be reduced finally to
their “proper meaning.” Other sources for the philosophical recovery of
mythical and religious terminology are thinkers such as Rosenzweig and
Benjamin, thoughwiththem(at least insofar as the former is concerned) this
recovery was explicitly justified on theoretical grounds. Instead in today’s
culture these concepts, figures, and metaphors are used widely, taken for
granted, and implicitly justified by the fact that the relation of philosophy
with poetry is no longer conceived in antagonistic terms, or by the destruc-
tion of the boundary between metaphor and its “proper meaning,” which
seems to be the main consequence of the end of metaphysics announced by
Heidegger. At the very end, the introduction of mystic and religious terms
in philosophy, without an explicit theoretical elaboration, seems justified,
albeit implicitly, by the new relationship that philosophy (especially after
Heidegger) claims to establish with poetry, and with aesthetic experience
more generally.
In sum, we see in our social and political life the renewed authority of
the world religions, a renewal that has its basis in the actual importance of
religion in bringing down communism, and in the emergence of broadly
defined “apocalyptic” issues, such as those linked to fundamental resources
for life – genetic manipulation and so on. At the same time, in literate
culture, that is, in philosophical and critical reflections (including literary
criticism), the new, pervasive presence of mythical and religious themes and
terminologies depends perhaps on the newlegitimacy granted to metaphor-
ical discourse by the end of metaphysics. I employ metaphor here in the
sense intended by Nietzsche inhis great youthful fragment, “
¨
Uber Wahrheit
und L¨ uge in aussermoralischen Sinn.”
1
Recall that in this text Nietzsche conceives of all knowledge of the world
in metaphorical terms:
2
we meet a thing in the world and form an image
of it in our mind – the first metaphor, that is, transposition; then we
invent a sound to point to that image – the second metaphor; and so on.
Thus all language is metaphorical. Yet why is it that at a certain point
in time the distinction is made between metaphors and “proper” terms?
It is, Nietzsche argues, because an individual or group imposes its own
metaphors upon all the others as the only legitimate, acceptable, and true
ones. Thus the nation-state speaks a language, whereas dialects are “only”
dialects. In stating universally valid propositions, reason speaks primarily
the language of “proper” terms, while private languages – including the
language of poetry, myth, and so on – are reduced to the status of “pure
metaphors.”
32 gi anni vatti mo
This argument of Nietzsche’s, to some extent, can be found in Heidegger
as well. One may say that on the basis of his thought, the distinction be-
tween metaphor and proper meaning is less the effect of an authoritar-
ian imposition of a certain language by a group than the imposition of a
claim to objectivity which, for Heidegger, is today advanced by the lan-
guage of experimental science. According to Heidegger, the truth may be
thought in terms of correspondence between proposition and thing, but
only within a preliminary opening (Offenheit, Weltoffenheit), which in turn
is not guaranteed by any verifiable correspondence (which would require
another opening, and so on ad infinitum). The opening (we might also
speak, for clarity’s sake, of a paradigm) within which scientific propositions
are verified or falsified cannot lay claim to the authority of the “proper
meaning”: it is a metaphor, and must be recognized as such. However, for
Heidegger, it is not as the result of a causal game of forces that the various
metaphorical languages have imposed themselves as true and proper, nor
can their relationship be arbitrarily modified. In other words, the fact that
the language of scientific objectivity and of the experimental method rules
as the exclusive truth of modernity is not the effect of a pure game of forces,
which could be changed by a human decision. The event of being (Ereignis)
on which the multiple openings depend (that is, the coming to the domi-
nation of the metaphorical systems) is a game of
¨
Ubereignen and Ent-eignen
(transpropriation and disappropriation). But there is still, fundamentally,
a sort of “property” or authenticity (Eigentlichkeit), which coincides with
the history of being (though this genitive has not only a subjective sense,
but also an inseparable objective one).
I leave aside the many objections that could be raised to Heidegger’s
account. However, it is important to underscore that already here, in the
difference between Nietzschean metaphors and Heideggerian events or
“openings,” there are the premises for further developing the argument I
want to make, leading up to the theme of secularization. Metaphysics (or
modernity, if you will) does not end because we have found a truer truth,
which disavows it and finally offers us the true meaning of being. For
Heidegger (I shall limit myself here to a few remarks), metaphysics ends
when it reaches its highest peak in the universal mastery of technology and
of the will to power. In fact, metaphysics is the forgetting of the ontological
difference, the identification of true being with the present, quantifiable,
and verifiable objectivity. In late modernity, this is analogous to the objec-
tivation of the whole by a subject who, through techno-science, actively
constructs the world rather than letting it be. In the end, however, even
the constructivist subject becomes pure, manipulable material, according
After onto-theology 33
to a dizzy circularity that belongs to the “total organization” of which
Adorno spoke (which, for Heidegger, is the Ge-stell, the ensemble of stellen).
Metaphysics confutes itself precisely insofar as it establishes itself universally.
It somewhat resembles Nietzsche’s God, who dies whenthe faithful, inorder
to respect his command not to lie, unmask himas a lie that can no longer be
maintained and is no longer necessary. Metaphysics, having started with the
idea that truth is objectivity, ends up with the “discovery” that objectivity
is posited by the subject, who in turn becomes a manipulable object. The
effect of all this is that metaphysics disavows itself precisely when it fulfills
itself, reducing all being to objectivity. From this moment on, we can no
longer think of being as an object that is given before the eyes of reason –
at least because, in doing so, we would deny that our very existence – made
up of projects, memories, hopes, and decisions – is “being” (since it is never
pure “objectivity”).
This process is correctly referredtoas the history of nihilism. As Nietzsche
writes in the G¨ otzend¨ ammerung, “the real world has become a fable.”
3
In
other words, we all know by now – though this, too, is not objective
knowledge – that what we call reality is a game of interpretations, none of
which may claim to be a pure and objective mirror of the world, that is,
a privileged knowledge of the “proper” meaning which would reduce all
other senses to the status of poetic or mythical metaphors.
This is the background against which, in today’s culture, a kind of peace –
or at least a truce – is established between philosophy, science, and religion.
In Italy, we have a proverb that says “with the saints in church, with the
knaves in the tavern.” For us, here, this means that there are many lan-
guages, many “language games,” for experiencing the world, each of which
has legitimacy, provided it respects the boundaries of its own rules. Just as
the rules of religious or ethical language differ, so different sciences have
their specific methods for the verification and falsification of statements.
But can we really be satisfied with this “liberalization,” given, after all,
that it corresponds all too well to the specialization and division of labor
characteristic of modernity? Is it true that the liberal and pluralistic per-
spective forgoes the recognition of a privileged, objectively true language?
Let me make an observation that should give us food for thought. We know
many philosophies that speak of myth, but not many myths that speak of
philosophy. What I mean is that, according to the liberal and pluralistic
perspective, there is still a discourse which distributes the roles in the play,
and assigns to other discourses their proper roles: it is precisely the philoso-
pher’s discourse (Nietzsche and Heidegger, but also Foucault, Putnam,
Rorty, Goodman, and the theories of the paradigms) that advances a theory
34 gi anni vatti mo
of the interpretive character of every truth. In turn, is the thesis concerning
truth as interpretation – that is, the idea that every statement can only be
verified or falsified within a horizon (opening, paradigm, language) which
in its turn cannot be verified – an objective description of a state of affairs?
It seems to me that here we must complete Nietzsche’s nihilism with
Heidegger’s ontology, at least in the sense I have suggested this ontology
might be interpreted. The thesis concerning truth as interpretation is noth-
ing but an interpretation – namely, a response to a message which comes
fromthe history of our culture as reconstructedby Nietzsche andHeidegger,
and more or less explicitly by the other philosophers I have mentioned
above (for example, consider Rorty’s great book, Philosophy and the Mirror
of Nature
4
). This reconstruction is already an interpretation, though not
an arbitrary one, insofar as it claims to be a reasonable way of placing one-
self in the late-modern condition of existence. Its good reasons include:
the end of Eurocentrism (which saw history as a linear process in which
Europe and its culture were the most advanced stage); the multiplication
of scientific languages which cannot be reduced to a unity (for exam-
ple, the non-Euclidean geometries); the discovery by psychoanalysis of the
“secondary” nature of consciousness (thus it becomes impossible to con-
ceive of an ultimate evidence in the manner of the Cartesian Cogito); the
increasing difficulty of linking together the entities of which physics speaks
with the things of our daily experience (so that even physics seems to have
become an agent of de-realization – Entwirklichung, Entrealisierung); and
even the rise of the democratic state, which removes any possibility of
grounding politics and the law upon rigid rational schemes.
My thesis – or better, hypothesis – is that if philosophical pluralismtakes
its status as an interpretation seriously, it encounters once again the Western
religious tradition, namely, the Judeo-Christian tradition. Nihilism does
not open the dialogue between philosophy and religion only in the sense
that in the absence of the great atheist rationalist systems of the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries (the Enlightenment, historicism, positivism, and
Marxism) there are no longer good philosophical reasons to be atheists.
If we were to confine ourselves to this type of liberalism, we would really
find ourselves in a general condition of irrationalism, where, according to
Feyerabend’s famous expression, everything goes – within its own limits
(but who sets these limits?). By contrast, we get to truth as interpretation
by responding to the history that Heidegger calls the history of being, and
which it seems reasonable to read as a history of weakening.
If today the world is given to us as a game of interpretations, this is not
because we have understood – more acutely than Aristotle, Parmenides,
After onto-theology 35
and Descartes – that things are objectively so. Rather, it is because being
itself, which is never a pure object placed before us, the subjects, gives itself
in a less peremptory, weakened form. Does such a thought have any sense?
It seems to me that it is a way of “translating,” in terms that are themselves
weak, the core of the Judeo-Christian message. This message speaks of an
occurrence of being, which has a history, and this history is the history
of creation (God creates a being other than himself, a being who is free
even to deny God) and of salvation (God becomes man in abasement and
humiliation, and dissolves his own transcendence – the event that St. Paul
calls kenosis).
To sum up the argument in a rather provocative fashion: the history of
being is the history of nihilism, that is, the same history of salvation that
we have come to know from the Bible. Here the risk of irrationalism of the
liberal and pluralistic perspectives encounters a limit: nihilism is not just
the unleashing of an interminable conflict where there are no good reasons,
only forces that impose themselves with more or less violence. In the game
of interpretations, it is possible to distinguish between valid and arbitrary
interpretations, and the criterion for doing so is precisely the weakening of
strong structures, of the peremptoriness of objectivity, of sovereign will, of
the overpowering force that arbitrarily establishes what is truth and what
is a lie. We have not completely lost reality in the fable, for reality is the
history of the dissolution of the real as peremptory objectivity, or to use a
religious term, the history of secularization.
Indeed, secularization is not merely the dissolution of the sacred, the
estrangement from the divine, the loss of religiosity – as it is usually con-
ceived – a path to be retraced in reverse by believers in order to recover the
truth of the original biblical message.
Secularization is, more fundamentally, an essential aspect of the history
of salvation, as other modern philosophers saw, and long before them too,
Joachim of Fiore. If the Bible speaks of being as an event, and of God as
the one who abandons his own transcendence, first by creating the world,
and then by redeeming it through the Incarnation and the Cross – through
kenosis – then the desacralizing phenomena characteristic of modernity are
the authentic aspects of the history of salvation. To quote another Italian
saying: “Thank God I am an atheist.” Biblical revelation liberates us from
“natural religion,” superstitions, and the idea of the divine as a mysterious
power which lies absolutely beyond our comprehension and therefore is
irrational, and to which we would have to succumb, accepting quietly the
most varied dogmatic and moral disciplines imposed by the authority of
churches.
36 gi anni vatti mo
How, then, are we to configure the relation between philosophy, religion,
andscience alludedto inthe title of this chapter? Philosophy is not reducible
to religion; rather, it has to rethink itself as the secularization in actu of the
religious message of the West. Philosophy finds in the common thread
of reducing the peremptoriness of being the criterion for looking at the
sciences and technologies that depend on it. These – the technologies that
make existence easier, and the more specialized and fragmented fields of
knowledge that cannot be reduced to a unitary image of the real – no longer
appear as mere tools contrived by man to attain an ever more secure survival
in the midst of nature. Rather, they too must be interpreted as moments
of a history of emancipation that goes beyond the purely biological sphere,
and perhaps may be called a history of spirit.
notes
1. Translated as “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” in Philosophy and
Truth: Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870’s, trans. Daniel
Brazeale (Atlantic Highlands, n.j.: Humanities Press, 1979), pp. 79–97.
2. Ibid., p. 82.
3. See Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, trans. Duncan Large (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 20.
4. (Princeton University Press, 1981).
chapter 4
Anti-clericalism and atheism
Richard Rorty
Some day, intellectual historians may remark that the twentieth century
was the one in which the philosophy professors began to stop asking bad
questions – questions like “What really exists?” “What are the scope and
limits of human knowledge?” and “How does language hook up with re-
ality?” These questions assume that philosophy can be done ahistorically.
They presuppose the bad idea that inspection of our present practices can
give us an understanding of the “structure” of all possible human practices.
“Structure” is just another word for “essence.” The most important
movements in twentieth-century philosophy have been anti-essentialist.
These movements have mocked the ambitions of their predecessors, posi-
tivism and phenomenology, to do what Plato and Aristotle had hoped to
do – sift out the changing appearances fromthe enduringly real, the merely
contingent from the truly necessary. Recent examples of this mockery are
Jacques Derrida’s Margins of Philosophy
1
and Bas van Fraassen’s The Empir-
ical Stance.
2
These books stand on the shoulders of Heidegger’s Being and
Time,
3
Dewey’s Reconstruction in Philosophy,
4
and Wittgenstein’s Philosoph-
ical Investigations.
5
All these anti-essentialist books urge us to fight free of
the old Greek distinctions between the apparent and the real, and between
the necessary and the contingent.
One effect of the rise of anti-essentialism and of historicism is insou-
ciance about what Lecky famously called “the warfare between science and
theology.” A growing tendency to accept what Terry Pinkard calls “Hegel’s
doctrine of the sociality of reason,” and to abandon what Habermas calls
“subject-centered reason” for what he calls “communicative reason,” has
weakened the grip of the idea that scientific beliefs are formed rationally,
whereas religious beliefs are not. The anti-positivist tenor of post-Kuhnian
philosophy of science has combined with the work of post-Heideggerian
theologians to make intellectuals more sympathetic to William James’s
claim that natural science and religion need not compete with one
another.
37
38 ri chard rorty
These developments have made the word “atheist” less popular than it
used to be. Philosophers who do not go to church are now less inclined
to describe themselves as believing that there is no God. They are more
inclined to use such expressions as Max Weber’s “religiously unmusical.”
One can be tone-deaf when it comes to religion just as one can be oblivious
to the charms of music. People who find themselves quite unable to take
an interest in the question of whether God exists have no right to be
contemptuous of people who believe passionately in his existence, or of
people who deny it with equal passion. Nor do either of the latter have a
right to be contemptuous of those to whom the dispute seems pointless.
Philosophy resembles music and religion in this respect. Many students –
those who walk out of the final examination in Philosophy 101 determined
never to waste their time with another philosophy course, and unable to
understand howpeople can take that sort of thing seriously – are philosoph-
ically unmusical. Some philosophers still think that this attitude toward the
discipline to which they have devoted their lives is evidence of an intellec-
tual, and perhaps even a moral, flaw. But most are by now content to shrug
off an inability to take philosophical issues seriously as no more impor-
tant, when evaluating a person’s intellect or character, than an inability
to read fiction, or to grasp mathematical relationships, or to learn foreign
languages.
This increasedtolerance for people who simply brushaside questions that
were once thought to be of the highest importance is sometimes described
as the adoption of an “aestheticist” attitude. This description is especially
popular among those who findsuchtolerance deplorable, andwho diagnose
its spread as a symptom of a dangerous spiritual illness (“skepticism” or
“relativism” or something equally appalling). But the term “aesthetic” in
such contexts presupposes the standard Kantian cognitive–moral–aesthetic
distinction. That distinction is itself one of the principal targets of anti-
essentialist, historicist, philosophizing.
Kantians think that once you have given up hope of attaining universal
agreement on an issue you have declared it “merely a matter of taste.” But
this description strikes anti-essentialist philosophers as just as bad as the
Kantian idea that being rational is a matter of following rules. Philosophers
who do not believe that there are any such rules reject Kantian pigeonhol-
ing in favor of questions about what context certain beliefs, or practices,
or books can best be put in, for what particular purposes. Once the Kan-
tian trichotomy is abandoned, the work of theologians like Bultmann and
Tillich no longer looks like a reduction of the “cognitive” claims of religion
to “merely” aesthetic claims.
Anti-clericalism and atheism 39
In this new climate of philosophical opinion, philosophy professors are
no longer expectedto provide answers to a questionthat exercisedbothKant
and Hegel: Howcanthe worldviewof natural science be fitted together with
the complex of religious and moral ideas which were central to European
civilization? We know what it is like to fit physics together with chemistry
and chemistry together with biology, but that sort of fitting is inappropriate
when thinking about the interface between art and morality, or between
politics and jurisprudence, or betweenreligionand natural science. All these
spheres of culture continually interpenetrate and interact. There is no need
for an organizational chart that specifies, once and for all, when they are
permitted to do so. Nor is there any need to attempt to reach an ahistorical,
God’s-eye, overview of the relations between all human practices. We can
settle for the more limited task Hegel called “holding our time in thought.”
Given all these changes, it is not surprising that only two sorts of philoso-
phers are still tempted to use the word “atheist” to describe themselves. The
first sort are those who still think that belief in the divine is an empirical
hypothesis, and that modern science has given better explanations of the
phenomena God was once used to explain. Philosophers of this sort are
delighted whenever an ingenuous natural scientist claims that some new
scientific discovery provides evidence for the truth of theism, for they find
it easy to debunk this claim. They can do so simply by trotting out the same
sorts of arguments about the irrelevance of any particular empirical state
of affairs to the existence of an atemporal and non-spatial being as were
used by Hume and Kant against the natural theologians of the eighteenth
century.
I agree with Hume and Kant that the notion of “empirical evidence” is
irrelevant to talk about God,
6
but this point bears equally against atheism
and theism. President Bush made a good point when he said, in a speech
designed to please Christian fundamentalists, that “atheism is a faith” be-
cause it is “subject to neither confirmation nor refutation by means of
argument or evidence.” But the same goes, of course, for theism. Neither
those who affirm nor those who deny the existence of God can plausibly
claimthat they have evidence for their views. Being religious, in the modern
West, does not have much to do with the explanation of specific observable
phenomena.
But there is a second sort of philosopher who describes himself or herself
as an atheist. These are the ones who use “atheism” as a rough synonym
for “anti-clericalism.” I now wish that I had used the latter term on the
occasions when I have used the former to characterize my own view. For
anti-clericalism is a political view, not an epistemological or metaphysical
40 ri chard rorty
one. It is the view that ecclesiastical institutions, despite all the good they
do – despite all the comfort they provide to those in need or in despair – are
dangerous to the health of democratic societies.
7
Whereas the philosophers
who claim that atheism, unlike theism, is backed up by evidence would say
that religious belief is irrational , contemporary secularists like myself are
content to say that it is politically dangerous. On our view, religion is un-
objectionable as long as it is privatized – as long as ecclesiastical institutions
do not attempt to rally the faithful behind political proposals, and as long
as believers and unbelievers agree to follow a policy of live-and-let-live.
Some of those who hold this view, such as myself, had no religious upbring-
ing and have never developed any attachment to any religious tradition. We
are the ones who call ourselves “religiously unmusical.” But others, such as
the distinguished contemporary Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, have
used their philosophical learning and sophistication to argue for the rea-
sonableness of a return to the religiosity of their youth. This argument is
laid out in Vattimo’s moving and original book Credere di credere.
8
His re-
sponse to the question “Do you now once again believe in God?” amounts
to saying: I find myself becoming more and more religious, so I suppose I
must believe in God. But I think that Vattimo might have done better to
say: I am becoming more and more religious, and so coming to have what
many people would call a belief in God, but I am not sure that the term
“belief ” is the right description of what I have.
The point of such a reformulation would be to take account of our
conviction that if a belief is true, everybody ought to share it. But Vattimo
does not think that all human beings ought to be theists, much less that
they should all be Catholics. He follows William James in disassociating
the question “Have I a right to be religious?” from the question “Should
everybody believe in the existence of God?” Just insofar as one accepts the
familiar Hume/Kant critique of natural theology, but disagrees with the
positivistic claim that the explanatory successes of modern science have
rendered belief in God irrational, one will be inclined to say that religiosity
is not happily characterized by the term “belief.” So one should welcome
Vattimo’s attempt to move religion out of the epistemic arena, an arena in
which it seems subject to challenge by natural science.
Such attempts are, of course, not new. Kant’s suggestion that we view
God as a postulate of pure practical reason rather than an explanation
of empirical phenomena cleared the way for thinkers like Schleiermacher
to develop what Nancy Frankenberry has called “a theology of symbolic
forms.” It also encouraged thinkers like Kierkegaard, Barth, and Levinas
Anti-clericalism and atheism 41
to make God wholly other – beyond the reach, not only of evidence and
argument, but of discursive thought.
Vattimo’s importance lies in his rejection of both of these unhappy post-
Kantian initiatives. He puts aside the attempt to connect religion with
truth, and so has no use for notions like “symbolic” or “emotional” or
“metaphorical” or “moral” truth. Nor does he have any use for what he
calls (somewhat misleadingly, in my opinion) “existentialist theology” –
the attempt to make religiosity a matter of being rescued from Sin by
the inexplicable grace of a deity wholly other than man. His theology is
explicitly designed for those whom he calls “half-believers,” the people
whom St. Paul called “lukewarm in the faith” – the sort of people who only
go to church for weddings, baptisms, and funerals (p. 69).
Vattimo turns away from the passages in the Epistle to the Romans that
Karl Barth liked best, and reduces the Christian message to the passage in
Paul that most other people like best: 1 Corinthians 13. His strategy is to
treat the Incarnation as God’s sacrifice of all his power and authority, as
well as all his otherness. The Incarnation was an act of kenosis, the act in
whichGodturnedeverything over tohumanbeings. This enables Vattimoto
make his most startling and most important claim: that “‘secularization’ . . .
[is] the constitutive trait of an authentic religious experience” (p. 21).
Hegel toosawhumanhistory as constituting the Incarnationof the Spirit,
and its slaughter-bench as the Cross. But Hegel was unwilling to put aside
truth in favor of love. So Hegel turns human history into a dramatic nar-
rative that reaches its climax in an epistemic state: absolute knowledge. For
Vattimo, by contrast, there is no internal dynamic, no inherent teleology,
to human history; there is no great drama to be unfolded, but only the
hope that love may prevail. Vattimo thinks that if we take human history
as seriously as Hegel did, while refusing to place it within either an epis-
temological or a metaphysical context, we can stop the pendulum from
swinging back and forth between militantly positivistic atheism and sym-
bolist or existentialist defenses of theism. As he says, “It is (only) because
metaphysical meta-narratives have been dissolved that philosophy has re-
discovered the plausibility of religion and can consequently approach the
religious need of common consciousness independently of the framework
of Enlightenment critique.”
9
Vattimo wants to dissolve the problem of the
coexistence of natural science with the legacy of Christianity by identifying
Christ neither with truth nor with power, but with love alone.
Vattimo’s argument provides an illustration of how lines of thought
drawn from Nietzsche and Heidegger can be intertwined with those drawn
from James and Dewey. For these two intellectual traditions have in
42 ri chard rorty
common the thought that the quest for truth and knowledge is no more,
and no less, than the quest for intersubjective agreement. The epistemic
arena is a public space, a space fromwhich religion can and should retreat.
10
The realization that it should retreat from that sphere is not a recognition
of the true essence of religion, but simply one of the morals to be drawn
from the history of Europe and America.
Vattimo says that “now that Cartesian (and Hegelian) reason has com-
pleted its parabola, it no longer makes sense to oppose faith and reason
so sharply” (p. 87). By “Cartesian and Hegelian thought” Vattimo means
pretty much what Heidegger meant by “onto-theology.” The term cov-
ers not only traditional theology and metaphysics but also positivism and
(insofar as it is an attempt to put philosophy on the secure path of a sci-
ence) phenomenology. He agrees with Heidegger that “the metaphysics
of objectivity culminates in a thinking that identifies the truth of Being
with the calculable, measurable and definitively manipulatable object of
techno-science” (p. 30). For if you identify rationality with the pursuit of
universal intersubjective agreement, and truth with the outcome of such a
pursuit, and if you also claim that nothing should take precedence over that
pursuit, then you will squeeze religion not only out of public life but out
of intellectual life. This is because you will have made natural science the
paradigm of rationality and truth. Then religion will have to be thought of
either as an unsuccessful competitor with empirical inquiry or as “merely”
a vehicle of emotional satisfaction.
To save religion from onto-theology you need to regard the desire for
universal intersubjective agreement as just one human need among many
others, and one that does not automatically trump all other needs. This
is a doctrine Nietzsche and Heidegger share with James and Dewey. All
four of these anti-Cartesians have principled objections to the pejorative
use of “merely” in expressions such as “merely private” or “merely liter-
ary” or “merely aesthetic” or “merely emotional.” They all provide reasons
both for replacing the Kantian distinction between the cognitive and the
non-cognitive with the distinction between the satisfaction of public needs
and the satisfaction of private needs, and for insisting that there is noth-
ing “mere” about satisfaction of the latter. All four are, in the words that
Vattimo uses to describe Heidegger, trying to help us “quit a horizon of
thought that is an enemy of freedom and of the historicity of existing”
(p. 31).
If one stays within this horizon of thought, and so continues to think
of epistemology and metaphysics as first philosophy, one will be convinced
that all one’s assertions should have cognitive content. An assertion has
Anti-clericalism and atheism 43
such content insofar as it is caught up in what the contemporary American
philosopher Robert Brandom calls “the game of giving and asking for
reasons.”
11
But to say that religionshould be privatized is to say that religious
people are entitled, for certain purposes, to opt out of this game. They
are entitled to disconnect their assertions from the network of socially
acceptable inferences that provide justifications for making these assertions
and draw practical consequences from having made them.
Vattimo seems to me to be aiming at such a privatized religion when he
describes the secularization of European culture as the fulfillment of the
promise of the Incarnation, considered as kenosis, God’s turning everything
over to us. The more secular, the less hierocratic, the West becomes, the
better it carries out the Gospels’ promise that God will no longer see us as
servants, but as friends. “The essence of [Christian] revelation,” Vattimo
says, “is reduced to charity, while all the rest is left to the non-finality of
diverse historical experiences” (p. 77).
This account of the essence of Christianity – one in which God’s self-
emptying and man’s attempt to think of love as the only law are two faces
of the same coin – permits Vattimo to see all the great unmaskers of the
West, from Copernicus and Newton to Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud, as
carrying out works of love. These men were, in his words, “reading the
signs of the times with no other provision than the commandment of love”
(p. 66). They were followers of Christ in the sense that “Christ himself is
the unmasker, and. . . the unmasking inaugurated by him. . . is the meaning
of the history of salvation itself” (p. 66).
To ask whether this is a “legitimate” or “valid” version of Catholicism, or
of Christianity, would be to pose exactly the wrong question. The notion
of “legitimacy” is not applicable to what Vattimo, or any of the rest of us,
does with our solitude. To try to apply it is to imply that you have no
right to go to church for the weddings and baptisms and funerals of your
friends and relations unless you acknowledge the authority of ecclesiastical
institutions to decide who counts as a Christian and who does not, or
no right to call yourself a Jew unless you perform this ritual rather than
that.
I can summarize the line of thought Vattimo and I are pursuing as fol-
lows: The battle between religion and science conducted in the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries was a contest between institutions both of which
claimed cultural supremacy. It was a good thing for both religion and sci-
ence that science won that battle. For truth and knowledge are a matter
of social cooperation, and science gives us the means to carry out better
44 ri chard rorty
cooperative social projects than before. If social cooperation is what you
want, the conjunction of the science and the common sense of your day
is all you need. But if you want something else, then a religion that has
been taken out of the epistemic arena, a religion which finds the ques-
tion of theism versus atheism uninteresting, may be just what suits your
solitude.
It may be, but it may not. There is still a big difference between people
like myself and people like Vattimo. Considering that he was raised a
Catholic and I was raised in no religion at all, this is not surprising. Only if
one thinks that religious yearnings are somehow pre-cultural and “basic to
human nature” will one be reluctant to leave the matter at that – reluctant
to privatize religion completely by letting it swing free of the demand for
universality.
But if one gives up the idea that either the quest for truth or the quest
for God is hard-wired into all human organisms, and allows that both are
matters of cultural formation, then such privatization will seem natural
and proper. People like Vattimo will cease to think that my lack of religious
feeling is a sign of vulgarity, and people like me will cease to think that
his possession of such feelings is a sign of cowardice. Both of us can cite
1 Corinthians 13 in support of our refusal to engage in any such invidious
explanations.
My differences with Vattimo come down to his ability to regard a past
event as holy and my sense that holiness resides only in an ideal future.
Vattimo thinks of God’s decision to switch from being our master to being
our friend as the decisive event upon which our present efforts are depen-
dent. His sense of the holy is bound up with recollection of that event, and
of the person who embodied it. My sense of the holy, insofar as I have one,
is bound up with the hope that someday, any millennium now, my remote
descendants will live in a global civilization in which love is pretty much
the only law. In such a society, communication would be domination-free,
class and caste would be unknown, hierarchy would be a matter of tempo-
rary pragmatic convenience, and power would be entirely at the disposal
of the free agreement of a literate and well-educated electorate.
I have no idea how such a society could come about. It is, one might
say, a mystery. That mystery, like that of the Incarnation, concerns the
coming into existence of a love that is kind, patient, and endures all things;
1 Corinthians 13 is an equally useful text both for religious people like
Vattimo, whose sense of what transcends our present condition is bound
up with a feeling of dependence, and for non-religious people like myself,
for whom this sense consists simply in hope for a better human future. The
Anti-clericalism and atheism 45
difference between these two sorts of people is that between unjustifiable
gratitude and unjustifiable hope. This is not a matter of conflicting beliefs
about what really exists and what does not.
12
notes
1. Trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).
2. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).
3. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row,
1962).
4. (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1948).
5. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1968).
6. I have argued this point in some detail in an essay on William James’s “The
Will to Believe”: “Religious Faith, Intellectual Responsibility and Romance”,
included in my collection Philosophy and Social Hope (New York: Penguin,
1999), pp. 148–67. See also my “Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism,” in The
Revival of Pragmatism, ed. Morris Dickstein (Durham, n.c.: Duke University
Press, 1998), pp. 21–36.
7. Of course, we anti-clericalists who are also leftists in politics have a further
reason for hoping that institutionalized religion will eventually disappear. We
think other-worldliness dangerous because, as John Dewey put it, “Men have
never fully used the powers they possess to advance the good in life, because
they have waited upon some power external to themselves and to nature to
do the work they are responsible for doing” (“A Common Faith,” in John
Dewey: The Later Works, 1925–1953, vol. ix, ed. Jo Ann Boydston [Carbondale:
Southern Illinois University Press, 1993], p. 31).
8. (Garzanti Editore, 1996). This book has appeared in English as Belief , trans.
Luka Disanto and David Webb (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press,
1999). Page numbers in parentheses refer to that volume.
9. “The Trace of the Trace,” in Religion, ed. Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo
(Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 84.
10. The questionof whether this retreat is desirable is quite different fromthe Kant-
style question “Is religious belief cognitive or non-cognitive?” My distinction
between the epistemic arena and what lies outside is not drawn on the basis of
a distinction between human faculties, or on the basis of a theory about the
way in which the human mind is related to reality. It is a distinction between
topics on which we are entitled to ask for universal agreement and other topics.
Which topics these are – what should be inthe epistemic arena and what should
not – is a matter of cultural politics. Prior to what Jonathan Israel calls “the
radical Enlightenment” it was assumed that religion was a topic of the former
sort. Thanks to three hundred and fifty years of culture-political activity, this
is no longer the case. For more on the relation between theology and cultural
politics, see my essay “Cultural Politics and the Question of the Existence
of God”, in Radical Interpretation in Religion, ed. Nancy Frankenberry (New
York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 53–77.
46 ri chard rorty
It is also a different question than the one about whether religious voices
should be heard in the public square, where citizens deliberate on political
questions. The latter questionhas beenintensively discussedby StephenCarter,
Robert Audi, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and many others. I comment on this
debate in my “Religion in the Public Square: A Reconsideration,” Journal of
Religious Ethics 31 (2003), pp. 141–9.
11. See Robert Brandom, Making It Explicit (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univer-
sity Press, 1994).
12. This paper is a revised and expanded version of a talk given on the occasion
of the award of the Meister-Eckhart Sachbuchpreis in December, 2001. The
original version was published in German in S¨ uddeutsche Zeitung.
chapter 5
Closed world structures
Charles Taylor
I want to explore here the constitution in modernity of what I shall call
“closed” or “horizontal” worlds. I mean by this shapes of our “world” in
Heidegger’s sense which leave no place for the “vertical” or “transcendent,”
but which in one way or another close these off, render them inaccessible,
or even unthinkable.
This will be a way of making sense of a remarkable historical fact, which
strikes us as soon as we take a certain distance, that, say five hundred years
ago in our Western civilization, non-belief in God was close to unthinkable
for the vast majority; whereas today this is not at all the case. One might
be tempted to say that in certain milieux, the reverse has become the case,
that belief is unthinkable. But this already concedes the lack of symmetry.
It is truer to say that in our world, a whole gamut of positions, from the
most militant atheism to the most orthodox traditional theisms, passing
through every possible position on the way, is represented and defended
somewhere in our society. Something like the unthinkability of some of
these positions can be experienced in certain milieux, but what is ruled
out will vary from context to context. An atheist in the Bible belt has
trouble being understood, as often (in a rather different way) do believing
Christians in certain reaches of the academy. But, of course, people in
each of these contexts are aware that the others exist, and that the option
they can’t really credit is the default option elsewhere in the same society,
whether they regard this with hostility or just perplexity. The existence of
an alternative makes each context fragile, that is, makes its sense of the
thinkable/unthinkable uncertain and wavering.
This making fragile is then increased by the fact that great numbers
of people are not firmly embedded in any such context, but are puzzled,
are cross-pressured, or have constituted by bricolage a sort of median po-
sition. The existence of these people raises sometimes even more acute
doubts within the more assured milieux. The polar opposites can be written
off as just mad or bad, as we see with the present American culture wars
47
48 charles taylor
between “liberals” and “fundamentalists”; but the intermediate positions
can sometimes not be as easily dismissed.
What I want to try is to articulate some of the worlds from within which
the believing option seems strange and unjustifiable. But this articulation
involves some degree of abstraction – indeed, three kinds of abstraction,
with the corresponding dangers: (a) What I shall really be describing is
not worlds in their entirety, but “world structures,” aspects or features of
the way experience and thought are shaped and cohere, but not the whole
of which they are constituents; (b) I shall not be describing the world of
any concrete human beings. A world is something which people inhabit.
It gives the shape of what they experience, feel, opine, see, etc. The world
of the cross-pressured is different from that of the assured. But what I’m
doing is trying to articulate certain world-types (“ideal types” in a quasi-
Weberian sense), which may not, will almost surely not, coincide with
the totality of any real person’s world; and (c) The articulation involves
an intellectualization; one has to get at the connections in lived experience
throughideas, andvery oftenideas whichare not consciously available tothe
people concerned, unless they are forced to articulate them by themselves
through challenge and argument.
Nevertheless, this effort, I believe, is very worth while, because it enables
us to see the way in which we can be held within certain world structures
without being aware that there are alternatives. A “picture” can “hold us
captive,” as Wittgenstein put it. And by the same token, we can gain insight
into the way two people or groups can be arguing past each other, because
their experience and thought are structured by two different pictures.
What I want to try to lay out is world structures which are closed to
transcendence. All of these arise during the slow development in Latin
Christendom and its sucessor civilization of a clear distinction between
what came to be called the “natural” and the “supernatural,” as two separate
levels of reality. This kind of clear demarcation was foreign to any other
civilization in history. There have always been distinctions between, for
instance, the sacred and the profane, higher beings and worldly beings, and
so forth, but in the “enchanted” worlds that humans inhabited in earlier
times, these two kinds of reality were inextricably interwoven. The sacred
was concentrated in certain times, places, acts, or persons. The natural/
supernatural distinction implies a great sorting out, in which the “natural”
becomes a level which can be described and understood on its own. This
is the precondition for going the further step and declaring this the only
reality. The “supernatural” can be denied only from a firm footing in the
“natural” as an autonomous order.
Closed world structures 49
So I want to look at some Closed world structures (CWSs), and try to
draw from them some of the features of modern experience, or inability to
experience the spiritual, the sacred, the transcendent. Of course, this term
“transcendent” makes sense most clearly within a world in which natural
and supernatural are distinguished; it is what “goes beyond” the natural.
It would have been hard to explain this concept to a medieval peasant, or
it would have slid quickly into other concepts (e.g., the realm of God, as
against that of the saints). But we have to use some terms to discuss these
issues, and they are bound to make sense in some epochs and not others.
So I use one that does make sense to us.
Our time is full of struggle and cross-purposes on this issue of the tran-
scendent. We are opposed, sometimes bitterly and strongly; but we are
also often speaking past each other. I’m hoping that a study of some key
CWSs will cast some light on the differences, and also the cross-purposes.
I want to look ultimately at four, but with very unequal treatment. I shall
give most of my attention to the third in the series (in the order of their
introduction, not the order of their arising). That’s because I think that it
is in an important sense the most significant, and also the least explored or
understood.
Here I want to introduce the structure of modern epistemology, which I
am taking as more than a set of theories which have been widespread, but
also at the level of a structure in my sense – that is, an underlying picture
which is only partly consciously entertained, but which controls the way
people think, argue, infer, and make sense of things.
At its most blatant, this structure operates with a picture of knowing
agents as individuals, who build up their understanding of the world
through combining and relating, in more and more comprehensive the-
ories, the information which they take in, and which is couched in inner
representations, be these conceived as mental pictures (in the earlier vari-
ants), or as something like sentences held true in the more contemporary
versions.
Characteristic of this picture is a series of priority relations. Knowledge
of the self and its states comes before knowledge of external reality and of
others. The knowledge of reality as neutral fact comes before our attributing
toit various “values” andrelevances. And, of course, knowledge of the things
of “this world,” of the natural order, precedes any theoretical invocation of
forces and realities transcendent to it.
The epistemological picture, combining as it does very often with some
understanding of modern science, operates frequently as a CWS. The
50 charles taylor
priority relations tell us not only what is learned before what, but also
what can be inferred on the basis of what. There are foundational relations.
I know the world through my representations. I must grasp the world as
fact before I can posit values. I must accede to the transcendent, if at all, by
inference fromthe natural. This can operate as a CWS, because it is obvious
that the inference to the transcendent is at the extreme and most fragile
end of a series of inferences; it is the most epistemically questionable. And
indeed, granted the lack of consensus surrounding this move, as against
earlier steps (e.g., to “other minds”), it is obviously highly problematic.
Now I introduce the epistemological picture in order to bring out some
features of the way CWSs operate in our time, the way they are on the one
hand contested, and on the other maintain themselves.
We are all aware of the contestation, because most of the authors in
this volume have taken part in contesting epistemology. But referring to
Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty as paradigm cases of the refutation of epis-
temology, we can see that this view has been comprehensibly turned on its
head: (1) Our grasp of the world does not consist simply of our holding in-
ner representations of outer reality. We do hold such representations, which
are perhaps best understood in contemporary terms as sentences held true,
but these only make the sense that they do for us because they are thrown
up in the course of an ongoing activity of coping with the world by bod-
ily, social, and cultural beings. This coping can never be accounted for in
terms of representations, but provides the background against which our
representations have the sense that they do; (2) As just implied, this coping
activity, and the understanding which inhabits it, is not primarily that of
each of us as individuals; rather, we are each inducted into the practices
of coping as social “games” or activities; some of which do indeed, in the
later stages of development, call upon us to assume a stance as individuals.
But primordially, we are part of social action; (3) In this coping, the things
which we deal with are not first and foremost objects, but what Heidegger
calls “pragmata,” things which are the focal points of our dealings, which
therefore have relevance, meaning, significance for us, not as an add-on but
from their first appearance in our world. Later, we learn to stand back, and
consider things objectively, outside of the relevances of coping; and (4) In
the later Heidegger, these significances include some which have a higher
status, structuring our whole way of life, the ensemble of our significances.
In the formulation of “das Geviert,” there are four axes of our world in this
more general sense: world and earth; human and divine.
Although all those who follow something like this deconstruction of
epistemology do not go along with this fourth stage, it is clear that the
Closed world structures 51
general thrust of these arguments is to overturn utterly the priority relations
of epistemology. Things which are considered as late inferences or additions
are seen to be part of our primordial predicament. There is no getting
behind them, and it makes no sense to place them in context. The “scandal
of philosophy” is not the inability to attain to certainty of the external
world, but rather that this should be considered a problem, says Heidegger
in Sein und Zeit. We only have knowledge as agents coping with a world,
which it makes no sense to doubt, since we are dealing with it. There is no
priority of the neutral grasp of things over their value. There is no priority of
the individual’s sense of self over the society; our most primordial identity
is as a new player being inducted into an old game. Even if we don’t add
the fourth stage, and consider something like the divine as part of the
inescapable context of human action, the whole sense that it comes as a
remote and most fragile inference or addition in a long chain is totally
undercut by this overturning of epistemology. The new outlook can be
built into a new CWS, but it doesn’t offer itself as a CWS in the same
direct and obvious way as the epistemological picture did.
We can learn something general about the way CWSs operate, suffer
attack, and defend themselves, from this example. From within itself, the
epistemological picture seems unproblematic. It comes across as an obvious
discovery we make when we reflect on our perception and acquisition of
knowledge. All the great foundational figures (Descartes, Locke, Hume)
claimed to be just saying what was obvious once one examined experience
itself reflectively.
Seen from the deconstruction, this is a most massive self-blindness.
Rather what happened is that experience was carved into shape by a pow-
erful theory which posited the primacy of the individual, the neutral, the
intramental as the locus of certainty. What was driving this theory? Certain
“values,” virtues, excellences: those of the independent, disengaged sub-
ject, reflexively controlling his own thought processes, “self-responsibly,”
in Husserl’s famous phrase. There is an ethic here, of independence, self-
control, self-responsibility, of a disengagement which brings control; a
stance which requires courage, the refusal of the easy comforts of con-
formity to authority, of the consolations of an enchanted world, of the
surrender to the promptings of the senses. The entire picture, shot through
with “values,” which is meant to emerge out of the careful, objective, pre-
suppositionless scrutiny, is now presented as having been there from the
beginning, driving the whole process of “discovery.”
Once you shift to the deconstructing point of view, the CWS can no
longer operate as such. It seemed to offer a neutral point of view from
52 charles taylor
which we could problematize certain values – e.g., “transcendent” ones –
more than others. But now it appears that it is itself driven by its own set
of values. Its “neutrality” appears bogus.
To put this another way, the CWS in a sense “naturalizes” a certain view
on things. This is just the way things are, and once you look at experience,
without preconceptions, this is what appears. “Natural” is opposed here to
something like “socially constructed”; and from the deconstructing point
of view, you have to tell a quite different story of the rise of this outlook.
It isn’t just that one day people looked without blinkers and discovered
epistemology; rather this is the way things could be made to look from
within a newhistorical formation of human identity, that of the disengaged,
objectifying subject. The process involves a reinvention, a re-creation, of
human identity, along with great changes in society and social practices.
There is no simple stepping out of an earlier such identity into the pure
light of bare nature.
It is a feature of our contemporary CWSs that they are understood by
those who inhabit them in this naturalizing way. It also follows from this
that those who inhabit them see no alternative, except the return to earlier
myth or illusion. That’s what gives them their strength. People within the
redoubt fight as it were to the last, and feeblest, argument, because they
cannot envisage surrender except as regression. The naturalizing emerges
in a kind of narration they proffer of their genesis, which I want to call a
“subtraction story.”
But to develop this idea I should move to another, richer CWS, or
constellation of CWSs. It is what people often gesture at with an expression
like “the death of God.” Of course, this expression is used in an uncountable
range of ways; I can’t be faithful to all of them, nor even will I be simply
following the originator of the phrase (though I think that my version is
not too far from his),
1
if I say that one essential idea which this phrase
captures is that conditions have arisen in the modern world in which it
is no longer possible, honestly, rationally, without confusions, fudging, or
mental reservation, to believe in God. These conditions leave us nothing
we can believe in beyond the human – human happiness, potentialities, or
heroism.
What conditions? Essentially, they are of two orders: first, and most
important, the deliverances of science; and then secondarily also, the shape
of contemporary moral experience.
To take up the first, perhaps the most powerful CWS operating today,
the central idea seems to be that the whole thrust of modern science has
been to establish materialism. For people who cling to this idea, the second
Closed world structures 53
order of conditions, the contemporary moral predicament, is unnecessary
or merely secondary. Science alone can explain why belief is no longer
possible in the above sense. This is a view held by people on all levels; from
the most sophisticated: “We exist as material beings in a material world,
all of whose phenomena are the consequences of physical relations among
material entities”;
2
to the most direct and simple: Madonna’s “material girl,
living in a material world.”
Religion or spirituality involves substituting wrong and mythical expla-
nations, explaining by “demons.”
3
At bottom it’s just a matter of facing the
obvious truth.
This doesn’t mean that moral issues don’t come into it. But they enter
as accounts of why people run away from reality, why they want to go
on believing illusion. They do so because it’s comforting. The real world is
utterly indifferent tous, andeventoa certaindegree dangerous, threatening.
As children, we have to see ourselves as surrounded by love and concern,
or we shrivel up. But in growing up, we have to learn to face the fact that
this environment of concern can’t extend beyond the human sphere, and
mostly doesn’t extend very far within it. But this transition is hard. So
we project a world which is providential, created by a benign God. Or at
least, we see the world as meaningful in terms of the ultimate human good.
Not only is the providential world soothing, but it also takes the burden
of evaluating things off our shoulders. The meanings of things are already
given. So religion emanates from a childish lack of courage. We need to
stand up like men, and face reality.
Now the traditional unbelieving attack on religion since the Enlighten-
ment contains this accusation of childish pusillanimity, but also an attack
on religion as calling for terrible self-mutilation, actuated by pride. Human
desire has to be checked, mortified. And then this mortification is often
imposed on others, so that religion is the source of a terrible infliction of
suffering, and the visiting of severe punishment, on heretics and outsiders.
This shows that the unbelieving critique of religion is more complex and
many-tracked than I’m dealing with here; but on one very widespread ver-
sion of this critique, the basic reason for resisting the truth is pusillanimity.
Unbelief has the opposite features. The unbeliever has the courage to
take up an adult stance, and face reality. He knows that human beings are
on their own. But this doesn’t cause himjust to cave in. On the contrary, he
determines to affirmhumanworth, and the humangood, and to work for it,
without false illusion or consolation. So he is counter-mortification. More-
over, he has no reason to exclude anyone as a heretic; so his philanthropy
is universal. Unbelief goes together with modern (exclusive) humanism.
54 charles taylor
So goes one story. The crucial idea is that the scientific-epistemic part
of it is completely self-supporting. That’s something the rational mind will
believe independently of any moral convictions. The moral attributions to
one side or the other come when you are trying to explain why some people
accept and others resist these truths. The connection between materialist
science and humanist affirmation comes because you have to be a mature,
courageous being to face these facts. As to why mature courage embraces
benevolence, whichfigures here inthe portrait of this humanism, the answer
can simply be that left to ourselves we do want to benefit our fellowhumans;
or that we have developed this way culturally, and we value it, and we can
keep this going if we set ourselves to it.
From the believer’s perspective, all this falls out rather differently. We
start with an epistemic response: the argument from modern science to all-
around materialism seems quite unconvincing. Whenever this is worked
out in something closer to detail, it seems full of holes. The best example
today might be evolution, socio-biology, and the like – Dawkins, Dennett,
etc.
So the believer returns the compliment. He casts about for anexplanation
of why the materialist is so eager to believe very inconclusive arguments.
Here the moral outlook just mentioned comes back in, but in a different
role. Not that failure to rise to this outlook makes you unable to face
the facts of materialism; but rather that its moral attraction and seeming
plausibility given the facts of the human moral condition draw you to it,
so that you readily grant the materialist argument from science its various
leaps of faith. The whole package seems plausible, so we don’t pick too
closely at the details.
But how can this be? Surely, the whole package is meant to be plausible
precisely because science has shown. . . etc. That’s certainly the way the
package of epistemic and moral views presents itself officially; that’s the
official story, as it were. But the supposition here is that the official story
isn’t the real one; that the real power that the package has to attract and
convince lies in it as a definition of our moral predicament.
This means that this ideal of the courageous acknowledger of unpalatable
truths, ready to eschew all easy comfort and consolation, and who by the
same token becomes capable of grasping and controlling the world, sits
well with us, draws us, that we feel tempted to make it our own. And/or
it means that the counter-ideals of belief, devotion, piety can all too easily
seem actuated by a still immature desire for consolation, meaning, and
extra-human sustenance.
Closed world structures 55
What seems to accredit the view of the package as epistemically driven is
all the famous conversion stories, starting with post-Darwinian Victorians
but continuing to our day, where people who had a strong faith early in life
found that they had reluctantly, even with anguish of soul, to relinquish
it, because “Darwin has refuted the Bible.” Surely, we want to say, these
people in a sense preferred the Christian outlook morally, but had to bow,
with whatever degree of inner pain, to the facts.
But that’s exactly what I’m resisting saying. What happened here was
not that a moral outlook bowed to brute facts. Rather it gave way to
another moral outlook; another model of what was higher triumphed. And
much was going for this model: images of power, of untrammeled agency,
of spiritual self-possession (the “buffered self”). On the other side, one’s
childhood faith had perhaps in many respects remained childish; it was all
too easy to come to see it as essentially and constitutionally so.
Of course, the change was painful, because one could be deeply attached
to this childhood faith, not just as part of one’s past, but also to what
it promised. But even this pain could work for the conversion. It has
been noted how many of the crop of great Victorian agnostics came from
Evangelical families. They transposed the model of the strenuous, manly,
philanthropic concern into the new secular key. But the very core of that
model, manly self-conquest, rising above the pain of loss, now told in favor
of the apostasy.
So I am less than fully convinced by the major thrust of the “death
of God” account of the rise of secularity; its account, in other words, of
the modern conditions of belief. What makes belief problematical, often
difficult and full of doubts, is not simply “science.”
This is not to deny that science (and even more “science”) has had an
important place in the story; and that in a number of ways. For one thing,
the universe which this science reveals is very different from the centered
hierarchic cosmos which our civilization grew up within; it hardly suggests
to us that humans have any kind of special place in its story; its temporal and
spatial dimensions are mind-numbing. This, and the conception of natural
law by which we understand it, makes it refractory to the interventions of
Providence as these were envisaged in the framework of the earlier cosmos,
and the connected understanding of the biblical story. Seen in this light,
“Darwin” has indeed “refuted the Bible.”
For another thing, the development of modern science has gone hand
in hand with the rise of the ethic of austere, disengaged reason I invoked
above. But all this still doesn’t amount to an endorsement of the official
56 charles taylor
story, that the present climate of unbelief in many milieux in contemporary
society is a response to the strong case for materialism which science has
drawn up during the last three centuries.
Of course, a good reason for my lack of conviction here is that I don’t
see the case for materialism as all that strong. To state just why would take
me much too far afield, and lead me away fromthe inquiry I want to pursue.
But I acknowledge that this is a loose end in my argument which I won’t
be able to tie up. I hope, however, that this untidiness in my case can be
partly compensated for by the plausibility of the explanation I offer in place
of the official account, and which sees the attraction of materialism arising
not so much from the conclusions of science as from the ethic which is
associated with it.
But, one might object, why shouldn’t bad arguments have an important
effect in history, as much as if not more than good arguments? In a sense,
this objection is well taken; and in a sense, therefore, the official story is
also true. Since lots of people believe that they are atheists and materialists
because science has shown atheism and materialism to be irrefutable, there
is a perfectly good sense in which we can say that this is their reason.
But an explanation in terms of a bad reason calls for supplementation.
We need an account of why the bad reason nevertheless works. This is not
necessarily so, of course, in individual cases. Individuals can just take some
conclusion on authority from their milieu. Just as we laypeople take the
latest report about the micro-constitution of the atom from the Sunday
paper, so we may take it on authority from a Sagan or a Dawkins that
Science has refuted God. But this leaves still unexplained how an authority
of this kind gets constituted. What makes it the case that we laypeople, as
also the scientific luminaries, get so easily sucked into invalid arguments?
Why do we and they not more readily see the alternatives? My proffered
account in terms of the attraction of an ethic vision is meant to answer this
deeper question.
I am not arguing that an account of someone’s action in terms of erro-
neous belief always needs supplementation. I may leave the house without
an umbrella because I believe the radio forecast to be reliable, and it pre-
dicted fair weather. But the difference between this kind of case and the
issue we’re dealing with here is first, that the weather, beyond the incon-
venience of getting wet today, doesn’t matter to me in anything like the
same way; and second, that I have no alternative access to this afternoon’s
weather than the forecast.
The latter is not simply true in the question of belief in God. Of course,
as a layperson, I have to take on authority the findings of paleontology.
Closed world structures 57
But I am not similarly without resources on the issue whether what science
has shown about the material world denies the existence of God. This
is because I can also have a religious life, a sense of God and how he
impinges on my existence, against which I can check the supposed claims to
refutation.
I want to draw the Desdemona analogy. What makes Othello a tragedy,
and not just a tale of misfortune, is that we hold its protagonist culpable in
his too-ready belief in the evidence fabricated by Iago. He had an alternative
mode of access to her innocence in Desdemona herself, if he could only
have opened his heart/mind to her love and devotion. The fatal flaw in
the tragic hero Othello is his inability to do this, partly induced by his
outsider’s status and sudden promotion.
The reason why I can’t accept the arguments that “science has refuted
God,” without any supplement, as an explanation of the rise of unbelief is
that we are on this issue like Othello, rather than a person listening to the
forecast as he hesitates before the umbrella stand. We can’t just explain what
we do on the basis of the information we received from external sources,
without seeing what we made of the internal ones.
All this doesn’t mean that a perfectly valid description of an individual’s
experience might not be that he felt forced to give up a faith he cherished,
because the brute facts of the universe contradicted it. Once you go this
way, once you accept unbelief, then you will probably also accept the ide-
ology which accords primacy to the external sources, which depreciates
the internal ones as incompetent here, indeed, as likely sources of childish
illusion. That’s how it now looks ex post facto – and how it looked to
Othello. But we who have seen this happen need a further account of why
Desdemona’s testimony wasn’t heard.
Thus, once one has taken the step into unbelief, there are overwhelming
reasons why one will be induced to buy into the official, science-driven
story. And because we very often make these choices under the influence
of others, on whose authority we buy the official story, it is not surprising
that lots of people have thought of their conversion as science-driven, even
perhaps in the most dramatic form. Science seemed to show that we are
nothing but a fleeting life form on a dying star; or that the universe is
nothing but decaying matter, under ever-increasing entropy, that there is
thus no place for spirit or God, miracles or salvation. Something like the
vision which Dostoyevsky had, before a picture of the crucified Christ, of
the absolute finality of death, which convinced him that there must be
something more, might easily have the opposite effect, of dragging you
down and forcing an abandonment of your faith.
58 charles taylor
But the question remains: If the arguments in fact aren’t conclusive,
why do they seem so convincing, where at other times and places God’s
existence just seems obvious? This is the question I’m trying to answer, and
the “death of God” doesn’t help me here; rather it blocks the way with a
pseudo-solution.
So my contention is that the power of materialism today does not come
from the scientific “facts,” but has rather to be explained in terms of the
power of a certain package uniting materialism with a moral outlook, the
package we could call “atheist humanism,” or exclusive humanism. But
this doesn’t bring me to the end of my search; rather, the further question
arises: how in turn to explain something like the power of this package?
Here’s where we might invoke the second level of the “death of God”
account, the one which starts from our contemporary moral predicament.
The conclusion here is the same as with the argument from science, that
we can no longer rationally believe in God; but the starting point is now
the ethical outlook of the modern age.
Now, it is true that a great deal of our political and moral life is focused
on human ends: human welfare, human rights, human flourishing, equality
betweenhumanbeings. Indeed, our public life, insocieties whichare secular
in a familiar modern sense, is exclusively concerned with human goods.
And our age is certainly unique in human history in this respect. Some
people see no place in this kind of world for belief in God. A faith of
this kind would have to make one an outsider, an enemy of this world, in
unrelenting combat with it. Thus one is either thoroughly in this world,
living by its premises, and then one cannot really believe in God; or one
believes, and is in some sense living like a resident alien in modernity. Since
we find ourselves more and more inducted into it, belief becomes harder
and harder; the horizon of faith steadily recedes.
4
This adversarial picture of the relation of faith to modernity is not an
invention of unbelievers. It is matched and encouraged by a strand of
Christian hostility to the humanist world. We have only to think of Pius
IX, fulminating in his Syllabus of 1864 against all the errors of the modern
world, including human rights, democracy, equality, and just about every-
thing our contemporary liberal state embodies. And there are other, more
recent, examples, among Christians as well as believers in other religions.
But this convergence between fundamentalists and hard-line atheists
doesn’t make their common interpretation of the relation of faith to moder-
nity the only possible one. And it is clear that there are many people of faith
who have helped to build and are now sustaining this modern humanist
world, and are strongly committed to the modes of human well-being and
Closed world structures 59
flourishing that it has made central. Once again, the “death of God” ac-
count leaps to a conclusion which is far from being warranted. It is possible
to see modern humanism as the enemy of religion, just as it is possible
to take science as having proved atheism. But since the conclusion is in
neither case warranted, the question arises why so many people come to it.
And that brings me back to the central issue I’ve been raising.
This moral version of the “death of God” account seems plausible to
many people, because they make an assumption about the rise of moder-
nity which helps to screen from them how complex and difficult this quest
is. The assumption is what I have called “the view from Dover Beach”: The
transition to modernity comes about through the loss of traditional beliefs
and allegiances. This may be seen as resulting from institutional changes:
E.g., mobility and urbanization erode the beliefs and reference points of
static rural society. Or the loss may be supposed to arise from the increas-
ing operation of modern scientific reason. The change may be positively
valued – or it may be judged a disaster by those for whom the traditional
reference points were valuable, and scientific reason too narrow. But all
these theories concur in describing the process: old views and loyalties are
eroded. Old horizons are washed away, in Nietzsche’s image. The sea of faith
recedes, to follow Arnold. This stanza from his ‘Dover Beach’ captures this
perspective:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
5
The tone here is one of regret and nostalgia. But the underlying image of
eroded faith could serve just as well for an upbeat story of the progress of
triumphant scientific reason. From one point of view, humanity has shed a
lot of false and harmful myths. From another, it has lost touch with crucial
spiritual realities. But in either case, the change is seen as a loss of belief.
What emerges comes about through this loss. The upbeat story cherishes
the dominance of an empirical-scientific approach to knowledge claims, of
individualism, negative freedom, instrumental rationality. But these come
to the fore because they are what we humans “normally” value, once we are
no longer impeded or blinded by false or superstitious beliefs and the
60 charles taylor
stultifying modes of life which accompany them. Once myth and error are
dissipated, these are the only games in town. The empirical approach is the
only valid way of acquiring knowledge, and this becomes evident as soon
as we free ourselves from the thraldom of a false metaphysics. Increasing
recourse to instrumental rationality allows us to get more and more of
what we want, and we were only ever deterred from this by unfounded
injunctions to limit ourselves. Individualism is the normal fruit of human
self-regard absent the illusory claims of God, the Chain of Being, or the
sacred order of society.
In other words, we moderns behave as we do because we have “come to
see” that certain claims were false – or on the negative reading, because we
have lost from view certain perennial truths. What this view reads out of
the picture is the possibility that Western modernity might be powered by
its own positive visions of the good, that is, by one constellation of such
visions among available others, rather than by the only viable set left after
the old myths and legends have been exploded. It screens out whatever there
might be of a specific moral direction to Western modernity, beyond what
is dictated by the general form of human life itself, once old error is shown
up (or old truth forgotten) – e.g., people behave as individuals, because
that’s what they “naturally” do when no longer held in by the old religions,
metaphysics, and customs, though this may be seen as a glorious liberation,
or a purblind enmiring in egoism, depending on our perspective. What it
cannot be seen as is a novel formof moral self-understanding, not definable
simply by the negation of what preceded it.
In terms of my discussion a few pages ago, all these accounts “naturalize”
the features of the modern, liberal identity. They cannot see it as one,
historically constructed understanding of human agency among others.
On this “subtraction” viewof modernity, as what arises fromthe washing
away of old horizons, modern humanism can only have arisen through the
fading of earlier forms. It can only be conceived as coming to be through
a “death of God.” It just follows that you can’t be fully into contemporary
humanist concerns if you haven’t sloughed off the old beliefs. You can’t be
fully with the modern age and still believe in God. Or alternatively, if you
still believe, then you have reservations, you are at least partly, and perhaps
covertly, some kind of adversary.
But of course, as I have argued at length elsewhere,
6
this is a quite inad-
equate account of modernity. What has got screened out is the possibility
that Western modernity might be sustained by its own original spiritual vi-
sion, that is, not one generated simply and inescapably out of the transition.
But this possibility is in fact the reality.
Closed world structures 61
The logic of the subtraction story is something like this: Once we slough
off our concern with serving God, or attending to any other transcendent
reality, what we’re left withis humangood, andthat is what modernsocieties
are concerned with. But this radically under-describes what I’m calling
modernhumanism. That I amleft withonly humanconcerns doesn’t tell me
to take universal human welfare as my goal; nor does it tell me that freedom
is important, or fulfillment, or equality. Just being confined to humangoods
could just as well find expression in my concerning myself exclusively with
my own material welfare, or that of my family or immediate milieu. The,
in fact, very exigent demands of universal justice and benevolence which
characterize modern humanism can’t be explained just by the subtraction
of earlier goals and allegiances.
The subtraction story, inadequate though it is, is deeply embedded in
modern humanist consciousness. It is by no means propounded only by
the more simplistic theorists. Even such a penetrating and sophisticated
thinker as Paul B´ enichou subscribed to a version of it in his Morales du
grand si`ecle: “L’humanit´ e s’estime d` es qu’elle se voit capable de faire reculer
sa mis` ere; elle tend ` a oublier, en mˆ eme temps que sa d´ etresse, l’humiliante
morale par laquelle, faisant de n´ ecessit´ e vertu, elle condamnait la vie.”
7
Modern humanismarises, in other words, because humans become capable
of sloughing off the older, other-worldly ethics of asceticism.
Moreover, this story is grounded in a certain view of human motivation
in general, and of the wellsprings of religious belief in particular. The latter
is seen as the fruit of misery, and the accompanying self-renunciation is
“making a virtue of necessity.” Belief is a product of deprivation, humilia-
tion, and a lack of hope. It is the obverse of the human desire for flourishing;
where we are driven by our despair at the frustration of this desire.
Thus human flourishing is taken as our perennial goal, even though it
is in eclipse in periods of misery and humiliation, and its content is taken
as fairly unproblematic, once one begins to affirm it.
We see here the outlines of one version of an account of modern secu-
larity, which in its general form is widely and deeply implanted in modern
humanist culture. It tends to have four connected facets, of which the first
three are (a) the “death of God” thesis that one can no longer honestly,
lucidly, sincerely believe in God; (b) some “subtraction” story of the rise
of modern humanism; and (c) a view on the original reasons for religious
belief, and on their place in perennial human motivations, which grounds
the subtraction story. These views vary all the way fromnineteenth-century
theories about primitives’ fears of the unknown, or desire to control the el-
ements, to speculations like Freud’s, linking religion to neurosis. On many
62 charles taylor
of these accounts, religion simply becomes unnecessary when technology
gets to a certain level: we don’t need God any more, because we know how
to get it ourselves.
8
These theories are generally wildly and implausibly
reductive.
These three facets issue in (d) a take on modern secularization as mainly
a recession of religion in the face of science, technology, and rationality.
As against the nineteenth century, when thinkers like Comte confidently
predicted the supersession of religion by science, as did Renan: “il viendra
un jour o` u l’humanit´ e ne croira plus, mais o` u elle saura; un jour o` u elle
saura le monde m´ etaphysique et moral, comme elle sait d´ ej` a le monde
physique,”
9
today everybody thinks that the illusion has some future; but
on the vision I’m describing here it is in for some more shrinkage.
These four facets together give an idea of what modern secularization
often looks like from within the humanist camp. Against this, I want to
offer a rather different picture.
(If I can manage to tell this story properly, then we will see that there
is some, phenomenal, truth to the “death of God” account. A humanism
has come about which can be seen, and hence lived, as exclusive. And from
within this, it can indeed seem plausible that science points us toward a
materialist account of spirit. The “death of God” is not just an erroneous
account of secularity on a theoretical level; it is also a way we may be
tempted to interpret, and hence experience, the modern condition. It is not
the explanans I am looking for, but it is a crucial part of the explanandum.
In this role, I am very far from wanting to deny it.)
In order to develop this alternative picture, I want to explore another
domain of CWSs, which I think is more fundamental. This is the domain
in which the moral self-understanding of moderns has been forged. I would
want to tell a longish story here. But in its main lines, my account centers on
the development of an ascending series of attempts to establish a Christian
order, of which the Reformation is a key phase. These attempts show a
progressive impatience with older modes of post-Axial religion in which
certain collective, ritualistic forms of earlier religions coexisted uneasily
with the demands of individual devotion and ethical reform which came
from the “higher” revelations. In Latin Christendom, the attempt was
to recover and impose on everyone a more individually committed and
Christocentric religionof devotionandaction, andtorepress or evenabolish
older, supposedly “magical,” or “superstitious” forms of collective ritual
practice.
Allied with a neo-Stoic outlook, this became the charter for a series of
attempts to establish new forms of social order, drawing on new disci-
plines (Foucault enters the story here) which helped to reduce violence and
Closed world structures 63
disorder, and create populations of relatively pacific and productive artisans
and peasants, who were more and more induced/forced into the new forms
of devotional practice and moral behaviour, be this in Protestant England,
Holland, or later the American colonies, counter-Reformation France, or
the Germany of the “Polizeistaat.”
My hypothesis is that this new creation of a civilized, “polite” order
succeeded beyond what its first originators could have hoped for, and that
this in turn led to a new reading of what a Christian order might be, one
which was seen more and more in “immanent” terms (the polite, civilized
order is the Christian order). This version of Christianity was shorn of
much of its “transcendent” content, and was thus open to a new departure,
in which the understanding of good order (what I call the “modern moral
order”) could be embraced outside of the original theological, providential
framework, and in certain cases even against it (as with Voltaire, Gibbon,
and in another way Hume).
Disbelief in God arises in close symbiosis with this belief in a moral
order of rights-bearing individuals, who are destined (by God or Nature)
to act for mutual benefit; an order which thus rejects the earlier honor
ethic which exalted the warrior, as it also tends to occlude any transcendent
horizon. We see one good formulation of this notion of order in Locke’s
Second Treatise.
10
This ideal order was not thought to be a mere human invention. Rather
it was designed by God, an order in which everything coheres according to
God’s purposes. Later inthe eighteenthcentury, the same model is projected
onto the cosmos, in a vision of the universe as a set of perfectly interlocking
parts, in which the purposes of each kind of creature mesh with those of
all the others.
This order sets the goal for our constructive activity, insofar as it lies
within our power to upset it, or realize it. Of course, when we look at the
whole, we see how much the order is already realized; but when we cast
our eye on human affairs, we see how much we have deviated from it and
upset it; it becomes the norm to which we should strive to return.
This order was thought to be evident in the nature of things. Of course, if
we consult Revelation, we shall also find the demand formulated there that
we abide by it. But reason alone can tell us God’s purposes. Living things,
including ourselves, strive to preserve themselves. This is God’s doing.
God having made Man, and planted in him, as in all other Animals, a strong
desire of Self-preservation, and furnished the World with things fit for Food and
Rayment and other Necessaries of Life, Subservient to his design, that Man should
live and abide for some time upon the Face of the Earth, and not that so curious and
wonderful a piece of Workmanship by its own Negligence, or want of Necessaries,
64 charles taylor
should perish again. . . God. . . spoke to him, [that is] directed him by his Senses
and Reason. . . to the use of those things, which were serviceable for his Subsistence,
and given him as the means of his Preservation. . . For the desire, strong desire, of
Preserving his Life and Being having been Planted in him, as a Principle of Action
by God himself, Reason, which was the voice of God in him, could not but teach
him and assure him, that pursuing that natural Inclination he had to preserve his
Being, he followed the Will of his Maker.
11
Being endowed with reason, we see that not only our lives but those of
all humans are to be preserved. And in addition, God made us sociable
beings. So that “every one as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to
quit his Station wilfully, so by the like reason when his own Preservation
comes not in competition, ought he as much as he can to preserve the rest
of Mankind.”
12
Similarly, Locke reasons that God gave us our powers of reason and dis-
cipline so that we could most effectively go about the business of preserving
ourselves. It follows that we ought to be “Industrious and Rational.”
13
The
ethic of discipline and improvement is itself a requirement of the natural
order that God has designed. The imposition of order by human will is
itself called for by his scheme.
We can see in Locke’s formulation how much he sees mutual service
in terms of profitable exchange. “Economic” (that is, ordered, peaceful,
productive) activity has become the model for human behavior, and the
key for harmonious coexistence. In contrast to the theories of hierarchical
complementarity, we meet in a zone of concord and mutual service, not to
the extent that we transcend our ordinary goals and purposes, but on the
contrary, in the process of carrying them out according to God’s design.
This understanding of order has profoundly shaped the forms of social
imagery which dominate in the modern West: the market economy, the
public sphere, the sovereign “people.”
This is the key entry point to modern secularity. Within this somewhat
stripped-down notion of Providence and divinely sanctioned order, one
which made ordinary human flourishing so central, it became more and
more conceivable to slide toward forms of deism, and ultimately even athe-
istic humanism. Indeed, religion could be portrayed as a threat to this order.
We see this in the critique offered by Gibbon and Hume, for instance. Key
terms of opprobrium were: “superstition,” by which was meant continuing
belief in an enchanted world, the kind of thing which modern Reform
Christianity had left behind it; “fanaticism,” by which was meant the invo-
cation of religion to justify violations of the modern moral order, be they
persecutions or any other type of irrational, counterproductive behavior;
Closed world structures 65
“enthusiasm,” by which was meant the claim to some kind of special reve-
lation, whereby one could once more challenge the norms of the modern
order. One might say that “superstition” was the speciality of Catholics,
and “enthusiasm” of extreme Protestant sects; but “fanaticism” was a sin of
which both were capable.
The rooting of the Enlightened critique in this modern idea of moral
order can be seen again if one looks at the two lists of virtues which Hume
lists in the Enquiries, those he considers properly virtues, and the “monkish”
ones for which he has no use.
14
Here we have one of the most powerful CWSs in modern history. Reli-
gion was to be severely limited, even in some versions banned, because it
ran against the natural order itself. Fromwithin the acceptance of this order
as the end of history, nothing could seem more obvious and secure, even
if this could also accommodate milder positions which espoused deism, or
some carefully controlled and parsimoniously dosed religion.
But this was also the structure which inspired the most bitter contro-
versies, because this understanding of order was and is hotly contested;
and that from a host of directions. Some saw it as insufficiently inspiring
and uplifting; others as poisoned by forms of discipline which repress and
crush the spontaneous or the emotional in us; others as rejecting true hu-
man sympathy and generosity in condemning “enthusiasm.” But others
again rejected it because it turned its back on violence, and hence heroism,
and hence greatness; because it leveled us all in a demeaning equality. We
find some of the latter kind of reaction in Tocqueville, for instance; but
most famously in Nietzsche.
As the second name reminds us, the remarkable thing about this wave
of protests, which begins in the latter half of the eighteenth century, is that
each can be taken in more than one direction. The sense of the moral order
as unliveable and reductive could either lead back to a more full-hearted
religion (e.g., Wesley, the Pietists) or lead beyond to modes of unbeliev-
ing romanticism. Similarly, the “tragic” dimension could be invoked for
a return to a real sense of human sin; or it could justify a rejection of
Christianity as the original historical source of modern morality, the trail
blazed by Nietzsche. Again, dissatisfactions with existing forms could lead
to more radical and utopian versions of order, as we see with Jacobinism,
later communism and Marx; or it could justify abandoning it, as with
the Catholic Reaction after 1815; or again, in a quite different way, with
Nietzsche.
So while the modern ideal of moral order can be the center of one of
the most influential CWSs of modern society, the attempts to criticize
66 charles taylor
it, to denounce its “self-naturalization,” can also be a source of new and
more profound CWSs. After all, the source whence the expression “death
of God” flows into general circulation is The Gay Science. Modern culture
is characterized by what we could call the “nova effect,” the multiplication
of more and more spiritual and anti-spiritual positions. This multiplicity
further fragilizes any of the positions it contains. There is no longer any
clear, unambiguous way of drawing the main issue.
But a crucial reference point in this swirling multiplicity is the modern
idea of order, in the sense that our stance to that is an important defining
characteristic of our position, as much as our stance, positive or negative,
on transcendence. The dimension in which interesting new positions have
arisen is that which combines severe criticismof the order with a rejection of
the transcendent. This is where we find what we might call the “immanent
Counter-Enlightenment,” following Nietzsche,
15
as well as new ways of
invoking paganismagainst Christianity. This is as old as the Enlightenment
in one sense; Gibbon clearly had some sympathy for what he saw as the
skeptical, very unfanatical ruling class of Rome, puzzled by the rush to
martyrdom of this obscure sect of Christians; Mill spoke of “pagan self-
assertion”; Peter Gay has even described the Enlightenment as a kind of
“modern paganism.”
16
But we find more recently attempts to rehabilitate
precisely what was suppressed by monotheism. There is a discourse of
“polytheism” (Calosso, Spinosa), which completely rejects the notion of
a single, dominant moral code, an essential feature of the modern moral
order. One can even hope to erect a novel CWS on this basis.
Among these new forms, Heidegger deserves a mention. I said above
that he is one of those who have contributed to undoing the CWS of
epistemology, but also that of scientism, and the belief that “science has
shown” that there is no God. He even has a place for “the gods” in some
sense in his notion of das Geviert. And yet there seems to be a rejection of
the Christian God here; or at least some unwillingness to allow that the
Christian God can ever escape the dead end of onto-theology: “auch der
Gott ist, wenn er ist, ein Seiender.”
17
I have been trying to explore the modern landscape of belief/unbelief, in
the main by laying out some of the principal world structures which occult
or blank out the transcendent.The main intellectual struggle around belief
and unbelief turns on the validity/invalidity of these CWSs. It is clear that
modern society generates these, but not in any consistent fashion. Some
of them can only define our horizon through our rejecting others. Many
of them have already shown that they are grounded on a false and over-
hasty naturalization. The crucial question at stake in the debate is, are
Closed world structures 67
they all similarly invalid? It may be beyond the reach of any single set of
arguments to show this. And even if it were determined, it wouldn’t by
itself decide the question whether there is a God or not, whether there is
transcendence. But it could open this issue for a more active and fruitful
search.
notes
1. The “death of God” reference is from The Gay Science, para. 125. Later on,
Nietzsche says: “Man sieht, was eigentlich ¨ uber den christlichen Gott gesiegt
hat: die christliche Moralit¨ at selbst, der immer strenger genommene Begriff der
Wahrhaftigkeit, die Beichtv¨ aterfeinheit des christlichen Gewissens, ¨ ubersetzt
und sublimiert zumwissenschaftlichen Gewissen, zur intellektuellen Sauberkeit
um jeden Preis. Die Natur ansehn, als ob sie ein Beweis f¨ ur die G¨ ute und
Obhut eines Gottes sei; die Geschichte interpretieren zu Ehren einer g¨ ottlichen
Vernunft, als best¨ andiges Zeugnis einer sittlichen Weltordnung und sittlicher
Schlussabsichten; die eignen Erlebnisse auslegen, wie sie fromme Menschen
lange genug ausgelegt haben, wie als ob alles F¨ ugung, alles Wink, alles dem
Heil der Seele zuliebe ausgedacht und geschickt sei: Das ist numehr vorbei, das
hat das Gewissen gegen sich, das gilt allen feineren Gewissen als unanst¨ andig,
unehrlich, als L¨ ugnerei, Feminismus, Schwachheit, Feigheit” – “One can see
what it was that actually triumphed over the Christian god: Christian morality
itself, the concept of truthfulness that was taken ever more rigorously; the father
confessor’s refinement of the Christian conscience, translated and sublimated
into a scientific conscience, into intellectual cleanliness at any price. Looking at
nature as if it were proof of the goodness and care of a god; interpreting history
in honour of some divine reason, as a continual testimony of a moral world
order and ultimate moral purposes; interpreting one’s own experiences as pious
people have long interpreted theirs, as if everything were providential, a hint,
designed and ordained for the sake of salvation of the soul – that is over now;
that has conscience against it; every refined conscience considers it to be inde-
cent, dishonest, a form of mendacity, effeminacy, weakness, cowardice.” The
Gay Science, trans. Josefine Nauckhoff (Cambridge University Press, 2001),
section 357. It will be clear later on where my interpretation agrees with
Nietzsche’s.
2. Richard C. Lewontin, “Billions and Billions of Demons,” New York Review,
January 9, 1997, p. 28.
3. Ibid., quoting Carl Sagan.
4. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, para. 125, the famous passage about the madman
who announces the death of God, also makes use of this horizon image.
5. MatthewArnold, “Dover Beach,” in The Poems of MatthewArnold, ed. Kenneth
Allott, 2nd edn, ed. Miriam Allott (New York: Longman, 1979), p. 256, lines
21–8.
6. Sources of the Self (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989).
68 charles taylor
7. Morales du grand si`ecle (Paris: Gallimard, 1948), p. 226. Translated as Man
and Ethics, trans. Elizabeth Hughes (New York: Anchor Books, 1971), p. 251
(“Man appreciates his own worth from the time he sees that he is able to make
inroads against poverty. He tends to forget, along with his material distress, the
humiliating ethics by which he condemned life, making a virtue of necessity.”)
8. There is a more sophisticated version of this in Steve Bruce, Religion in Modern
Britain (Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 131–3.
9. Quoted in Sylvette Den` efle, Sociologie de la s´ecularisation (Paris–Montreal:
L’Harmattan, 1997), pp. 93–4.
10. See John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (London: Black Swan, 1698).
11. Ibid., i.86.
12. Ibid., ii.6; see also ii.135; and Some Thoughts Concerning Education, ed.
John W. and Jean S. Yolton (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), para. 116.
13. Two Treatises of Government, ii.34.
14. See David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. Tom L.
Beauchamp (Oxford University Press, 1998).
15. See Charles Taylor, “The Immanent Counter-Enlightenment,” in Canadian
Political Philosophy, ed. RonaldBeiner andWayne Norman(OxfordUniversity
Press, 2001), p. 397.
16. Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. Volume I: The Rise of Modern
Paganism (New York: Norton, 1977).
17. (“The god also is, when he is, a being.”) Quoted in Jean-Luc Marion, Dieu
sans l’ˆetre (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1991), p. 105. I have found
Marion’s discussion of this issue extremely enlightening.
chapter 6
Between the earth and the sky: Heidegger on life
after the death of God
Mark A. Wrathall
In the last decades of his life, Heidegger was preoccupied with the dangers
of technology, and tried to articulate a non-technological form of “poetical
dwelling” that could save us from those dangers. On Heidegger’s account,
dwelling consists in achieving a nearness to the earth, the sky, mortals, and
divinities.
Viewed with the kind of historical detachment exemplified in Charles
Taylor’s chapter in this volume, Heidegger’s reaction against technology
is just one ripple in the “wave of protests” that formed what Taylor calls
the “nova effect” – that is, “the multiplication of more and more spiritual
and anti-spiritual positions” (see p. 66 above). Such a multiplication, in
turn, “further fragilizes any of the positions it contains” in the sense that
it undermines the claim of each position to legitimacy. This is because the
disagreements between positions are disagreements at the most fundamen-
tal levels. As a consequence, Taylor argues, “there is no longer any clear,
unambiguous way of drawing the main issue” – the issue at hand being the
nature and place of religion in a post-metaphysical, technological age.
Taylor’s observations are valuable as a reminder that Heidegger’s diagno-
sis of our age is itself couched in terms that are not only contestable from
a number of sides, but perhaps almost unintelligible to other splinter posi-
tions in the overall fragmentation of modern culture. If, then, Heidegger’s
view of religious life after the death of God is to have an importance to
anyone beyond the initiates in Heideggerese, it can only do so by helping
to bring this overall pattern of fragmentation into some kind of focus. I
would like to try making the case that it does. In particular, as I read the
later Heidegger’s work on the divinities and the fourfold, Heidegger is of-
fering us a way of pulling into focus a problem that is scarcely articulable
from a detached, historiographical perspective – namely, why is it that a
religious life should remain an appealing possibility, that a religious life, in
any incarnation – new age or traditional – should seem a plausible way to
redress the failings of our technological and secular age?
69
70 mark a. wrathall
To answer this question, one has to say something specific about the
deficiencies of the technological age. One needs to articulate what crucial
element of a worthwhile life is lost with the death of God, and why we
should think that a religious life after the death of God can correct that loss.
I would like to present Heidegger’s reflections on the fourfold as responses
to just these questions.
the death of god
Because Heidegger’s account of the technological age grew out of his read-
ing of Nietzsche, the place to start is with Heidegger’s interpretation of
the “death of God.” Although I will refer to a number of passages from
Nietzsche, I am not concerned here either to argue that Heidegger inter-
preted Nietzsche correctly, or that Heidegger’s critique of Nietzsche found
its mark. Instead, I am interested in what Heidegger thought he learned
from Nietzsche; this can stand or fall independently of questions about
what Nietzsche really thought.
Heidegger interprets the death of God in ontological terms – that is,
according to Heidegger’s understanding of ontology, in terms of the “mode”
in which “whatever is, as such, comes to appearance.”
1
In particular, the
death of God is understood as the process by which everything is turned
into resource.
Thus, from Heidegger’s perspective, it is a terrible misreading of
Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God to take it as a bald athe-
ism, an undisguised declaration of the end of everything that is divine. As
Heidegger points out, those who think that the proclamation could mean
this must themselves be starting with an inadequate conception of God. To
think that Nietzsche is a bald atheist, Heidegger claims, they would have to
“deal with and treat their God the same way they deal with a pocketknife.
If a pocketknife is lost, it is just gone. But to lose God means something
other.”
2
Heidegger’s point is that the loss of a God, properly understood, is
an apocalyptic event – one that cannot be treated with the same equanimity
that we might treat the loss of some mundane object. To own up to the loss
of God requires of us that we reach for a new kind of divinity – a divinity
that can withstand the loss of the old God.
Heidegger sees this as apparent already in the very passages in which
Nietzsche proclaims the death of God. These explicitly place the focus
on discovering a sort of divinity which would render us able to endure a
world from which the old God is gone. The madman in Gay Science §125,
for instance, follows up the proclamation of God’s death with a series of
questions – questions that culminate in the following:
Between the earth and the sky 71
How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest
and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our
knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves?
What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the
greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply
to appear worthy of it?
3
Heidegger does not pass over such questions lightly. He closes the “Word
of Nietzsche” essay with a reflection on the fact that the madman seeks
God: “the madman. . . is clearly, according to the first, and more clearly
still according to the last, sentences of the passage, for him who can hear,
the one who seeks God, since he cries out after God. Has a thinking man
perhaps here really cried out de profundis?” (WN 112).
The proclamation of the death of God, then, means something other
than a mere denial of the real existence of the Christian God. It is rather
an attempt to really come to grips with the loss we suffer when religious
practices become marginalized. The Christian God was important because
our practices for devotion to him provided us with a source of meaning
and intelligibility. We kill God, Nietzsche’s madman declares, when we
“drink up the sea,” when we “wipe away the entire horizon,” when we
“unchain this earth from its sun.” Heidegger reads the sea as Nietzsche’s
metaphor for the sensible world – a world in flux, constantly changing,
malleable and flexible in the paths it permits us to take. God served as
a land and horizon, giving the sensible world a fixed point of reference.
The horizon is thus Nietzsche’s metaphor for focal practices that gives us a
place, determining what is important to us, and what counts as unimpor-
tant or trivial. Finally, the sun is the God in whose light everything appears
as what it is. When we drink up the sea, we become responsible for the
way the sensible world shows up – that is, we ourselves, rather than a fixed
suprasensible God, encompass the world. When we wipe away the horizon,
we destroy any fixed point of reference for valuing the world. When we un-
chain the earth fromthe sun, we deprive things of any fixed or stable essence
(WN 107).
The history of Western culture prior to the advent of the technological
age can be seen in terms of a transition through a long series of Gods, each
of which has filled the position of giver of meaning, setter of norms, source
of gravity and value. Heidegger, commenting on Nietzsche, observed that
since the Reformation, the role of highest value has been played by “the
authority of conscience,” “the authority of reason,” “historical progress,”
“the earthly happiness of the greatest number,” “the creating of a culture or
the spreading of civilization,” and finally “the business enterprise.” How-
ever, all these are “variations on the Christian-ecclesiastical and theological
72 mark a. wrathall
interpretation of the world” (WN 64). Thus the Christian God has long
since ceased, at least for most in the West, to serve as horizon and sun. What
is unique about this moment in history is that there is no candidate to step
into the position of shared source of meaning and value. Our form of life
has changed in such a way that we are no longer able to submit ourselves to
such a God. The sea-drinking, horizon-wiping, earth-unchaining process is
a process, not of filling in the position of God with yet another God in the
same mold, but of overturning the whole onto-theological interpretation
of the world which sets things under some suprasensory value.
This interpretation of the death of God ultimately underwrites Heideg-
ger’s reading of Nietzsche as the thinker of the technological epoch. Ac-
cording to Heidegger, every thinker, Nietzsche included, “has at any given
time his fundamental philosophical position within metaphysics.” But by
this he does not refer to the thinker’s explicit doctrine on metaphysical is-
sues; rather he means that their work manifests a particular understanding
about the nature “of what is as such in its entirety.” Heidegger’s interest in
Nietzsche, then, is driven by a desire to gain insight into the most funda-
mental way in which our age understands what is: “The thinking through
of Nietzsche’s metaphysics becomes a reflection on the situation and place
of contemporary man, whose destiny is still but little experienced with
respect to its truth” (WN 54).
Heidegger’s ultimate aim, then, was to use Nietzsche to get clear about
the ontological structure of what is becoming the most prominent feature of
the place of contemporary man – namely, the technologizing of everyday
life. The technological world, Heidegger argues, is grounded in the fact
that everything that is shows up as lacking in any inherent significance,
use, or purpose. Heidegger’s name for the way in which entities appear
and are experienced in the technological world is “resource.” Such entities
are removed fromtheir natural conditions and contexts, and reorganized in
such a way as to be completely available, flexible, interchangeable, and ready
to be employed in an indefinite variety of manners.
4
In the technological
age, even people are reduced from modern subjects with fixed desires and
a deep immanent truth to “functionaries of enframing.”
5
In such a world,
nothing is encountered as really mattering, that is, as having a worth that
exceeds its purely instrumental value for satisfying transitory urges.
This is, by the way, the Heideggerian way of cashing out Nietzsche’s
claimthat the death of God results in a lack of gravity. As Heidegger notes,
6
Nietzsche connects the death of the Christian God with the emptiness of a
life in which “it will appear for a long time as if all weightiness were gone
from things.”
7
Between the earth and the sky 73
By a loss of “weightiness,” Nietzsche means that nothing really matters to
us any more; that everything is equally value-less. I will refer to weightiness
as “mattering” or “importance.” With the death of the old God, we lose a
sense that our understanding of things – including having a shared vision
of the good, or a notion of the correct way to live a life, or an idea of
justice, etc. – is grounded in something more than our willing it to be so.
And without such a grounding, Heidegger worries, it is not just our lives,
but also all the things with which we deal that will lose a weightiness or
importance. All becomes equally trivial, equally lacking in goodness and
rightness and worth. The decisive question for our age, then, is “whether
we let every being weightlessly drive into nothingness or whether we want
to give a weightiness to things again and especially to ourselves; whether
we become master over ourselves, in order to find ourselves in essence,
or whether we lose ourselves in and with the existing nothingness.”
8
What the old God gave us, in short, was a way of being attuned to objects
as having a transcendental importance or weightiness. Heidegger believes
that a living God attunes a whole culture to objects in a particular way,
and as having a transcendent meaning. For example, when God was the
Judeo-Christian creator God of the theologians, we were attuned to things
as instantiations of the ideal forms created by God. We, in turn, were called
by all of creation to a certain reverence for the handiwork of God, and we
were provoked to the intellectual project of coming to understand the mind
of God as manifest in the world. In other words, God’s attunement required
of us particular modes of comportment. Because things could show up as
making demands on us, things mattered.
But now we as a culture find ourselves in the position of being unable
to share a reverence for God – that is, for some such source of attunement.
Without God to attune us to objects as having weight or importance for
us, the danger is that nothing will matter, and consequently life will not
be worth while. The search for a new source of divinity, then, becomes a
question of finding a mood, a mode of attunement, which will allowthings
once more to show up as having weight or importance. By the same token,
the inquiry into the deathof Godneeds to be understoodinaffective terms –
that is, as orientedaroundthe questionof the moodappropriate to the death
of God.
In particular, as we get in tune with the mood of the technological age,
things will begin to show up as lacking any set purpose, any determinate
inherent value, but instead as ready and on call to be taken up in any
way that we choose. The problem of this chapter can now be posed in
the following way: Why does Heidegger believe that an experience of the
74 mark a. wrathall
divine is necessary in order to live a worthwhile life in the kind of world
that shows up after the death of God?
meani ng and matteri ng
Before turning directly to this question, I want to develop a framework for
the ensuing account. I begin with a brief discussion of the idea of meaning.
Things have meaning when they hold a place in what Heidegger calls a
“referential context,” by which he refers to the way each object is defined
by a network of practices in which it is employed, the result toward which
it is directed, and the other objects with which it is used. So a hammer has
the meaning it has both because of the function it plays in human activities
(like making houses) and because of the way it “refers” to things like nails
and boards.
Although the world is meaningful or intelligible to me when I grasp the
practical and equipmental contexts that embed all the things that populate
the world, nothing in the world matters to me on the basis of this intel-
ligibility alone. It is only when I am engaged in activities myself that any
particular object comes to hold a special significance for me. As a result, in
a world where I am not active, where I have no purposes and goals, where
I am drawn into no involvements, no thing or person could matter to me.
Everything would be spread out before me in an undifferentiated (albeit
meaningful) irrelevance.
We can now, on the basis of this, distinguish what I call an instrumental
importance from an existential importance. Things have an instrumental
importance anytime we take up some of the purposes made available by
the intelligible structure of the world. In a world where it makes sense to be
a doctor, for instance, one can take up the objects that a doctor employs,
and come into relation with the people a doctor relates to in her doctoring
activities. These people and objects will matter to her, just as long as she
continues to be a doctor. But outside of her doctoring activity, these devices
and people need not make any claim on her.
Existential importance, by contrast, would consist in some practice or
object or person having an importance for our self-realization. That is, the
object or person or practice is something without which we would cease to
be who we are. Such objects or persons or practices thus make a demand
on us – require of us that we value them, respect them, respond to them
on pain of losing ourselves.
As we noted, a defining trait of resources is precisely that they do not
make any demands on us, but instead stand ready and available to be
Between the earth and the sky 75
ordered as we demand, given our current aims. We can now get a clearer
picture of one threat posed by the technological world: In the technological
world, because everything presents itself as a mere resource, and thus has at
best instrumental importance, nothing is capable of existential importance.
There is also another, closely related danger posed by our becoming
attuned to the world through technology – the danger that we will lose a
sense of having a place in the world. A life organized (however temporarily)
around an end or goal, in addition to giving us instrumentally important
objects, also acquires at least a thin “sense of place.” To illustrate, suppose
that I am engaged in being a teacher. Then everything else I do (reading
a book, learning a new software program, sleeping in on Saturday) has
its value as an activity in terms of how it contributes to or detracts from
my realization of my vocation as a teacher. A purposive life is a coherent
pattern of activity, and activities require things with which to be active.
My activities give me a sense of place by ranging over particular objects –
these students, this classroom, this campus, etc. These are the things I
relate to in realizing who I am. Another way to say this is to say that my
activities determine what is near to me and what is far from me. A thing is
far from me if it plays no role in helping me be the person I am trying to
be. (Of course, as Heidegger likes to point out, the “near” and “far” here
are not primarily spatial – if something on the other side of the world were
important to my work, I could be closer to it even while sitting in my office
in Utah than someone else might be who happened to be just next door
to it.)
But as technology begins to increase the range of our activities, it by the
same token undermines nearness and farness in our world, thus threatening
to undercut our belonging to a place and, by the same token, the sense
that anything genuinely matters. Thanks to technological devices like the
internet, I, in fact, can act at the greatest possible distances. The subsequent
extensionof reach, inturn, leads to a homogenizationof objects, whichneed
to be placed on call for exploitation in the widest imaginable set of contexts.
The result we are driving toward is that no particular thing or location will
matter at all to our ability to live our lives, because an indistinguishable
alternative is readily available. The perfectly technological world will be
one in which we can be completely indifferent to particular places, people,
and things. Or, in other words, all that is left is resources, the “formless
formations of technological production” inwhichpre-technological natures
“can no longer pierce through. . . to show their own.”
9
In justifying these
claims, Heidegger quotes approvingly the following passage from a letter
by Rilke:
76 mark a. wrathall
To our grandparents, a “house,” a “well,” a familiar steeple, even their own clothes,
their cloak still meant infinitely more, were infinitely more intimate . . . Now there
are intruding, from America, empty indifferent things, sham things, dummies of
life . . . A house, as the Americans understand it, an American apple or a winestock
from over there, have nothing in common with the house, the fruit, the grape into
which the hope and thoughtfulness of our forefathers had entered.
10
Before the advent of technology, even merely instrumentally important
objects had a veneer of existential importance, given that a substitute was
often not readily available. Before the advent of technology, instrumentally
important objects could give us a sense of place (or at least an analogue
of a genuine, existential sense of place) in virtue of the fact that objects
tended to be shaped by local and regional factors. But these thin forms of
existential importance and place are undermined as the globalization and
the technologization of the economy has made for easy interchangeabil-
ity, and has created pressure toward standardization. “Everything becomes
equal and indifferent,” Heidegger argues, “in consequence of the uniformly
calculated availability of the whole earth.”
11
For Heidegger, a worthwhile life in the technological age demands that
we rediscover existentially important objects and a sense of place. The di-
vinities play a crucial role in his account of this rediscovery. But before
turning directly to an account of Heidegger’s divinities, I would like to
focus the issue more clearly by exploring a non-religious solution to the
problem. One response to the loss of importance and place would be to
overcome our addiction to a life of existential importance, and instead
find fulfillment in experiencing ourselves as disclosers of the technologi-
cal world.
12
This possibility has recently been articulated by Dreyfus and
Spinosa in the course of an exploration of the possibility of learning to
affirm technology.
13
Dreyfus and Spinosa suggest that we could have a ful-
filling life in a technological age if we could learn to enjoy the excitement of
being able to respond flexibly to a situation, rather than being constrained
by the inherent nature of the objects in the situation that confronts us. The
reason I think that Heidegger does not pursue this option is that in affirm-
ing technology, we embrace a style of living that actively seeks to empty
objects of the kind of worth that would allowthemto make demands on us.
In the process, we might recover at least one thing with more than merely
instrumental importance – namely, it matters that there are numerous
different possible ways to respond to each situation. But we disclose these
multiple possibilities precisely to the extent that no particular possibility is
inherently worth while, and no particular action or involvement makes a
demand on us, because no particular object or action plays a unique role
Between the earth and the sky 77
in realizing who we are. In short, in such a life, nothing and nobody can
make a claim on us.
For Heidegger, such a life makes us “homesick” – that is, makes us long
for the fulfillment found in inhabiting a place populated with objects, peo-
ple, and activities which themselves have existential as opposed to merely
instrumental importance. We can thus see that, from Heidegger’s perspec-
tive, Dreyfus and Spinosa offer us at best a contingency plan for addressing
the dangers of our age. They show us how it is possible to have a life which
is significant in the sense of making sense, of being intelligible, and in
which it is even possible to have one thing – the existential space of free
possibilities – show up as more than simply instrumentally important. But
Heidegger takes the incessant appetite for amusement and entertainment,
as well as the excitement over open possibilities that Dreyfus and Spinosa
focus on, as an effort to cover over the attunement of profound boredom
which overtakes us in a world where nothing matters to us. This attempt at
a cover up, for Heidegger, attests to a continued longing for home.
14
Thus,
if it were possible to have more – to have objects and practices themselves
show up as important – such a life would be preferable. To have this kind
of life, however, requires a role for the divinities that no life of attunement
to technological things permits.
On Heidegger’s account, then, the appeal of a religious life after the death
of God is rooted in the possibility of repopulating the world with things
that have a deep importance – indeed, of perhaps genuinely relating to
such things for the first time. To explain this, let me start by restating how
Heidegger understands the way inwhichthe technological age has destroyed
the possibility of existentially important things. Heidegger’s analysis, to
frame it as succinctly as I can, is as follows: It is a relationship to things that
have intrinsic importance that makes a life genuinely fulfilling. It is only our
belonging in a particular place (existentially understood) that makes some
things really matter. The technological age has undermined our ability to
feel rooted in a particular place. Therefore, the technological age has made
it difficult to live a worthwhile life.
I now want to say more carefully how a sense of place contributes to
the existential importance of things. I note first that the thin sense of place
discussed above – where my place is a function of the things I happen
to be dealing with – seems inadequate to provide things with existential
importance. A sense of place in the thin sense only decides over which
particular objects our activities will range. It does not necessarily make those
objects ultimately worth while. To return to my teacher example, one could
ask, “Why be the teacher of these students? There’s nothing really special
78 mark a. wrathall
about them, and there are students all over the world who need a teacher.”
If that is true, it seems that my life is only contingently worth while. Once
I have a sense of being the teacher of these particular students, my life gets
the order that it has. But there is nothing that ultimately grounds my being
their teacher as opposed to somebody else’s, and so my life ultimately lacks
real significance. What we would really need is a deeply rooted belonging
to a place – a kind of belonging in which the things we deal with really
matter, that is, they make demands on us that we cannot ignore.
But how can anything really come to matter in this thick sense in a
world that is moving swiftly toward abolishing all sense of place? This sort
of mattering or importance is not something we can bestow upon things
by a free act of will. The only way to get it would be as a gift – a gift of place
or a gift of a thing of intrinsic worth. An attunement that allows things to
show up as having an intrinsic worth, however, is precisely what we lost
with the death of God. So, it seems that a worthwhile life after the death
of God requires some new endowment of divine grace, an endowment in
which we can once again be attuned to the sacred and divine. To finish
this thought, however, I need to say something more about the role the
divinities play for Heidegger in determining our place in the world.
between the earth and the sky
Heidegger’s discussion of the divinities is part of his attempt to uncover
the way that real things, as opposed to mere resources and technological
devices, show up. We have already outlined the role that a relationship to
the old God plays in allowing things and a world to “show up” (Heidegger
calls it “unconcealment”). The old God attuned us to the sacred in the sense
that he made objects have a significance independent of their usefulness to
our current projects. The divinities we strive to encounter in the fourfold
will likewise attune us to the sacred.
Heidegger tells us that for a real thing, a thing with existential impor-
tance, to show up, we must have practices for dealing with the earth and
the sky, the divinities and our own mortality. Real things themselves, in
turn, will embody the way earth, sky, mortals, and divinities condition
each other. Heidegger’s name for the interrelation of earth, sky, mortals,
and divinities is “the fourfold.”
Initially, Heidegger’s claim that things and dwelling require the mutual
“appropriation” of earth and sky, “mortals and divinities,” is anything but
clear. He tends to use each of the terms in an infuriatingly literal fashion –
and does so frequently enough that the passages cannot simply be ignored.
Between the earth and the sky 79
To cite a couple of my favorite examples, Heidegger tells us that the sky
contributes to the essence of a jug as a jug-thing because the jug holds and
pours out wine and thus gathers the sky. The holding and pouring of the
wine gathers the sky, he explains, because the grapes from which the wine
is made “receive the rain and dew of the sky.”
15
As a second example, the
Black Forest peasant’s farmhouse gathers the earth, he says, because it is
placed on a “mountain slope . . . among the meadows close to the spring.”
16
Philosophers are not used to such talk, so it is tempting either simply
to ignore these passages or to impose a metaphorical reading which, given
the densely poetical nature of Heidegger’s musings, can only be loosely
connected to the actual text.
17
The unappealing alternative is to repeat
lamely his semi-poetic musings about the sky in the dew on the grapes
(and so on). In terms of doing any philosophical work with Heidegger’s
notion of the fourfold, the metaphorical reading is certainly preferable to
a mere repetition. But it seems, at the least, to do violence to the text.
I think, however, that such approaches are mistaken, and miss the whole
point of Heidegger’s discussion of the fourfold. The four are meant, by
Heidegger, quite literally. The earth is the earth beneath our feet, the earth
that spreads out all around us as mountains and in trees, in rivers and
streams. The sky is the sky above our heads, the stars and constellations,
the sunandthe moon, the shifting weather that brings the changing seasons.
We are the mortals – we and our companions – living our lives and dying
our deaths. And the divinities – the most elusive members of the fourfold
in this age – are divine beings, the “beckoning messengers of the Godhead.”
To justify such a literal, straightforward reading of the fourfold, I need to
be able to say how a discussion of the earth, sky, mortals, and divinities
shows us how to dwell and thereby recover a sense of place.
We can see this if we remember that what is at issue is the problem
of discovering things with existential importance. Heidegger’s insight is
this: We do not have things that matter to us if all there is is isolated,
self-contained, interchangeable entities – in other words, resources. Such
entities cannot matter to us, cannot have existential importance for us,
because none of them is essential to being who we are. Their flexibility and
interchangeability make them efficient, but also prevent any of them from
playing a unique role in our lives: “In enframing [i.e., the technological
understanding that orders our world], everything is set up in the constant
replaceability of the same through the same.”
18
Real things, by contrast, are
of a nature to make demands on us and, in the process, condition us.
We can clarify this idea of conditioning by noting that even instrumental
importance is a result of a certain degree of conditioning of one object by
80 mark a. wrathall
another. It is only because our activities are conditioned or constrained by
the objects with which we act that any particular object has instrumental
importance. It is only because I want to build a house, for example, that
a hammer matters more than a fountain pen. This is because the need to
drive nails, and the nature of nails and boards, conditions the kind of tools
I can use successfully. If objects make no demands on us or each other, and
thus do not condition us or each other, then no object can be of any more
weight than any other.
Therefore, for things to matter, there must be mutual conditioning.
Heidegger’s name for the process of mutual condition is Ereignis, probably
best translated as “appropriation,” where this is heard not as saying that
we take over as our own something that does not belong to us, but rather
as the mutual conditioning through which we and the things around us
“come into our own” – i.e., become what each can be when conditioned
by the other.
19
The danger of the technological age is that we are turning everything
(things, earth, sky, our own mortality, divinities) into entities which can-
not condition, and thus cannot matter to us. The way to counteract the
technological age, then, is to allow ourselves to be conditioned. Precisely
here is where the fourfold becomes important – namely, as a source of
conditioning in our lives.
Heidegger’s name for living in such a way that we are conditioned or
appropriated by the fourfold is “dwelling.” What does it mean to “dwell” –
that is, to be conditioned by the fourfold?
We are conditioned by the earth when we incorporate into our prac-
tices the particular features of the environment around us. “Mortals dwell
in that they save the earth,” Heidegger explains, where “saving the earth”
consists in not exploiting it, not mastering it, and not subjugating it.
20
In
Utah, for instance, one way to be conditioned by the earth would be to
live in harmony with the desert, rather than pushing it aside by planting
grass and lawns to replicate the gardens of the East. The technology of
modern irrigation and sprinkler systems allow us to push our own earth
aside, to master it and subjugate it, rather than being conditioned by it (as
Borgmann has beautifully demonstrated).
21
Human beings “only experi-
ence the appropriation of the earth in the home-coming to their land,”
22
that is, when we come to be at home with our land in its own characteristics,
not those enforced upon it.
We are conditioned by our sky when we incorporate into our practices
the peculiar features of the temporal cycles of the heavens, the day and
the night, the seasons and the weather. We push aside the sky when, for
Between the earth and the sky 81
example, our eating habits demand food on call, out of season, or when
our patterns of work, rest, and play make no allowance for the times of day
and year, or recognize no holy days or festivals.
We are conditioned by our mortality when our practices acknowledge
our temporal course on earth – both growth and suffering, health and
disease. Heidegger illustrates this through the example of the Black Forest
peasant hut, which was intimately conditioned by (and correspondingly
conditioning of ) mortality: “It did not forget the altar corner behind the
community table; it made room in its chamber for the hallowed places of
childbed and the ‘tree of the dead’ – for that is what they call a coffin there:
the Totenbaum – and in this way it designed for the different generations
under one roof the character of their journey through time.”
23
We push our
mortality aside when we seek immediate gratification without discipline,
whenwe set aside our ownlocal culture, whenwe try toengineer biologically
and pharmacologically an end to all infirmity, including even death.
We are conditioned by the divinities when, for instance, we incorporate
into our practices a recognition of holy times and holy precincts – perhaps
manifested where one experiences the earth as God’s creation, or feels a
reverence for holy days or the sanctity of humanlife.
24
H¨ olderlin’s Hyperion
expresses such a sense for divinity in the world:
And often, when I lay there among the flowers, basking in the delicate spring light,
and looked up into the serene blue that embraced the warmearth, when I sat under
the elms and willows on the side of the mountain, after a refreshing rain, when the
branches were yet astir from the touch of the sky and golden clouds moved over
the dripping woods; or when the evening star, breathing the spirit of peace, rose
with the age-old youths and the other heroes of the sky, and I saw how the life in
them moved on through the ether in eternal, effortless order, and the peace of the
world surrounded and rejoiced me, so that I was suddenly alert and listening, yet
did not know what was befalling me – “Do you love me, dear Father in Heaven,”
I whispered, and felt his answer so certainly and so blissfully in my heart.
25
As suggested by this quotation, earth, sky, mortals, and divinities do not
just condition us, however; they also condition each other. Heidegger says
that the fourfold mirror each other by ringing or wrestling with each other.
Mirroring, Heidegger explains, consists in each member of the four becom-
ing lighted, or intelligible, in the process of reflecting the others. I take this
to mean, for instance, that the sky is only intelligible as the sky it is in terms
of the interaction it has with the earth striving to spring forth as the earth
it is (or in terms of the mortal activities it blesses or restricts) – for example,
the weather the sky brings is only intelligible as inclement weather given
the fruits the earth bears (or the activities of mortals), and the earth first
82 mark a. wrathall
comes into its essence as the earth it is when “blossoming in the grace of
the sky.”
26
More importantly for our purposes here, the divinities only are
divinities to the extent that they mirror and, mirroring, light up the other
regions of the four. The implication is that Heidegger’s divinities have to
be beings who can condition and be conditioned by the earth, the sky, and
mortals. Conversely, the “default of the gods” that characterizes our age is
understood in terms of the failure of any divine being to condition us and
the things around us: “The default of God means that no god any longer
gathers men and things unto himself, visibly and unequivocally, and by
such gathering disposes the world’s history and man’s sojourn in it.”
27
With this in mind, let’s turn nowto the question howsuch conditioning
can give us things that “near” – that have an importance which orients our
whole life and not just the particular activities in which we are currently
engaged. It is important to emphasize that we cannot have such things
through a mere change of attitude – through merely deciding to treat
resources as things. Things are not things in virtue of being represented
or valued in some special way, but rather by being shaped in light of the
receptivity that we have developed for our local earth, sky, mortals, and
divinities. If the objects with which our world is populated have not been
conditioned in that way (and resources are not), then they will not solicit
the practices we have developed for living on the earth, beneath the sky,
before the divinities. As Heidegger explains, “nothing that stands today as
anobject inthe distanceless canever be simply switched over into a thing.”
28
By the same token, Heidegger cannot be advocating a nostalgic return to
living in Black Forest peasant farmhouses. He notes that “things as things do
not ever come about if we merely avoid [technological] objects and recollect
former objects which perhaps were once on the way to becoming things
and even to actually presencing as things.”
29
To the extent that the former
things gathered a receptivity to a particular sky, a particular earth, particular
divinities, and particular mortal practices, they cannot thing for us, because
our sky, earth, divinities, and mortals have a different configuration. They
might once have been things, in other words, but they cannot thing in our
fourfold.
Thus, if we are to live with things, we ourselves need to “bring the four-
fold’s essence into things.”
30
In other words, on the basis of our reawakened
receptivity to the four, we need to learn to make things and nurture things
into being more than mere resource, hence to let them embody the essence
of our place or home – our earth, our sky, our mortality, and our divinities.
Heidegger’s name for the activity of constructing and cultivating things
in such a way that they contain or gather the fourfold is “building.” The
Between the earth and the sky 83
idea is that, in building, things secure the fourfold because, in the way they
drawus into action, they drawupon just the kind of responsiveness that we
have acquired by dwelling before our local divinities, earth, sky, and mortal
practices. As Heidegger puts it, “building takes its standard over from the
fourfold.”
31
When our practices incorporate the fourfold, such things will
have importance beyond their instrumental use in our current activities
because they and only they are geared to our way of inhabiting the world.
As a result they, and only they, can be used to be who we are. We will thus
finally be at home in our places, because our practices are oriented to our
places alone.
We might nowwonder, however, why a relation to divinities is important
if things with existential importance are secured by a sense of place. It
seems that if we could foster practices for our earth, our sky, and our
mortality, we could have a receptivity to the world that could only be
satisfied by particular things, not generic resources. Those things would
then, at least if the argument I have outlined is correct, have existential
importance without any mention of divinities. Thus, the divinities seem
superfluous.
I think that there are two answers to this problem. First, there is the tacti-
cal observation that given the seductiveness of resources and technological
devices, it would take an experience of the divine to awaken us to the flaws
in the technological age. The God, Heidegger says, “deranges us” – in the
sense that he calls us beyond the existing configuration of objects to see
things that shine forth with a kind of holiness (i.e., a dignity and worth
that exceeds our will). Heidegger understands receptivity to the sacred
as the experience of being beheld – of recognizing that there is a kind of
intellegibility to the world that we do not ourselves produce. If God is part
of the fourfold, then he wrestles with each region of the four, and brings it
into a sacred own-ness. If we, in turn, are receptive to God, our practices
will embody a recognition that the technological reduction of objects to
resources is an act of presumption, for it proceeds on the assumption that
we are free to employ anything we encounter in any way whatsoever. Once
attuned by the divinities, technology will no longer be able to seduce us
into an endless and empty “switching about ever anew,” because we will see
certain things around us as invested with holiness – with an intelligibility
inherent to them, which shines forth out of them. So attuned, we may be
able to establish what Heidegger calls a “free relation” to technology – a
relation in which we are able to use technological devices to support our
dwelling with things. But because the draw of technology is so strong, it is
only a God who can save us, as Heidegger once asserted.
32
84 mark a. wrathall
Second, there is something substantive that being conditioned by a God
adds to our sense of place – namely, it shows us our place as necessary for
us. In fact, the old theological interpretation of God and the world was
never able to do the job of giving us existential importance (we only had
it in spite of the theological interpretation). The God of the philosophers
was a God removed from time and us personally. His primary role was
the establishment of meaning. But unless he could somehow be present
to us, manifest himself in conditioning particular things in this world,
be embodied, so to speak, so that we could become dependent on the
intelligibility he helps light up, God could do no more than guarantee the
intelligibility of the world (and the thin instrumental mattering that comes
with that intelligibility).
I alluded above to the idea that, for Heidegger, the death of the onto-
theological god actually might allowfor a richer, more fulfilling sense of the
divine. I can at this point start to redeem this claim. The onto-theological
god gave things an importance that we were not free to change. As the
source of all intelligibility, that God decided what things really were. But
because he was beyond any being that we have experience of, there was no
way he could attune us directly, i.e., no way he could help give us a place
in the whole cosmos that he had made intelligible, and thus no guarantee
that we would live in such a way that the objects as God knew them were
existentially important to us.
33
An openness to divinities that themselves
attune us, however, makes it possible to experience things in the world as
sacred, and as making demands on us, which in turn allows them to have
existential importance for us.
The death of the metaphysical God thus presents us with a great danger
but also a unique opportunity to find a relationship to the divine that can
endow our lives with deep importance. To be conditioned by the divinities
is to discover God embodied – to find him present in our world. The death
of the theologian’s God offers us at least the possibility of a recovery of an
immediate experience of the divine that has only rarely been achieved –
that is, an experience of a living God with a presence in our world. Such a
God would have an importance incommensurate with any object. As the
source of our attunement, God would matter to us not just in the sense
that our practices require his presence for their fulfillment. He would also
matter as the being which calls us into the kind of engagement with the
world that we would embody. He would, in short, be a God before whom
we could pray, to whom we could sacrifice, in front of whom we could fall
to our knees in awe.
34
Between the earth and the sky 85
It should be obvious that the hope of finding this sort of divinity is
something we cannot bring about ourselves. All we can do is try to keep
alive the practices that will attune us in such a way that we can experience
the divine in the world. The only means we have available to this end are
the religious practices we have inherited. Those who are conditioned by the
divine, Heidegger explains, “await the divinities as divinities. In hope they
hold up to the divinities what is unhoped for. They wait for intimations of
their coming and do not mistake the signs of their absence. They do not
make their gods for themselves and do not worship idols. In the very depth
of misfortune they wait for the weal that has been withdrawn.”
35
Despite the obviously Christianovertones of this andother suchpassages,
it is important to see that Heidegger is not a nostalgic and sentimental
thinker. His claim here is not that lapse into an accustomed mode of
religious life is an end in itself. To the contrary, we can only be conditioned
by the divine if we find our own authentic relationship to divinities. The
problemis that, barring a newrevelation, the only practices we have left for
getting in tune with the divine are the remnants of past religious practices.
These, Heidegger thinks, must therefore be nurtured in order to preserve a
sense for the holy, because God can only appear as a god in the dimension of
the holy. This, I take it, is the point of the somewhat enigmatic comments
Heidegger made about religion in the course of his “Conversations with a
Buddhist Monk”: “I consider only one thing to be decisive: to follow the
words of the founder. That alone – and neither the systems nor the doctrines
and dogmas are important. Religion is succession. . . Without the sacred
we remain out of contact with the divinities. Without being touched by
the divinities, the experience of God fails to come.”
36
But even remaining
true to the practices we inherit from the founders of religion provides no
guarantee of an advent of God. All we can do, Heidegger argued, is prepare
ourselves for the advent in the hope that, through a gift of grace, we can
receive our own revelation. “I see the only possibility of a salvation in
preparing a readiness, in thinking and poetizing, for the appearance of the
God or for the absence of God in the case of decline; that we not, to put it
coarsely, ‘come to a wretched end,’ but rather if we decline, we decline in
the face of the absent God.”
37
notes
1. “The Word of Nietzsche: ‘God is Dead’” (WN), in The Question Concerning
Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row,
1977), p. 101, translation modified.
86 mark a. wrathall
2. Gesamtausgabe, vol. 39: H¨ olderlins Hymnen “Germanien” und “Der Rhein”
(Frankfurt-on-Main: Klostermann, 1999), p. 95.
3. Trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1974).
4. See “The Question Concerning Technology,” in The Question Concerning
Technology and Other Essays.
5. Gesamtausgabe, vol. 79: Bremer und Freiburger Vortr¨ age (GA 79) (Frankfurt-
on-Main: Klostermann, 1994), p. 30.
6. Gesamtausgabe, vol. 44: Nietzsches metaphysische Grundstellung im
abendl¨ andischen Denken: Die ewige Wiederkehr des Gleichen (GA 44)
(Frankfurt-on-Main: Klostermann, 1986), pp. 192–3.
7. S¨ amtliche Werke: Kritische Studienausgabe, vol. 11: Nachgelassene Fragmente
1884–1885, ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Berlin and New York:
Walter de Gruyter, 1980), p. 424.
8. GA 44, pp. 193–4.
9. “What are Poets For?,” in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter
(New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 113.
10. “Letter to Muzot,” quoted ibid.
11. “The Nature of Language,” in On the Way to Language, trans. Peter D. Hertz
(NewYork: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 105.
12. Nietzsche seems to think that this is the kind of experience that will properly
attune us to the world as it appears after the death of God. After the death
of God, he wrote in an unpublished note, all that is left is the issue “whether
to abolish our reverences or us ourselves. The latter is nihilism.” The former
course – that of abolishing our reverences – is the course which will open us
up to enjoying the thrill of responding freely to the world as technology offers
it. Nietzsche’s primary metaphor for the world after the death of God – a
world in which there are no fixed points of reference, and in which no object
has a real gravity or weight – is a sea with infinite horizons: “At long last the
horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last
our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring
of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again;
perhaps there has never yet been such an ‘open sea’” (Gay Science, sec. 343).
13. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Charles Spinosa, “Highway Bridges and Feasts:
Heidegger and Borgmann on how to Affirm Technology,” Man and World
30 (1997).
14. “700 Jahre Messkirch,” in Gesamtausgabe, vol. 16: Reden und andere Zeugnisse
eines Lebensweges 1910–1976 (GA16) (Frankfurt-on-Main: Klostermann, 2000),
pp. 578ff.
15. “The Thing,” in Poetry, Language, Thought, p. 172.
16. “Building, Dwelling, Thinking” (BDT), in Poetry, Language, Thought, p. 160.
17. Dreyfus and Spinosa, for instance, explain earth, sky, mortals, and divini-
ties without a single quotation from, or citation of, Heidegger’s discussion of
the fourfold. For interpretations which approach the literalness with which
I think Heidegger should be read, see James C. Edwards, The Plain Sense of
Things: The Fate of Religion in an Age of Normal Nihilism (University Park,
Between the earth and the sky 87
Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997); Julian Young, Heidegger’s Later
Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 2002); and Charles Taylor, “Heideg-
ger, Language, and Ecology,” in Heidegger: A Critical Reader, ed. Hubert L.
Dreyfus and Harrison Hall (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), pp. 247–69.
18. GA 79, p. 44.
19. See, for example, “Seminar in Le Thor,” in Gesamtausgabe, vol. 15: Seminare
(Frankfurt-on-Main: Klostermann, 1986), p. 363: “es ist das Ereignis des Seins
als Bedingung der Ankunft des Seienden: das Sein l¨ aßt das Seiende anwesen.”
20. BDT, p. 150.
21. Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (University of Chicago Press,
1987).
22. Besinnung auf unser Wesen (Messkirch: Martin-Heidegger-Gesellschaft, 1994).
23. BDT, p. 160.
24. See “Origin of the Work of Art,” in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell
(New York: Harper & Row, 1993), p. 167.
25. Friedrich H¨ olderlin, “Hyperion,” in Hyperion and Selected Poems, ed. Eric L.
Santner (New York: Continuum, 1990), pp. 5–6.
26. Besinnung auf unser Wesen (“die Erde als Erde wesen l¨ aßt; das ist: Erbl ¨ uhen in
der Huld des Himmels”).
27. “What are Poets For?,” p. 91.
28. “The Thing,” p. 182. This passage, by the way, shows that the earlier reference
to highway bridges gathering must have been sloppiness on Heidegger’s part. If
gathering is a term of art for what things do – as Heidegger sometimes indeed
uses it – then highway bridges cannot thing because they do not gather the
divinities; they push them aside. Cf. Dreyfus and Spinosa, “Highway Bridges
and Feasts.”
29. “The Thing,” p. 182, translation modified, my italics.
30. BDT, p. 151, translation modified.
31. “Bauen Wohnen Denken,” in GA 7, p. 161.
32. “‘Only a God Can Save Us’: Der Spiegel ’s Interviewwith Martin Heidegger,” in
The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader, ed. Richard Wolin (Cambridge,
Mass.: MIT Press, 1992), pp. 91–116.
33. Kierkegaard makes just this point in Fear and Trembling, when he notes that
if God “is understood in an altogether abstract sense . . . God becomes an
invisible, vanishing point, an impotent thought.” Fear and Trembling, trans.
Alastair Hannay (London: Penguin Books, 1985), p. 96.
34. See “The Onto-Theo-Logical Constitution of Metaphysics,” in Identity and
Difference, trans. Joan Stambaugh (University of Chicago Press, 1969), p. 72.
35. BDT, p. 150.
36. GA 16, p. 590.
37. Ibid., p. 671.
chapter 7
Christianity without onto-theology: Kierkegaard’s
account of the self’s movement from despair to bliss
Hubert L. Dreyfus
Kierkegaard belongs right after Mark Wrathall’s eloquent explanation and
defense of the later Heidegger’s account of the fourfold: the local earth,
the seasons, our mortality, and the remnants of the pagan gods. Wrathall
presented the fourfold as an attempt to answer the question: Why do we
need the divine and the sacred in our lives and how should we preserve and
promote them?
If he had read Martin Heidegger, Kierkegaard would have answered
that any attempt to preserve the local is doomed; that technicity, the drive
toward optimization and efficiency, will sooner or later wipe out traditional
practices, just as it has already wiped out the last stage of onto-theology,
the metaphysics of the subject, and is turning us all into resources.
Heidegger was all too aware of this possibility, which he expresses in his
lament that “the wasteland grows,” that what is so dangerous about tech-
nology is that it is a drive toward the total efficient ordering of everything.
The wilderness is turning into a resource – the Alaskan resource, human be-
ings are no longer personnel, but rather material for the Human Resources
Departments, and a recent advertisement proclaimed that children “are our
most precious resource.” What Robert Pippin called “farmer metaphysics”
is on the way out. Heidegger sadly notes the television antennas on the
peasants’ huts and feels that we are already failing to dwell, and that our
culture is rushing into the “longest night.” For Heidegger, all we can do
is carry out a holding action trying to preserve the endangered species of
practices while awaiting a new God.
What Heidegger does not consider is that losing our appreciation of
the jug of local wine, the seasons, our mortal vulnerability, and our local
religious traditions might be a good thing; that these pagan practices might
be standing in the way of a more intensely rewarding religious life.
This is where Kierkegaard comes in. He had a similar despairing analysis
of the present age as nihilistic, and saw all meaningful differences being
leveled by what he called “reflection.” That was his name for the fact that
88
Christianity without onto-theology 89
more and more people in his time were becoming spectators and critics
and fewer and fewer were willing to take the risk of making a serious
commitment. He claimed that thanks to the media, this spectator attitude
and the leveling it produces would get worse and worse, until, like a bonfire,
it would “consume everything.”
1
That is, it would level all meaningful
differences between the trivial and the important.
But Kierkegaard, the radical Christian, has an entirely different response
than Heidegger, the conservative pagan. Kierkegaard thinks that clearing
away the local rootedness and the local gods is a good thing; when the bon-
fire has consumed everything local, we shall be left only with the choice be-
tween the meaningless distractions of the present age and what Kierkegaard
calls the “decision in existence.” If we heed the call, he says, we shall be
able to leap over “the sharp scythe of the leveler . . . into the arms of God.”
2
That would be to discover a new and better way of finding meaning, and
mattering in our lives. As he puts it in the culminating exhortation of The
Present Age:
There is no more action or decision in our day than there is perilous delight in
swimming in shallow waters. But just as a grown-up, struggling delightedly in the
waves, calls to those younger than himself: “Come on, jump in quickly” – the
decision in existence . . . calls out . . . Come on, leap cheerfully, even if it means a
lighthearted leap, so long as it is decisive. If you are capable of being a man, then
danger and the harsh judgment of existence on your thoughtlessness will help you
become one.
3
The leap into the deep water refers to a series of total commitments, first
to the enjoyment of possibility (the aesthetic), then to the universal ethical,
and then to the mystical life of self-annihilation before God. Each opens
what Kierkegaard calls a sphere of existence. But Kierkegaard also claims
that if one lives passionately in each sphere, each sphere will break down
and land one back in the leveling of the present age. In Sickness unto Death,
Kierkegaard describes these breakdowns and presents the only sphere of
existence that he claims will work. He does so by giving an account of the
structure of the self that explains the breakdowns and also what is required
for a meaningful life. He then shows how only Christianity, the religion of
the God-man, meets this requirement.
1 what i s a self?
According to Kierkegaard, a human being is a combination of two sets of
factors:
90 hubert l. dreyfus
The human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the
self ? The self is a relation which relates to itself, or that in the relation which is
its relating to itself. The self is not the relation but the relation’s relating to itself.
A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the eternal and
the temporal, of possibility and necessity . . . A synthesis is a relation between two
factors. Looked at in this way a human being is not yet a self.
4
How can Kierkegaard argue for such an essentialist view? How can he say
more than what Charles Taylor and Richard Rorty agree on, that any-
one can have any relation to God or to the sacred that he or she feels
called upon to have, as long as he or she does not seek to impose it on
others? How can Kierkegaard claim, in this fractured world, to know the
essential structure of the self, and consequently that one kind of religion
is what every human being is called to have, whether he or she knows it
or not?
We must try to understand what kind of claimthis is. I used to think that
it was a modest claim concerning how the self has come to be constituted
in the Judeo-Christian tradition; that Christianity created the disease for
which it is the cure. But, if that were so, I would have to agree with Rorty
that it’s high time we chose a new vocabulary. But now I think it’s clear that
Kierkegaard thinks that Christianity discovered the essential truth about the
self – that it was sick unto death, not that Christianity produced this sick
self.
But how can Kierkegaard claim to know the essential nature of the self ?
He doesn’t claim a Husserlian Wesenschau, nor is he simply appealing to
revelation. I think that his argument has the formintroduced by Heidegger
in Being and Time and worked out by Saul Kripke in Naming and Necessity.
5
Heidegger calls it “formal indication”; Kripke calls it “rigid designation.”
People also call it “black box essentialism.”
The idea is that whether there are essences is an experimental question,
and so cannot be decided a priori. The way natural science is practiced,
we assume provisionally that there are natural kinds like water and gold
with essential properties; we then designate such supposed kinds by some
property and investigate, in the appropriate way, whether we have picked
out a kind and found its essential property. So, to take a few Kripkean
examples, we designate gold as that yellow stuff and then it finally turns
out that yellowness is not essential but that gold has the atomic number 79.
Or we designate heat as what feels warmto the touch and then discover that
it is essentially molecular motion. We think that we’ve got it right, i.e., that
we have found the essential property, when we can use it to explain all the
other properties and account for all the anomalies that seem to contradict
our essentialist account.
Christianity without onto-theology 91
Heidegger had a similar idea. Taking his clue from Kierkegaard, he said
in Being and Time that he would provisionally formally indicate
6
human
beings as Dasein, i.e., as essentially beings that have to take a stand on
their own being. He then did a lot of appropriate investigation, in this
case hermeneutic and phenomenological investigation, and it turned out
that this account of the self enabled him to understand a lot about human
beings, and this confirmed his provisional designation, which of course
could still run into problems later on and turn out to be wrong.
7
Kierkegaard wants to discover the essential structure of the self. He is
not the first to try. The self was designated by Plato and many others as
some sort of combination of body and soul. Kierkegaard thinks that this
approach fails to explain the possibility of despair, an important aspect of
human life. He provisionally suggests that the self’s essential property is
that it is a relation that relates itself to itself, and that such a relation has
a complex structure which he calls a “synthesis” of two sets of factors. Of
course, whether this self is a kind, and whether this is its essential structure,
indeed, whether there are any kinds with essences at all, will have to be
answered by a description of human experience. The appropriate test is
how much of human experience Kierkegaard can order and understand,
and how he can account for anomalies that seem to contradict alternative
accounts.
The Greeks called the two sets of factors you see in Figure 1 (p. 92) the
soul and the body respectively. According to the ancients, the self begins
withthese factors inconflict, but once one realizes that only one set of factors is
essential – that one is aneternal soul, and not a temporal body, or vice versa –
the conflict and instability are overcome. Life is a voyage from confusion to
clarity and from conflict to harmony. Since the self is potentially whole and
harmonious, all one has to do is realize its true nature, find and satisfy its
true needs rather than its superficial desires, and one can experience peace
and fulfillment.
On the Greek account, if both sets of factors were equally essential the
self would be in hopeless self-contradiction. It could not fully express all
its bodily, finite, temporal needs and capacities while at the same time fully
expressing all its intellectual, infinite, eternal needs and capacities. It seems,
in fact, that the more you express one set of factors, the less you are able
to express the other set. So it would seem that the factors were merely
combined, and only one set of factors could be essential.
Starting with Pascal, however, Christian thinkers realized that according
to Christianity, both sets of factors were essential and the self was, indeed,
a contradiction. As Pascal put it: “What a chimera then is man! What a
novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction!”
8
92 hubert l. dreyfus
R
2
Spirit passion
Finite
temporal
necessary
(facticity)
R
1
Human being
Spiritlessness
Infinite
eternal
possibility
(freedom)
Body Soul
R
3
Unconditional commitment
Figure 1 Kiergekaard’s definition of the self
According to Pascal, a person’s highest achievement was not to deny or
overcome this contradiction – by getting rid of half the self – but to live in
such a way as to express the tension of the contradiction fully. “We do not
display greatness by going to one extreme, but in touching both extremes
at once, and filling all the intervening space.”
9
Kierkegaard agrees that, according to the Judeo-Christian tradition, the
self is a contradictory synthesis between two sets of factors and that each set
is essential and requires the other. He calls this a dialectical relation. That
means that both sets of factors are aspects of one whole. You can’t satisfy
one set of factors without satisfying the other.
Let us now look at this claim in more detail. (See Figure 1.)
2 ways of attempti ng to be a self
R
1
– This is what Kierkegaard calls spiritlessness. One has a sense that the
self is a contradiction that has to be faced, but one lives in what Pascal
called distraction so that one never has to take a stand in thought or action
as to how to get the factors together. Pascal gives as examples of distraction
playing tennis and sitting alone in one’s room solving hard philosophical
problems. (No doubt he had Descartes in mind.) Kierkegaard thought that
the most important distraction in his time was the public sphere, where one
Christianity without onto-theology 93
could discuss events and people anonymously without ever having to take
responsibility for one’s views. One could debate, on the basis of principles,
how the world should be run, without running the risk of testing these
principles in action. This formof distraction is nowperfected in chat rooms
and news groups on the internet, but, of course, there are many other ways
to avoid facing the contradictory nature of the self besides surfing the net.
R
2
– If a human being acts only as a combination of factors, he or she
is not yet a self. To be a self, the relation must relate itself to itself, by
taking a stand on both sets of factors through its actions. It must manifest
that something about the self is essential by making something in its life
absolute. This can take a negative and a positive form.
Negative R
2
– “In a relation between two things the relation is the third
term in the form of a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation, and
in the relation to that relation; this is what it is from the point of view of
soul for soul and body to be in relation.”
10
When the relation is a negative unity, the relation relates to itself in the
Greek way; denying one of the sets of factors and acting as if only the other
aspect of the self were the essential one. One can, for example, take the soul
to be eternal at the expense of the body as Plato did, or do the opposite, as
Lucretius did.
Positive R
2
– Such selves try, by themselves, to express fully both sets
of factors in thought and action, but this turns out to be impossible. For
example, if one makes possibility absolute and lives for constant change,
constantly open to new possibilities, one is in the aesthetic sphere –
Kierkegaard’s anticipation of Nietzsche and the post-moderns – but that
gives no expression to the necessary and the eternal. Or, if one tries to make
the infinite andthe eternal absolute, one loses the finite andthe temporal. As
Kierkegaard puts it, such mystical types can’t bring their God-relationship
together with a decision whether or not to take a walk in the park.
Once he has worked through all the first three spheres of existence in
this way, Kierkegaard claims to have shown that “the self cannot by itself
arrive at or remain in equilibrium and rest.”
11
His Christian view is that the
self is unable to solve its own problem. It does not have the truth in it, that
is, it does not have in itself the resources to live a stable and meaningful
life.
3 despai r: the si ckness unto death
In Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard tries to showthat every possible attempt
to combine the factors by essentializing one or the other of each pair of
94 hubert l. dreyfus
factors leads to despair, as does every way of trying to do justice to both.
And, according to Kierkegaard, everyone who has not managed to perform
the impossible task of getting his or her self together in a stable, meaningful
life is in despair.
You might well think that this is all ridiculous, since you, at least, are not
in despair. You may feel that you are having a great time enjoying all your
possibilities, or living a fulfilling life taking care of your family, or that your
life is worth living because you are working to eliminate suffering, and so
forth. In general, that you are fulfilling your capacities and everything is
working out fine.
Kierkegaard would say that you might think you are living a life worth
living, but in fact you are in despair. What right does he have to say this?
His answer is in Sickness unto Death:
Despair differs dialectically from what one usually calls sickness, because it is
a sickness of the spirit. And this dialectical aspect, properly understood, brings
further thousands under the category of despair. If at any time a physician is
convinced that so and so is in good health, and then later that person becomes
ill, then the physician may well be right about his having been well at the time
but now being sick. Not so with despair. Once despair appears, what is apparent
is that the person was in despair. In fact, it’s never possible at any time to decide
anything about a person who is not saved through having been in despair. For
when whatever causes a person to despair occurs, it is immediately evident that he
has been in despair his whole life.
12
Kierkegaard is pointing out that despair is not like sadness, regret, disap-
pointment, depression, etc. Rather, unlike these downers, despair exhibits
what Kierkegaard calls “the dialectic of eternity.” If you are sad, you know
that it is temporary. Even if something so terrible happens to you that you
feel that you were happy once but that whatever has happened makes it
impossible for you ever to be happy again, that is certainly misery, but it is
not despair. Despair is the feeling that life isn’t working for you and, given
the kind of person you are, it is impossible for things to work for you; that
a life worth living is, in your case, literally impossible.
That means that once a person experiences despair – “it will be evident
that his [previous] success was an illusion”
13
– i.e., all that person’s past
joys must have been self-deceptions. That in turn means that, if you ever
experience despair, you realize that you have always been in despair and
you always will be. So Kierkegaard concludes that, since the self is a con-
tradiction, even though you now feel that things are going well for you,
you must right now be in despair and not know it. Only if you have faced
your despair – the sickness unto death – and been cured can you be sure
Christianity without onto-theology 95
that you are not now in despair. So, given the contradictory nature of the
self, all of us, with the exception of those who have faced despair and been
healed, must right now be in despair.
The ultimate despair, Kierkegaard contends, is denying that one is in
despair by denying the demand that we express the two sets of factors
in our lives in a way that enables them to reinforce each other. This is
not the distraction of the present age where one represses the call to be
a self. Rather, someone in this ultimate form of despair sees that in our
religious tradition the self has, indeed, been constituted as having two
sets of essential but incompatible factors, but claims that this is merely a
traditional, essentialist view that we should opt out of. Since the traditional
Judeo-Christian understanding of the self leads people to despair, we should
simply give it up and adopt a vocabulary and practices that are healthier
and more useful to us now.
How can we decide who is right here, Kierkegaard or the pragmatist? I
think that this is a questionwe canonly approachexperimentally. InSickness
unto Death, Kierkegaard tries to show that the Christian claim that the self
is a contradiction is confirmed by a purportedly exhaustive categorization
of all the ways of being a self available to us and how each fails.
4 how the factors rei nforce each other
i n an uncondi ti onal commi tment
If Kierkegaard is right, not being in despair must mean having been some-
how cured of it for good. He says:
The possibility of this sickness is man’s advantage over the beast; to be aware of this
sickness is the Christian’s advantage over natural man; to be cured of this sickness
is the Christian’s blessedness.
14
Consequently, Kierkegaard proposed to preface Sickness unto Death with a
prayer to Jesus as Savior:
O Lord Jesus Christ, who didst come to earth to heal them that suffer from this
sickness . . . help Thou us in this sickness to hold fast to Thee, to the end that we
may be healed of it.
15
According to Kierkegaard, Jesus is “God in time as [an] individual man.”
16
But how that enables him to cure us of despair is rather a long story. To
begin with, Kierkegaard tells us that the self can only succeed in relating
itself to itself by relating to another. Only when the self “in relating to itself
relates to something else,”
17
Kierkegaard contends, can it get the two sets
96 hubert l. dreyfus
of factors into equilibrium. Only then is each factor defined in such a way
as to support rather than be in conflict with the others. But how is this
possible?
Whether you can get the factors together or whether they form a con-
tradiction depends on how you define them. Or, to put it another way,
the Greeks found that, if you define the factors from the point of view of
detachment, you can’t get them together. Kierkegaard tries to show that
only if you define the factors in terms of a total involvement that gives you
your identity do you get a positive synthesis.
This is the claim illustrated in Fear and Trembling. The story starts with
Abraham the Father of the faith, who “believed he would. . . [be] blessed
in his kin, eternally remembered in Isaac.”
18
Isaac was obviously essential
to Abraham’s identity. To illustrate what is at stake in having an identity,
Kierkegaard draws on the chivalric romances. The example on which he
says “everything turns” is the case of “A young lad [who] falls in love
with a princess, [so that] the content of his whole life lies in this love.”
19
Kierkegaard adds in a footnote that “any other interest whatever in which
an individual concentrates the whole of life’s reality”
20
would do as well.
The lad who loves the princess relates himself to himself by way of
this relation. Thanks to it, he knows who he is and what is relevant and
important in his world. Any such unconditional commitment to some
specific individual, cause, or vocation whereby a person gets an identity
and a sense of reality would do to make the point Kierkegaard is trying to
make. In such a case the person becomes an individual defined by his or her
relation to the object of his or her unconditional commitment. The lad is
the lover of the princess, Martin Luther King Jr. is the one who will bring
justice to the American blacks, Steve Jobs identifies himself with Apple
Computer, etc.
Kierkegaard’s model for such a commitment is the knight whose life
gets its meaning by his devotion to his lady. This is not a compulsion, an
infatuation, or an obsession. That would not be an expression of freedom.
Kierkegaard says that the knight is free to “forget the whole thing,” but in
so doing the knight would “contradict himself,” since it is “a contradiction
to forget the whole of one’s life’s content and still be the same.”
21
According to Kierkegaard, if and only if you let yourself be drawn into
a defining commitment can you achieve that which, while you were in
despair, looked impossible, i.e., that the two sets of factors reinforce each
other, so that the more youmanifest one the more youmanifest the other. By
responding to the call of such an unconditional commitment and thereby
getting anidentity, a personbecomes what Kierkegaard, following the Bible,
Christianity without onto-theology 97
calls “a newcreation.”
22
Thus, Jesus gave those who were saved fromdespair
by being unconditionally committed to him new names, and they called
him their Savior.
But just how does this work?
The temporal and the eternal
For one to live fully in time, some moment must be absolutely important
and make other moments significant relative to it. The moment when
one is reborn is obviously such a moment. Kierkegaard, drawing on the
biblical saying that we shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye, calls
this moment the Augenblick. Moreover, after the transformation, other
moments become significant since one’s unconditional commitment must
be expressed in one’s day-to-day activity.
But the eternal is also absolutely important in one’s life. Not the disinter-
ested, abstract eternity of Plato, but the passionately involved eternity that
Kierkegaard calls “eternity in time.” Normally, the significance of events
in one’s life is subject to retroactive reinterpretation,
23
but, in an uncon-
ditional commitment that defines the self, one’s identity is as eternal as a
definition. The lad will henceforth always be the lover of the princess:
He first makes sure that this really is the content of his life, and his soul is too
healthy and proud to squander the least thing onaninfatuation. He is not cowardly,
he is not afraid to let his love steal in upon his most secret, most hidden thoughts,
to let it twine itself in countless coils around every ligament of his consciousness –
if the love becomes unhappy he will never be able to wrench himself out of it.
24
Further events will be interpreted in the light of the content given the self
in the Augenblick, not vice versa. The way a commitment can produce a
privileged moment is not something disinterested thought can understand.
Kierkegaard says: “A concrete eternity within the existing individual is
the maximum degree of his passion”, and “the proposition inaccessible to
thought is that one can become eternal although one was not such.”
25
In sum, if you define eternity in an involved way as that which remains
constant throughout your life, then what is eternal is your identity. That
is, if you are unconditionally committed to a particular person or cause,
that will be your identity forever (for every moment of your life). This is
a kind of involved eternity that must, in order to exist, be temporal. The
paradoxical fact is that “only in existing do I become eternal.”
26
But this
does not make me any less temporal. “The existing individual in time . . .
comes into relation with the eternal in time.”
27
98 hubert l. dreyfus
The finite and the infinite
Kierkegaard calls an unconditional commitment an infinite passion for
something finite. But just what makes an infinite passion count as infinite?
It can’t be just a very strong feeling; rather, it must in some sense transcend
the finite. For Kierkegaard, an infinite passion can legitimately be called
infinite because it opens up a world. Not only what actually exists gets
its meaning from its connection with my defining passion; anything that
could possibly come into existence would get its meaning for me from my
defining commitment. As we saw earlier, according to Kierkegaard, one’s
commitment defines reality.
Of course, the object of my infinite passion is something finite. We
are interested in the smallest particularities of our beloved. But any such
finite being is vulnerable, and yet the meaning of my life depends on it.
This makes a defining commitment very risky. It would certainly be safer
to define one’s life in some sort of theoretical quest or in terms of some
abstract idea – say the eventual triumph of the proletariat – but that is not
concrete enough to satisfy the need to make the finite absolutely significant.
So it follows, as Kierkegaard says, that “without risk there is no faith.”
28
I can’t go into details here, but suffice it to say that Kierkegaardholds that,
given the risk, to let yourself be more and more involved with something
finite, you need to live in a kind of absurdity:
Every moment to see the sword hanging over the loved one’s head and yet find,
not repose in the pain of resignation, but joy on the strength of the absurd – that
is wonderful. The one who does that, he is great, the only great one.
29
In the context of the Abraham story, Isaac will certainly be sacrificed, the
sword will fall, and yet Abraham acts as if he will always have Isaac. The
Knight of Faith can do this because he lives in the assurance that “God is
the fact that everything is possible, or that everything is possible is God.”
30
In sum, when you have a defining commitment, the finite object of your
commitment is infinitely important, i.e., the object of your passion is both
something particular and also world-defining. Indeed, it is the condition
for anything showing up as meaningful. It thus opens up a horizontal
transcendence.
The necessary and the possible
We have seen that, when you have a defining commitment, you get an
identity. That is what you are, and it is necessary that you be it. But, although
Christianity without onto-theology 99
your identity is fixed, it does not dictate an inflexible way of acting as if it
were a compulsion. In anything less than total loss and subsequent world-
collapse, one has to be able to adapt to even the most radical changes in
the defining object. All such adaptive changes will, of course, be changes
in the world but not changes of the world. Kierkegaard calls this freedom
because, even though the central concern in one’s life is fixed, one is free to
adapt it to all sorts of possible situations in all sorts of ways.
There is, however, an even more radical kind of freedom: The freedom
to change my world, i.e., to change my identity. To be born again and
again. Although Kierkegaard does not say so in so many words, once we
see that eternity can be in time, we can see that, not only can eternity begin
at a moment of time (the Augenblick), but eternity can change in time. In
Kierkegaard’s terms, Abrahamhas faith that if he sacrifices Isaac “God could
give him a new Isaac.”
31
This can happen because God is “that everything
is possible,”
32
and that means that even the inconceivable is possible.
Here we are touching on the paradox of mourning. This is a topic too
complicated to go into here, but this much is clear. On Kierkegaard’s view,
one can only change worlds by being totally involved in one, deepen-
ing one’s commitment, and taking all the risks involved, until it breaks
down and becomes impossible. As in Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific
Revolutions, revolutions depend on prior unconditional commitment to a
paradigm. One can’t be a Christian in Kierkegaard’s sense and agree with
Nietzsche that “convictions are prisons.”
33
Thus, according to Kierkegaard, the radically impossible only makes
sense if one is unconditionally committed to the current world. Otherwise,
we have such flexibility that everything is possible, and although some
events are highly improbable, they are not inconceivable. For the truly
impossible to be possible, we must be able to open radically new worlds
whichwe can’t evenmake sense of until we are inthem. Thus, JohnCaputo’s
understanding of religion as dealing with “the impossible” only makes
sense if there are worlds, that is, if there are what Rorty once called final
vocabularies. Only if one relates steadfastly rather than flexibly to the world
established by one’s defining commitment can one experience a gestalt
switch in which one’s sense of reality is transformed.
Kierkegaard concludes from his examination of all types of despairing
ways to try to relate the factors that the only sphere of existence that can
give equal weight to both sets of factors is a religion based on an infinite
passion for something finite. Kierkegaard calls such a paradoxical religion
Religiousness B. He is clear that “in Religiousness B the edifying is some-
thing outside the individual . . . The paradoxical edification[of Christianity]
100 hubert l. dreyfus
corresponds therefore to the determination of God in time as the individual
man; for if such be the case, the individual is related to something outside
himself.”
34
But, given the logic of Kierkegaard’s position, it follows that the object of
defining relation does not have to be the God-man. Indeed, in the Postscript
Kierkegaard says, “Subjectively, reflection is directed to the question
whether the individual is related to a something in such a manner that
his relationship is in truth a God relationship.”
35
And even more clearly
that “it is the passion of the infinite that is the decisive factor and not its
content, for its content is precisely itself.”
36
5 conclusi on
So now we can see why Kierkegaard claims that, unless the self relates itself
to something else with an unconditional commitment, it is in despair; that
only if it has an unconditional commitment will the self be able to get the
two sets of factors together in such a way that they reinforce each other,
and so be in bliss. Kierkegaard says rather obscurely:
This then is the formula that describes the state of the self when despair is com-
pletely eradicated: inrelating to itself and inwanting to be itself, the self is grounded
transparently in the power that established it.
37
Grounded transparently means acting in such a way that what gives you
your identity comes through in everything you do. But what is the power
(lower case) that established the self? I used to think that it was whatever
finite and temporal object of infinite passion created you as a new being by
giving you your identity. But that would only be the power that established
your identity, not the power that established the three sets of contradictory
factors to which your identity is the solution. What, then, is the power that
established the whole relation?
The power doesn’t seem to be an onto-theological God since it is lower
case and Kierkegaard doesn’t say that the power created the relation. But
Kierkegaard does say that one could not despair “unless the synthesis were
originally in the right relationship from the hand of God.”
38
How are we
to cash out this metaphor, especially if we remember that “God is that
everything is possible” – not an entity at all?
I think we have to say that “the fact that everything is possible” makes
possible the contradictory God-manwhothensays, “he whohas seenme has
seen the Father.” He is the paradoxical Paradigm who saves from despair all
sinners – those who have tried to take a stand on themselves by themselves,
Christianity without onto-theology 101
either by relating only to themselves or by relating to an infinite, absolute,
and eternal God. The God-man saves them by calling them to make an
unconditional commitment to him – “God in time as an individual man.”
Therefore, I think that the claim that God established the factors has to
meanthat by making it possible for people to have a defining commitment –
inthe first instance to him– andso be reborn, Jesus revealedthat the two sets
of factors are equally essential and can (and must) be brought into equi-
librium. This is the truth about the essential nature of the self that went
undiscovered until Jesus revealed it. In this way he established the Christian
understanding of the self in which we now live. He is the call that demands
“a decision in existence” which we cannot reject without despair.
So, on this reading, “to be grounded transparently in the power that
established it” would mean that saved Christians (1) relate themselves to
themselves by manifesting in all aspects of their lives that both sets of factors
are essential; by, that is, relating to someone or something finite with an
infinite passion and so becoming eternal in time. Whatever constituted the
self as the individual self it is, healing it of despair by giving it its identity
and, thereby, making it a newbeing – that “something” would be its Savior;
and (2) all such lives are grounded in Jesus, the God-man, who first makes
such radical transformation of the person and of the world possible.
In this way Kierkegaard has succeeded in saving Christianity from onto-
theology by replacing the creator God, who is metaphysically infinite and
eternal, with the God-man who is finite and temporal, yet who is the source
of the infinity and eternity required by finite beings like us if we are to be
saved from despair. In so doing, Kierkegaard has also shown how leveling
and technicity can be positive forces in forcing us to leave behind both
metaphysics and paganism’s sense of the sacred for a more intense and
rewarding form of religion.
notes
1. Søren Kierkegaard, The Present Age, trans. Alexander Dru (London: Collins,
1962), p. 56.
2. Ibid., p. 82.
3. Ibid., pp. 36–7.
4. Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, trans. Alastair Hannay (London:
Penguin Books, 1989), p. 43.
I have made several changes in the text in order to clarify what I believe
to be its meaning. First, I have substituted Walter Lowrie’s term “factors” for
Hannay’s “terms” in the definition of the self, because it provides a convenient
shorthand for describing the constituents of the synthesis. Second, I have
changed the word “freedom” to “possibility.” In other passages in The Sickness
102 hubert l. dreyfus
unto Death, and in The Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard uses the word “free-
dom” to refer to the self-defining nature of human beings. He uses the word
“possibility” to refer to one factor of the synthesis that a human being defines.
Though Kierkegaard is inconsistent in his use of terminology, the distinction
between the two concepts is clear. Thus, I have changed the terminology in
order to preserve the clear distinction between the two concepts. Finally, I
have reversed the order of the possibility/necessity and eternal/temporal fac-
tors, since Kierkegaard discusses them in this order in the remainder of The
Sickness unto Death, and I have changed the order temporal/eternal to eter-
nal/temporal to make it symmetrical with Kierkegaard’s presentation of the
other sets of factors.
5. Saul A. Kripke, Naming and Necessity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University
Press, 1972).
6. See Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward
Robinson (New York: HarperCollins, 1962), pp. 152, 274.
7. Surprisingly, it seems that black box essentialism works for human beings but
not for natural kinds such as gold. As Rorty points out, the determination of
an essence involves a judgment as to which properties are important, e.g., that
the color and ductility of gold are important and need to be explained, but
not where it was mined or that it shines with divine radiance. Such judgments
depend on one’s culture. Thus, the essence that explains the important prop-
erties of a natural kind is relative to a background understanding of being.
That the atomic number of gold is 79 is, indeed, true everywhere and for all
times, but in other cultures, and other epochs in our culture, that might not
be understood to be the essential property.
But, as we shall see, Kierkegaard points to all human beings’ susceptibility
to despair, namely, that anyone in any culture might someday feel despair,
as an important cross-cultural characteristic of the self, and argues that only
his account of the self can explain this fact. So it seems that rigid designation
might allow us to discover the essential structure of the self, even if it does not
justify modern science’s claim to be able to determine the unique essence of
each natural kind.
8. Pascal’s Pens´ees, trans. W. F. Trotter (New York: Dutton, 1958), number 434.
9. Ibid., number 353.
10. The Sickness unto Death, p. 43.
11. Ibid., p. 44.
12. Ibid., p. 54.
13. Ibid., p. 51.
14. Ibid., p. 45.
15. Sickness unto Death, trans. Walter Lowrie (Princeton University Press, 1941),
p. 134.
16. Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 2nd edn, trans. David F.
Swenson and Walter Lowrie (Princeton University Press, 1971), p. 498.
17. Sickness unto Death, trans. Hannay, p. 43.
Christianity without onto-theology 103
18. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, trans. Alastair Hannay (London:
Penguin Books, 1985), p. 54.
19. Ibid., p. 70.
20. Ibid., p. 71.
21. Ibid., p. 72.
22. Ibid., p. 70.
23. Sartre gives the example of a person who has an emotional crisis as an adoles-
cent; he interprets it as a religious calling and acts on it by becoming a monk.
Then later, he comes to interpret the experience as just a psychological upset
during adolescence, and leaves the monastery to become a businessman. But
on his deathbed, he feels that it was a religious calling after all, and repents.
Sartre’s point is that our past is constantly up for reinterpretation, and the
final interpretation is an accidental result of what we happen to think as we
die.
24. Fear and Trembling, p. 71, translation modified.
25. Concluding Unscientific Postscript, pp. 277, 508.
26. Ibid., p. 508.
27. Ibid.
28. Ibid., p. 188.
29. Fear and Trembling, p. 79.
30. Sickness unto Death, p. 71.
31. Fear and Trembling, p. 65.
32. Sickness unto Death, p. 71.
33. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, number 54, in Twilight of the Idols/The
Anti-Christ, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Penguin Books, 1990).
Of course, individual world-change needs to be distinguished from cultural
or what Heidegger calls epochal change, and also from Kuhn’s scientific rev-
olutions, but it is, nonetheless, important to note that all these thinkers share
the view that, for there to be genuine world disclosure, there must be total
involvement in one’s current world.
34. Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 498.
35. Ibid., p. 178.
36. Ibid., p. 181.
37. Sickness unto Death, p. 44.
38. Ibid., p. 46.
chapter 8
Religion after onto-theology?
Adriaan Peperzak
“Religion after onto-theology” was the title of a conference held in July
2001. It summarizes the conviction found among “continental” philoso-
phers that onto-theology is outdated, while religion still (or again) has
enough meaning to be considered in philosophy. Of the questions such a
title triggers, one has puzzled me more than others: To what extent can we
declare that ontotheology (or onto-theology or onto-theo-logy)
1
belongs to
our past, either in the sense of a definitively closed period, or as a heritage
that is still alive and for which there might still be a future? It is the poly-
semic word “after” that bothers me most, but if we want to discuss it, we
should first try to agree on the meaning of “onto-theo-logy.”
Perhaps I amna¨ıve in asking, “What should we mean by onto-theology?”
Anyone who has followed the American development of “continental phi-
losophy” should know the group language of its adherents, and not doubt
their basic conquests. If this is the right answer to my question, I am afraid
that “onto-theology” has become one of those code words that characterize
a regional language through which one version of continental philosophy
fences off the ignorant – i.e., those who do not agree with the basic tenets
proclaimed by the recognized stars. That similar fences are inevitable in all
learned discussions might be true (although some philosophers are widely
understandable, even to non-professional philosophers); but should we not
be alerted when the fence is made of a whole range of key words which by
themselves are not clear enough to convey an insight into the news they
summarize? All of us know examples of such words. Most of them have
at least two meanings according to the context in which they are used.
As elements of the everyday language, they are perfectly understandable
by anyone who is familiar with idiomatic English, but as elements of the
regional language in which “onto-theo-logy” is used to characterize the
past, they restrict their meaning to a particular interpretation of their use
in characteristic contexts of a particular philosophy. Such double mean-
ings are found, for example, in “presence,” “subject” (“after the subject”),
104
Religion after onto-theology? 105
“foundation,” “violence,” “transgression,” and “impossible,” while exam-
ples of philosophical words whose meanings have become different from
their historical meanings are “cause,” “ground,” “idea,” “metaphysics” and
“metaphysics of presence,” “ethics” (cf. “against ethics”), “modern” (cf.
“post-modern”), “Plato,” “Platonism,” and “Neoplatonism.”
The difference between the peculiar meanings that many words have
within the language of a certain school and their meaning in “ordinary”
or historical use has struck me most when studying such classical authors
as Plato, Plotinus, Aquinas, or Hegel. Often I did not recognize their
work in interpretations whose orthodoxy is not contested by most mem-
bers of that school.
2
Their “reading” might be interesting in itself and
point at hidden promises of the interpreted texts, but do they facilitate
our discovery of the latter’s meaning? This question becomes even more
critical when certain “post-modernists” try to justify their anti-onto-(theo)-
logical position by biased or false interpretations of the best metaphysical
texts. When such interpretations are accepted by those who skip a per-
sonal fight with the classics, their access to the past is blocked – but then
also their access to the present, insofar as this lives on the capital of its
heritage.
If certain concepts, such as “presence,” “metaphysics,” “grounding,” and
“founding,” are used to summarize and outdo entire œuvres, they prevent
or distort direct study; and if a new orthodoxy wins over personal con-
frontation with those œuvres, philosophy has become a scholastic enter-
prise. Appeals to hermeneutic authorities, repetition, simplification and
hardening, arrogance, and trivialization then imprison thought. Scholasti-
cism not only blocks originality, however; it also blocks the possibility of
transforming the past into a future. By condemning, for example, 2,600
years of “metaphysics” and “ontotheology,” we waste a heritage that could
have been promising, if we had not been insensitive to its wealth. By think-
ing of ourselves as “after metaphysics,” or “after ontotheology,” we might
have already lost one of the most promising promises.
onto- theo- logy
If the word “onto-theo-logy” is used to characterize a certain past as closed
and no longer inspiring, what exactly then lies behind us? It cannot be the
logical element in ontotheology that irritates us if we want to continue
using some sort of logic in our meditations. Does the theos or the theion
bother us? But why then is there still “religion” after all? Or does religion
not imply some reference to the divine, the godly, “the God or the gods”?
3
106 adri aan peperzak
We will come back to the latter question, but let’s focus first on the “on”
(beings) in “onto-theo-logy.”
By way of preparation it may be necessary to consider the particular
interpretation of the word “onto-theo-logy” that has become a shibboleth
for those who use it to distinguish their own thought from an allegedly
obsolete past: the interpretation given by Heidegger in “The Onto-theo-
logical Constitution of Metaphysics.”
4
Since there is no room for a close
reading of this intricate text here, I will limit myself to a succinct summary
of the passages that are immediately relevant for our purpose, from which
I will then draw a few conclusions.
(1) Heidegger criticizes the entire onto-theo-logical traditionas irreligious
insofar as it is “perhaps” (vielleicht) further removed from the godly God
than “the god-less thinking that must give up the God of philosophy,
the God as causa sui” (ID, p. 71). I take the word “perhaps” in the quoted
phrase as a rhetorical formula of politeness, because the next sentence firmly
declares: “This means here only: It [scil. the god-less thinking] is freer for
the godly God than onto-theo-logic likes to acknowledge” (ID, p. 71).
(2) The phenomenological criterion Heidegger offers for the recognition
of a godly God is that humans can “pray and sacrifice to him,” “in awe fall
on their knees,” and “make music and dance for this God” (ID, p. 70).
This criterion fits many religions, especially the Greek one (think, for in-
stance, of Homer’s description of the funeral rites for Patroclus). Applying it
to the philosophical tradition, which has always been an onto-theo-logical
tradition, Heidegger concludes that those religious activities are not pos-
sible with regard to the God of philosophy. I interpret this to mean that
the latter does not invite or inspire music making, dancing, sacrifices, and
prayers as appropriate answers to his emergence from the philosophical
tradition.
(3) Heidegger declares that the quintessence of the ontotheological God
lies in his being a “cause of himself ” (causa sui). Without analysis or pre-
sentation of the relevant texts, he refers here to a name of God that is found
in modern, mainly Cartesian and Spinozistic, texts.
5
(4) Heidegger comes to this result of his survey of Western onto-theo-
logy by insisting on the “grounding” (gr¨ unden), “founding” (begr¨ unden),
and “finding out” or “fathoming” (ergr¨ unden) that, according to him, has
obsessed the tradition. He apparently thinks that the philosophers could
not stop their quest for grounds once they arrived at God, whom some of
them called the first or ultimate “cause” (arch
¯
e , aitia, causa) (ID, pp. 54–7).
Without paying attention to the historical polysemy of the word “cause”
(including the meanings of eidos, idea, morph
¯
e , forma, ousia, telos, hyl
¯
e ,
Religion after onto-theology? 107
materia, esse, existere, and essentia), Heidegger declares that “the most orig-
inary Sache” itself has been thought to be not only the ground of the being
of all beings, but also the ground or cause of itself . This, he writes, is the
appropriate or pertinent (sachgerechte) name of God within philosophy
(insofar as it has been a founding discipline). He thus states, but without
proof, that the philosophical tradition has been blind to the question of a
groundless beginning or origin.
6
In response to Heidegger’s text, I can only summarize, in the form of
counterpoints, what I see as theses guaranteed by the best historical schol-
arship, most of which I have checked within the limits of my own struggle
with classical texts of the philosophical tradition.
For a fair assessment of (4) Heidegger’s diagnosis, and especially of his
view that the ontological framework of Western philosophy is permeated
by the logic of a grounding thought, a full retrieval of all the great classics
would be necessary. That would demand (a) a full rehabilitation of those
thinkers who are excluded from Heidegger’s history of philosophy, namely
all post-Aristotelian “Greeks” (i.e., all thinkers from 300 bc to ad 600),
most Christian thinkers from Justin and Clement ( ± ad 200) to Cusanus
( ± ad 1500), all Jewish and Muslim thinkers, all English and American
thinkers, all French thinkers except Descartes, and some other geniuses
such as Spinoza, Jacobi, Marx, Freud, Blondel, and Bergson. From my
perspective, Heidegger’s circumvention of the entire period of what the
Enlightenment’s ignorance called the “dark ages” is particularly ominous. If
we want to know how philosophy of religion might be possible, shouldn’t
we learn from those who were highly skilled professionals not only in
philosophy, but also in religion? (b) Such rehabilitation would also demand
the recognition that the classics have not submitted God to the question:
What is the ground of God? On the contrary, all of them – and most
clearly the Neoplatonists – have insisted on the abyss that separates all
caused causes and connections, as integral parts of the universe or the Nous
(spirit), from God as the One who cannot be caught by any categorical or
conceptual grasp.
With regard to the third point, concerning God as causa sui, I claim
that a close reading of the passages in which Descartes, Spinoza, and Hegel
call God causa sui shows that this name, in conjunction with the other
names they use (“the infinite,” substantia, Geist) does not justify Heidegger’s
interpretation. Heidegger ignores or hides the stubborn resistance of most
thinkers from Antiquity to the end of the Middle Ages to the theological
use of the expression “causa sui.” No great philosopher has ever maintained
that God is the cause or ground of his own being, and even Spinoza and
108 adri aan peperzak
Descartes did not and could not think that, because it is unthinkable, a
pure contradiction.
7
As for (2) Heidegger’s appeal to his own criterion for a godly God, it is
remarkable that, for example, Bonaventura, whose profound involvement
with religion cannot be doubted, did not have any problem with an on-
tological approach to God. In the fifth chapter of his Journey of the Mind
to God, Bonaventura refers to God as esse ipsum in a specific, infinite (and
therefore utterly obscure, but supremely meaningful) sense, but he sub-
ordinates this rather Aristotelian onto-theo-logy to a more Platonic and
Dionysian evocation, while integrating both traditions in his theological
version of God as revealed in the life of a crucified man.
8
As for (1) Heidegger’s suggestion that a godless thinker or a godless time
might be closer to the authentic God than “the philosophers” (and thus very
close to authentic mystics), this question cannot be decided by a general
statement or an individual testimony. I gladly agree that certain atheists
can be more religious than certain Christians or Jews, and that certain
experiences and expressions of the practical and theoretical atheism of our
time might have mystical aspects, if indeed we take religion on its deepest
level; but I do not see why the ontological program as such would be an
obstacle to approaching God, and I am sure that Heidegger has not proved
that it would be. Whether it is the best way for a thinker to reflect about
religion as a communitarian and individual dimension of life remains to be
seen, however. Besides, is onto-logy not a correct translation into Greek of
Heidegger’s own Denken des Seins? And if we take Heidegger’s H¨ olderlinian
religion seriously, may we not characterize his meditation on the gods of
that religion as an onto-theo-logy (or perhaps rather an onto-theio-logy)?
If the onto-theo-logical project that has fascinated the great minds from
Parmenides to Hegel (i.e., during 2,400 years of the 2,600 philosophy has
lived) is not destroyed by Heidegger’s critique, and if no pre- or post-
Heideggerian thinker has given a more convincing refutation, we must ask
whether that long tradition can still be retrieved in a way that allows for
the recognition of a godly God. The question itself implies that we know
what “godly” means, but is that not precisely what we want to discover?
As a criterion that might guide our search, I choose only one word from
Heidegger’s description of authentic religion: prayer, though I am not sure
whether we understand it in the same way.
What religionis andhowit canbe livedinauthentic andinauthentic ways
cannot be stipulated by philosophers independently; it is lived religion itself
that decides about this. Just as art cannot be constructed by philosophy,
religion has its own criteria for authenticity. True, some or even many
Religion after onto-theology? 109
requirements of philosophy coincide with the requirements of religion, but
religion has its own origin and orientation, and its attitude differs from the
philosophical attitude.
It is obvious that nobody is able to talk in the name of religion as such,
because religion, just like art, exists only in concrete varieties, and no one
represents all of them in an authentic way. What we can do, however, is
to state clearly what, after having lived and experienced a particular reli-
gion, we believe has been discovered as a core without which no religion
would be possible, though each religion has its own version of that core.
The unfolding of that core and its self-critical evaluation might need or
invite philosophical skills; it might thus generate philosophical and/or the-
ological discourses and texts, but no religion would recognize itself – and
certainly not its most authentic version – in a “religion” that is indepen-
dently construed, deduced, or imagined by philosophy. My own experience
of Christian life has led me to the conviction that religion in its full, cor-
poreal, communitarian, historical, individual, and spiritual (i.e., charitable
and contemplative) sense can be summarized as trust or faith in God, if we
include in this expression gratitude and hope, grace and peace. All these
words simultaneously veil and reveal one unique “relation,” which can also
be expressed in the word “prayer,” if this is understood in its deepest and
simplest sense – scil. as the most originary and all-permeating responsiv-
ity of an existence in devotion to the creative, all-permeating, and healing
God.
It seems to me that “prayer,” of which I venture here a clumsy descrip-
tion, can be recognized as a summary of religion by the faithful adherents
of all religions, though, of course, its unfolding into communal traditions,
practices, liturgies, laws, and beliefs shows many apparently irreconcilable
differences. Whether philosophers can recognize their own philosophical
faith (for philosophers, too, have a faith) in “prayer” depends on many
factors, but that at least some form of prayer is central to all religions can
hardly be denied. If my statement may be accepted not only as a “sub-
jective” impression but as a (hypo)thesis that deserves to be considered,
we can simplify our problem by asking how the onto-theo-logical project
can be related to the possibility and actuality of prayer. As I hope to show,
this question is fundamentally a question about the relation between two
basically different attitudes. But before we come to that, we must ask our-
selves why the God to whom Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and
Jesus prayed seems to be forgotten or even contradicted by “the God of
the philosophers.” According to an answer this question has often received,
the God of the philosophers is not interested in human history or nature;
110 adri aan peperzak
he is not an inspiring, protecting, compassionate, creative and recreative,
saving, and consoling presence. Is he even a person?
I allude here to the view of those who oppose the philosophical God to
the God of their faith as an impersonal to a personal God. However, can
they explain what it means to conceive of God as a person? What we know
about persons concerns a multitude of individual and finite human beings,
but God is neither finite nor an individual. Can we, by thinking, purify the
concept of a person of its individual and finite constrictions? Can we think
an infinite person? If we can, this will not be enough to approach God,
because God is not only the infinite Other; he/she/it is also that in which
“we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). But let us reserve the
latter thought for a later moment of our investigation.
Though I am not wholly convinced that the God of philosophy (e.g.,
Plato’s Good, and Plotinus’ or Bonaventura’s One) is necessarily cold and
impersonal, I do agree that modern, and to a certain extent all , concrete
attempts at ontology and ontotheology have (at least partially) failed be-
cause they were not capable of clarifying what and how persons are. If you
permit me a sweeping generalization for the sake of clarity, I would like to
say that Western philosophy, since its beginning, has remained a reflection
about things, res, realia, reality, the cosmos, physis, nature, the world; enti-
ties that can be objectified, posited, put in place, set, caught in theses and
antitheses, thematized, treated as pieces, parts, or moments of a cosmos;
an overseeable totality, a panoramic whole. The paradigm in light of which
philosophers have considered being was not beings (to on, onta) as such,
but thematizable, and in this sense objectifiable, beings. In this light, human
beings were treated as special sorts of things (res). Their essentia was treated
as a realitas different from, but wholly connected with, other parts of the
world.
The clearest example of such treatment we find in social philosophy.
From Hobbes to Hegel, human beings were thought of as moments of
a system, parts and participants of a world whose structure could be re-
constructed ordine and more geometrico. The thinker was an engineer who
not only analyzed the existing community as a complex system but also
ventured to construct a better system, called utopia, while puzzled by the
fact that the existing social systems did not work so well as the system of
nature.
An obvious objection to the thesis that even modern philosophy did
not develop a philosophy of the person is found in the overarching impor-
tance of the ego that thinks, the birth and growth of psychology in all its
varieties, the thorough analyses of self-consciousness, and so on. However,
Religion after onto-theology? 111
twentieth-century behaviorismshows howlittle humanity can be found in a
discipline that focuses on human existence. Phenomenology has reminded
us that material objects do not guarantee an appropriate perspective for
their “formal” treatment. As I will argue further on, modern philosophy
was not able to discover the quintessence of human personality for two rea-
sons: (1) it has not developed a theory of intersubjectivity as distinct from
sociality, and (2) its attitude and method do not allow us to encounter and
fully perceive what is proper to persons.
Other objections to my (hypo)thesis can be made through commentaries
on Kant’s and Hegel’s theories of subjectivity and intersubjectivity. As for
Hegel, I must refer to my studies on Hegel’s practical philosophy,
9
but with
regard to Kant, I recognize that the basis of his ethics shows a sense for the
extraordinariness of human personality, insofar as the basic fact to which
he appeals (the “fact of reason”) includes a dignity that is irreducible to any
impersonal value or economy and thus differs radically from all thinghood
or res-like “reality.”
10
However, his explication of this fact (humanity in
myself and others is not a means, but an “object” or “end in itself ”), though
fitting well in his framework, does little justice to the phenomenon that he
tries to describe.
A third response to my (hypo)thesis could be that Heidegger has given us
something like or something better than a philosophy of the person in his
phenomenology of Dasein as temporal and historical being-in-the-world-
with-others. Again, a long discussion would be necessary to come to an
agreement about this claim. My strategy in such a discussion would be to
stress the following points:
(1) Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit can be read as a partial fulfillment of the
ontological project. Initiated by Aristotle, this project emerges fromthe im-
possibility of thinking “being” in a univocal way. While maintaining that
“being” is all-encompassing, it recognizes various modes and dimensions
of being, which cannot be conceived of as species of one genus. Heidegger
has followed the injunction implicit in Aristotle’s legetai pollach¯ os, insofar
as, against those who reduce all being to Vorhandenes and Vorgestelltes,
he shows that Zuhandenheit, worldliness, and Dasein – including its
Existenzialia such as Jemeinigkeit, Geworfenheit, Mitsein, and Zeitlichkeit –
are different or otherwise than the being of things and objects. But, how-
ever groundbreaking and splendid his descriptions are, the horizon of his
enterprise remains within the orbit of the modern egology, according to
which all beings are there (or given) to and for a center whose awareness
encompasses all of them within the total but finite horizon of its universe.
This explains why Heidegger’s philosophy of intersubjectivity is reduced
112 adri aan peperzak
to a very general indication of Mitsein and a few wise, but unsystematic,
remarks about F¨ ursorge.
11
The other is one of the beings that belong to the
wider world in which Dasein is involved; he or she can leave the scene as
soon as the massive importance of such collective phenomena as das Man,
das Volk, or the schicksalhafte Gemeinschaft is discovered.
(2) At this point, the lessons of Emmanuel Levinas interrupt the Heideg-
gerian phenomenology of Dasein’s “being-in” (Insein). To a certain extent,
the phenomenology deployed in Totality and Infinity
12
can also be inter-
preted as a partial fulfillment of the ontological project, but in its realization
something dramatic happens that makes a rethinking of that project nec-
essary. In his first opus magnum, Levinas’s wavering between an ontological
and a meontological language is remarkable.
13
The reason for this waver-
ing lies in a certain indecisiveness with regard to the question of whether
“being” should be accepted as the absolutely all-embracing word or rather
reserved for all beings except God. In an ontological language, one could
express the abyss between the totality and God as the difference between the
universe of finite beings and the only one infinite being; but it is obvious
that “being” then cannot be understood as generically encompassing both.
The difference between the finite and the infinite is itself infinite; God is
not a being and therefore not a highest being, either. And why should we
use the same word for two “realities” that are infinitely different?
The only alternative seems to lie in finding another word for God, while
continuing to use “being” for all finite beings. The word “infinite” could
be tried out to name God, as Scotus and other thinkers have done, but
Levinas uses this word (for reasons we will see) also for the description of
the human other, which makes that word ambivalent. Already in Totality
and Infinity Levinas appeals to Plato’s difference between ousia (being or
essence/essance) and to agathon (the Good) as names for the world of be-
ings and God, respectively. The Good, or God, is neither a being, nor an
essence, nor being (ousia or einai) as such. However, with regard to reli-
gion, Levinas’s main thesis holds that the relation to God (which I have
named “prayer”) coincides with the relation to the other human person.
In order to retrieve Levinas’s thinking about religion, we must therefore
pass through his phenomenology of the human other. His approach to
God and his philosophy of prayer cannot be separated from his analysis
of interhuman proximity, but for the sake of clarity, we can provisionally
focus on the latter aspect.
(3) Presupposing your acquaintance with Totality and Infinity, I here
resume some of its main points insofar as they are relevant for a possi-
ble retrieval of the onto-theo-logical project. In doing so, I will use the
Religion after onto-theology? 113
language of phenomenology, although Levinas has progressively replaced
this language with another language that tries to avoid such expressions as
“phenomenon,” “appearance,” “manifestation,” “experience,” “being,” and
even “consciousness.”
Someone who looks at me or speaks to me cannot be seen or understood
as a part or moment of the world. In a face-to-face relation, you do not
belong to me, who am settled in the world. Levinas does not claim that
Heidegger is wrong in showing that we are involved and always already
engaged in the world – on the contrary, in both Totality and Infinity and
Otherwise than Being
14
he gives his own phenomenology of our worldly or
“economic” mode of being – but he denies that this worldly involvement,
as still dominated by the centrality of me, ego, is the absolute or ultimate
horizon of life and thought. The appearance of a human other disrupts this
horizon; he or she is “a hole” in the world’s being, an exception and contes-
tation of the economic universe ruled by laws of interest and exchange. As a
code name for our being-with(-one-another), Mitsein resumes our sharing
one world within which we, as much as everything else, are exchangeable.
The social context in which we are involved by birth and enculturation is
basic for a hermeneutical perspective on our being-there. Levinas recognizes
and stresses its importance for our hedonic, interested, civil and political
dwelling, working, and thinking. However, the Other who speaks to me
or looks at me urges and obliges me to respect and esteem her existence –
not by what she says or does, but by the fact of her meeting me. Presenta-
tion imposes obligation. The Other’s face or speech or gesture cannot be
treated or conceived of as one of the exchangeable things or events that
populate and compose the “world”; they do not fit the economy of values
and equivalences, as Kant already firmly stated. Another human neither is
nor has a value. While Kant states that a person has dignity (W¨ urde), not
a value (Wert),
15
Levinas affirms that the Other has “height” (hauteur). In
comparison to all the interchangeable elements of “the world,” this height
is absolute and “infinite.”
The reason why the word “height” is chosen by Levinas to describe what
phenomenologically distinguishes the emergence of the Other “in” and
“from” the world is twofold. The first reason lies in the fact that the Other’s
existence before me is experienced as simultaneously and indivisibly being
a command: the Other’s existence, as present before me (or rather turned
towardme), obligates me. The scissionbetweenis andought is not pertinent
in this “case.” Theory and practice, violently separated by Descartes and
his followers,
16
are bound together in the Other’s face and my appropriate
perception of its demanding factuality. That I experience the Other as
114 adri aan peperzak
commanding me does not have anything to do with a difference in social
(or other worldly) roles, such as those of master and valet or husband and
wife. As a radical and “quasi-transcendental” (or, as Levinas says, “pre-
original” and “an-archic”) “fact,” the Other imports a pre-social and pre-
political, pre-scientific, and pre-theoretical perspective into my being-in-
and-belonging-to-the-world. Thus it becomes clear that Levinas responds
to the modern question of how we can understand intersubjectivity: the
presuppositions that the Other is primarily an alter ego and that ethics
must be grounded on non-normative and value-free facts are false. A freer
and more adequate description shows otherwise. The second reason for
using the words “high” and “infinite” for a characterization of the Other
lies in Levinas’s thesis about the coincidence of ethics and religion. The
only possible contact with God, “the Most High,”
17
who cannot be seen or
felt, lies in a fully appropriate response to the presence of human Others.
Religion is charity. The two main commandments are one. Those who
recognize here a long biblical tradition and accuse Levinas of translating
his faith into philosophy seem to suggest that one cannot be a serious
philosopher if one shows phenomenologically that certain convictions can
also be understood – at least in part or approximately – from the standpoint
of philosophy.
If Levinas is right, many implications can be made explicit that shock
the foundations of modern and post-modern philosophy, probably even of
the entire philosophical tradition of the West. I would like to dwell a while
on one of these implications.
If Levinas recognizes that, on the one hand, we are in the world,
18
while,
on the other hand, the Other disrupts my worldly life, it is obvious that he
must look for a synthesis of bothperspectives by subordinating the world(or
the totality) and our economic, social, political, and scholarly involvement
in it to the moral dimension opened by the Other’s facing and speaking.
I, the subject whom the Other obligates, am steeped in the economy of a
world that we share, the world of our Mitsein, but the face-to-face shows
that you – but also I, as facing and speaking to you – are rooted in another
dimension than the worldly one. The world and Mitsein do not form the
ultimate and absolute horizon; the moral perspective disrupts and pierces
that horizon and shows its relativity. The infinite refutes the pretensions of
the totality to be the ultimate. But if the totality, and therewith the horizon
and context of the universe of beings, is not the ultimate, is philosophy
itself then not dethroned? Not if philosophy itself can recognize, produce,
or accept the infinite difference between the totality and the infinite. That
Religion after onto-theology? 115
is, if the Platonic difference between the being of all (finite) beings and the
Good can still be retrieved.
(4) At this point, I would like to make a metaphenomenological remark
with regard to all Levinas’s statements about the human other as a hole in
being, as coming from on high, as disruption of the world and interruption
of the economy, and so forth. Such statements can be justified only if the
life of the speaker or writer himself is involved in the relation expressed by
those statements. In other words, the perception of the Other is possible
and true only if it is achieved in the first person – me.
This is the condition of all basic experiences in ethics and religion, and
ignorance of it has caused many false and superfluous problems. That all
philosophy must ultimately be founded onthe immediacy of surprising phe-
nomena has been known since Aristotle’s epistemology, and phenomenol-
ogy has elaborated this insight in its descriptions of the intuitive elements of
all acquaintance and understanding. Less attention has been paid, however,
to the extent to which the first-person perspective of an involved speaker is
a necessary component of many statements whose truth cannot be “seen”
by outsiders.
If, for example, “the Other” is nothing else than person B who is seen
by person A (while I, the speaker, am the Cogito who reflects about the
universal genus “persons”), it seems foolish to say that B is not equal but
higher and commanding in relation to A. The main speaker is here the
outsider who, from the height of a panoramic overview, perceives A and B
as instances of a universal genus “persons” or “the person” (or “the essence
of a person”).
Everything changes, however, if I, the thinker, ask myself howyou, whom
I meet as a phenomenon that surprises and confronts me, appear and what
you are. When you face me, you not only surprise and amaze me; your
facing provokes me to a response, which I cannot refuse (turning away or
keeping silent is also an answer). My unavoidable response involves me in a
specific relation with you, but this relation is preceded and triggered by your
being-there. The question “Who and what are you?” is now an element of
an existential involvement. As part of my life’s involvement with you (“the
Other”), philosophy itself, including the basic perceptions to which it must
appeal, becomes (again) an existential enterprise.
What I formulate here in terms of a first-person perspective plays a
constitutive role in Levinas’s distinctions between (a) “the Other” and “the
Same,” (b) the Other and the third (le tiers, all others), and (c) the Saying (le
Dire) and the Said (le Dit). Without entering into the difficult discussions
116 adri aan peperzak
of the many complicated problems these distinctions carry with them, I
will try to investigate in my own terms to what extent a phenomenolog-
ical epistemology should be concerned about the difference between an
involved speaking and the speaking of an “uninvolved onlooker” (Husserl’s
unbeteiligter Zuschauer), who was the hero of modern philosophy and early
phenomenology. If later phenomenologists have replaced Husserl’s tran-
scendentalism with a hermeneutical involvement, only Levinas, I think,
has given the personal involvement of the speaker and listener (or of the
face that looks and the face that responds) in discourse and the face-to-face
of conversation its full significance.
(5) If we acknowledge Descartes’s Discours de la m´ethode
19
as paradigmatic
for the basic position or stance of the modern philosopher, the following
features are obvious. One of the first decisions to be made consists of the sep-
aration between the practice of life, especially in its utilitarian, interhuman,
poetic, moral, and religious aspects, on the one hand, and the intuitions,
principles, and scientifically permitted moves of pure theory, on the other.
This decision immediately assigns a particular position to the philosopher:
It places him outside all involvement in corporeal, worldly, and historical
affairs, reducing his thinking to the most uninvolved movement of intel-
lectual elements. Since the task of this purely theoretical movement lies in
a metaphysically and scientifically justified (and possibly rectified) recon-
struction of the real world in which all of us (including the philosopher)
live, the philosopher has a superior standpoint from which he must recreate
the world, including the praxis in which he has always already been in-
volved. The philosopher thus studies the natural and human universe from
a distance. In order to be complete, he must have a panoramic standpoint,
which he finds in the Cogito itself. Since his only access to the Cogito
lies in his self-consciousness, he himself is, or participates in, the highest
possible viewpoint from which the totality of all things (ta panta) becomes
visible.
We know how Descartes failed to accomplish the task, whose phases he
designed in his metaphor of the tree.
20
Only Spinoza and Hegel, and to
some extent Leibniz, succeeded in fulfilling the great program. Most mod-
ern philosophers followed Descartes’s advice to adopt a purely theoretical –
neutral, panoramic, and universalistic – perspective in order to justify the
principles of the existing universe, but almost all modern works showweak-
ness in those passages where the original union of theory and praxis and
their promised reunion become a problem. Thought has left life behind
and, despite a few existentialistic revolts, ethics and religion continue to
lead a marginal and unjustified subsistence. For the question of you and
Religion after onto-theology? 117
me this means that, in this kind of philosophy, you and I can be perceived
and treated only as instances of “the I” in general (well known by, but not
quite identical with, the philosopher who studies it) or as hardly different
varieties of human subjectivity. The human subject has been studied by
idealists and empiricists under the species of “the mind,” “consciousness”
and “self-consciousness,” or “the I,” but you have disappeared from the
scene. It did not seem necessary to focus on you in philosophy, since you,
as another I, were equal to me in all essential aspects. A good illustration
of this viewpoint and the attitude that is expressed in it is found not only
in the literature about “other minds” but also in the basic postulates of
Fichte’s, Hegel’s, Husserl’s, and Scheler’s attempts to deduce a multiplicity
of (self-)consciousnesses, subjects, and egos from the ego’s mind.
As for the stance of post-modernphilosophy, several of its basic presuppo-
sitions notably differ from the axioms of modernity, but with regard to the
Cartesian position sketched above, it wavers. Though it is conscious of the
erotic, social, cultural, linguistic, and unconscious forces and contexts that
co-determine our thinking, the view from the outside and above and the
superiority of autonomous judgments are maintained, while the possibility
of universal validity – at least in theory – is given up. In practice, however,
post-modern scholasticism, sketched above, combines peremptory judg-
ments about impossibilities and necessities with numerous appeals to the
opinions and authority of its own stars and traditions.
Everything that can be seen and said from the standpoint of the modern
Ego Cogito becomes necessarily a part of the panoramic universe that the
philosopher tries to systematize. “The Said” (le Dit) indicates the economy
of this Ego’s world. Then, your provocative speaking and my response can
no longer be heard differently than exchanges within the universal context
of a world-constituting economy. From this perspective, my, the surveying
philosopher’s, involvement in our conversation is only one of the many
exchanges between the innumerable, essentially indifferent, persons who
make up the various groups, communities, peoples, nations, continents,
and so on. Sociology and social philosophy in the modern style take over,
whereas interpersonality and individuality vanish from the scene. The old
dicta De individuo non est scientia and Individuum est ineffabile are then
confirmed again. The divorce between philosophy and real – i.e., not only
individual but unique – lives is then “justified.”
However, if philosophy is nothing else than life’s own stylized and refined
reflection upon the surprising universe in which it has long been involved,
the Cartesian approach cannot be justified. The theoretical neutralization
of life, including its affective and practical determinations, cannot be more
118 adri aan peperzak
than an abstractive experiment in unbiased searching for elements that can
be recognized by many, perhaps all, other people who remain engaged in
life while thinking about it. If reflection remains as close as possible to the
experiences of life that can be shared by many, it cannot deny its depen-
dence on the “first-person perspective” from which the most important
adventures are perceived and digested. Before I can oversee and analyze
the phenomena that amaze me, they have already provoked, affected, and
engaged me. One of the most originary affections I have always under-
gone is the encounter with some “you’s,” who have prevented my death by
greeting me at birth and educating me, listening to me, befriending me,
accepting me as a colleague, and so on. “The Other” in Levinas’s emphatic
sense is a philosophical pseudonym for some neighbors with whom I have
become personally acquainted, and, by extension, for all others whom I
should look at and listen to in light of such closeness as befits the other
who, by existing, demands my esteem. The secret of the stance that allows
for Levinas’s language about the other as revealed in his or her speaking
lies in the willingness of the philosopher not to separate his observations
from his commitment to the other who appears. Speaking is in the first
place speaking to another – in response to the other’s appearance; speaking
“about” another can be done only afterwards. Responsivity, involvement,
commitment, and devotion to you precede all that can be said about you.
To reduce you to an object, a theme, or a problem is the beginning of
murder.
(6) Let us now return to the question of whether Levinas’s phenomenol-
ogy of the Other might be accepted as a contribution to the project of a
transformed onto-theo-logy. I have said that the onto-theo-logical project
can perhaps be renewed if we are able finally to produce a complete analysis
of the different but related and mutually referential dimensions of being.
The last step we have sketched involves us in a debate on the essence of
another human being in its twofold appearance: (1) the Other, as facing
and obligating me (you, the neighbor or proximus) and (2) the Other as
sharing with me the world (i.e., the “third,” each other, all people, including
myself ). If we can finish this debate, we might come close to answering the
question asked above of how a person or persons appear “in general.” How-
ever, a phenomenology of the Other is only a first step in the direction of a
philosophy of the person. While and after discovering how other humans,
as you, he, she, we, they, and all of them, should be respected within phi-
losophy, we should also rethink the essence of me. Levinas has attempted
to renew the philosophy of the I in Otherwise than Being, but perhaps his
Religion after onto-theology? 119
emphasis on certain aspects of the relation between the other(s) and me
has obscured other aspects that should not be forgotten in a retrieval of the
tradition about the ego.
21
(7) Only a phenomenology of the person in its multiple versions as you,
me, we, all of you, he, she, and they can give us an idea of personality, but
such an idea is neither adequate nor sufficient for an understanding of prayer,
religion, and God. Though it brings us closer to the “being” or “essence” of
God, it also blocks the ascent by imposing an inherent finitude on any mind
that tries to think of God as “a person.” We do not have a concept of non-
finite personality – the predicate “infinite” that Levinas uses to describe the
extraordinary essence of the Other cannot mean that the Other does not
have limits – and we cannot conquer such a concept by trying to extend the
limits or take them away, because of the infinite distance between the finite
and the infinite. After exploring the possibilities contained in the concept
of a person to direct our mind to God, a phase of negative theology is
thus necessary to overcome the finitude of this concept. However, in this
essay, I shall leave the necessary negations implicit; instead I shall briefly
point to another aspect of our referring to God, which presupposes God’s
not-being-a-person.
To approach God in philosophy we need more or better than a philosophy
of personality. We need at least two transitions: (1) one from the “reality”
of things to the personality of persons – God as a person to whom one can
look up and pray is already better than a cold Object, but not sufficient for
true religion; and (2) a second transition fromGod’s being “like” a person or
quasi-personto being that “in” whichwe live as ina “context” and“horizon”
which contains in some infinite way all that is given in the finite totality
of beings and their different dimensions. Especially in the texts of mystics
and very good theologians we find many expressions in both directions:
God is not only the Face to whom we direct our prayers; God’s presence is
also the horizon and the all (omnia – esse ipsum?) in which we move and
participate, the fire of which we are sparks, the spirit to whom we owe our
breath. All my statements here are extremely sketchy, but they can be made
more concrete by the religious and theological literature produced in the
last three thousand years of civilization. Their unfolding demands difficult
discussions about the intricacies of analogical and apophatic thinking about
God, andespecially about the theological texts inwhichlearnedmystics, like
Gregory of Nyssa, Bonaventura, and Nicholas of Cusa, tried to approach
conceptually the quintessence of the religion to which they were devoted.
At stake here is the question of creation: If God can be approached through
120 adri aan peperzak
the metaphorics around persons and personality, on the one hand, while
God’s infinity invites us to appeal to an analogically transformed “being-in”
and “participation,” the entire network of categories related to efficient
causality crumbles. Medieval philosophers have always known that the full
meaning of “grounding” cannot be reduced to poi
¯
esis, and even less to the
causality of modern science, but neither of their causes fitted the relation
between God and the universe either. Some of them have tried to think
of God as a “quasi-form” (causa quasi-formalis) of the created totality, but
not only is this expression obscure (like all predicates that are attributed to
God), but it must also be defended against accusations of pantheism.
(8) If onto-theo-logy still has a chance, and if the sketch presented here
makes some sense, the realization of such a project demands much thor-
ough thinking, perhaps too much. The most extensive and subtle discus-
sions about the questions I have briefly indicated can be found in the
Muslim, Jewish, and Christian philosophies of the Middle Ages. Authors
who were committed and devoted to God through the affective, imagi-
native, practical, liturgical, institutional, and intellectual possibilities that
their religion offered them wrote most of them. Their reflection was sup-
ported and animated by a religious experience for which the mystery that
caused their (onto-theo-)logical problems did not appear as impossible. In
their prayers, the otherness of God and their unity with the embracing
quasi-totality of God’s presence – i.e., the identity of the infinite difference
with the quasi-identity that separated them from and unified them with
God – was experienced as quite appropriate to the only non-idolic God,
although a formulation of this contradictory unity on the level of logic
remained clumsy and inadequate. What became obvious in lived devotion
broke through the limits of their reflection, because their devotion reached
farther than reflection. The latter is tempted by exaggeration and reduc-
tion: deism sticks to God’s otherness and separation, whereas pantheism
exaggerates the identity without being bothered by the abyss. Both have
a partial conception of presence, while atheism prefers to stay within the
walls of the finite totality.
22
notes
1. If we read “ontotheology” as an “ontology” in which to theion or Deus inevitably
emerges, we can use it to characterize the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle
and most metaphysicians, Hegel and Heidegger included. As a logia that studies
the relations between beings and God, it could be named “onto-theo-logy.” An
“onto-theology” seems to stress a theological perspective on the being (to einai,
das Sein) of all beings (to on).
Religion after onto-theology? 121
2. Some of them, for instance, follow the Platonic interpretations of Nietzsche
and Heidegger, but do not always display familiarity with the primary texts.
For an analysis of the transformation Plato’s Politeia undergoes in Heidegger’s
interpretation, for example, see my Platonic Transformations (Lanham:
Rowman and Littlefield, 1997), pp. 57–111.
3. As Heidegger so often writes. Whether this expression by itself already includes
the thought that the word “god” in “God” and “the gods” has the same or a
radically different meaning, and whether its use excludes the possibility of an
infinite God, has to be shown by further analysis.
4. Identit¨ at und Differenz (ID) (Pfullingen: Neske, 1957), pp. 35–73.
5. See Historisches W¨ orterbuch der Philosophie, ed. Joachim Ritter, Karlfried
Gr¨ under, and Gottfried Gabriel (Basle: Schwabe, 1971), vol. i, cols. 976–7.
6. Cf., however, Aristotle’s anangk ¯ e st ¯ enai.
7. Careful reading of, e.g., Plotinus, Enneads vi, in Opera, vol. iii, ed. Paul Henry
and Hans-Rudolf Schwyzer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), vi.8.13.55 and
8.18.49 (where aition heautou is used metaphorically to point at the One’s
originality and freedom); Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles (Notre Dame:
University of Notre Dame Press, 1975), i.22 (where Thomas rejects the expres-
sion); Descartes’s responses to the first andfourthobjections to his Meditationes
de Prima Philosophia, translated as Meditations on First Philosophy, rev. edn,
trans. John Cottingham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), and
Spinoza’s Ethica (which Heidegger may have read although he never showed
any acquaintance with it), translated as Ethics, trans. G. H. R. Parkinson
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) suffices to justify the conclusion that
Heidegger’s claim rests on shaky ground.
8. Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, translated as The Journey of the Mind to God,
trans. Philotheus Boehner (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993), chapters 5–7.
9. ModernFreedom: Hegel’s Legal, Moral, and Political Philosophy (Boston: Kluwer,
2001); Hegels praktische Philosophie (Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Frommann-
Holzboog, 1991); and Selbsterkenntnis des Absoluten (Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt:
Frommann-Holzboog, 1987).
10. Kants gesammelte Schriften: Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, vol. iv
(Berlin: Georg Reimer, 1911), pp. 429–37.
11. Gesamtausgabe, vol. ii: Sein und Zeit (Frankfurt-on-Main: Klostermann, 1977),
§26, pp. 157–68.
12. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh:
Duquesne University Press, 1969).
13. See my To the Other (Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1992), pp. 202–8,
and Beyond: The Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas (Evanston: Northwestern
University Press, 1997), pp. 82–6.
14. Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso
Lingis (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1981).
15. See n. 10 above.
16. See CEuvres de Descartes: discours de la m´ethode, Troisi` eme Partie, vol. vi, ed.
Charles Adam and Paul Tannery (Paris: L. Cerf, 1902), pp. 22–8, and my
122 adri aan peperzak
commentary in “Life, Science and Wisdom According to Descartes,” History
of Philosophy Quarterly 12 (1995), pp. 133–53.
17. Totalit´e et infini, 4th edn (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1971), pp. 4–5.
18. Ibid., p. 3.
19. Translated as Discourse on the Method, ed. David Weissman (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1996).
20. See the last pages of the Lettre-pr´eface to the French edition of Descartes’s
Principia, e.g., in CEuvres philosophiques, vol. iii, ed. F. Alqui´ e (Paris: Garnier,
1973), pp. 779–82. Descartes achieved only his metaphysics and a part of his
physics, while he hardly touched m´edecine, m´ecanique, and (the scientifically
proven) morale.
21. See especially chapter 5 of Otherwise Than Being. For one of my reservations,
see Beyond, pp. 176–7 and 226–7.
22. I am grateful for the assistance of Jason Barrett and Ryan Madison.
chapter 9
The experience of God and the axiology
of the impossible
John D. Caputo
Who would not want to have an experience of God? But if no one has
seen God and lived, who would want to risk it? Would this experience
be some very extraordinary and death-defying event, like landing on the
moon or being abducted by aliens? Or would it rather be a much calmer,
cooler, and more calculated affair, like trying to read extremely complex
computer data from the Galileo telescope that only a few highly trained
experts can understand? What would “experience” mean if one had an
experience of God and, for that matter, what would “God” mean if God
could be experienced?
Rather than engage in any speculative adventure, I will keep close to
the phenomenological ground, for phenomenology, which is nothing but
the cartography of experience, is what for me comes “after onto-theology.”
1
Although I will speak of a certain leap, what I offer here is a careful expli-
cation of what is going on here below, in experience. On that basis, then,
let me pose a risky hypothesis: I will venture the idea that the very idea of
“experience” drives us to the idea of God – which may sound at first a little
bit like the dream of an “absolute empiricism” that Derrida discusses at the
end of “Violence and Metaphysics” – and in a strictly parallel way that the
very idea of “God” is of something that (or of someone who) sustains and
sharpens what we mean by experience, with the result that the “experience
of God” requires a “God of experience.” On this hypothesis, then, “God”
and “experience” are intersecting, pre-fitted notions that fit together hand
in glove. This is all possible, I will hypothesize, only in virtue of the impos-
sible, of what I call, after Derrida, “the impossible.” The impossible will
be the bridge, the crucial middle term in my logic, that links “God” and
“experience.” I will pursue the hypothesis that the experience of the impos-
sible makes the experience of God possible, or, to put it slightly differently,
that we love God because we cannot help but love the impossible. But by
“the impossible,” I hasten to add, I do not mean a simple contradiction,
the simple logical negation of the possible, like (p and ∼p), which is a
123
124 j ohn d. caputo
cornerstone of the old onto-theology,
2
but something phenomenological ,
namely, that which shatters the horizon of expectation and foreseeability.
For if every experience occurs within a horizon of possibility, the experi-
ence of the impossible is the experience of the shattering of this horizon. I
am resisting all a priori logical and onto-theological constraints about the
possible and the impossible in order to work my way back into the texture
of the phenomenological structure of experience.
the i mpossi ble
Let us assume as an axiom that only the impossible will do, that anything less
will produce what the noted Danish phenomenologist Johannes Climacus
calls a “mediocre fellow.” Climacus is speaking about the phenomenon of
the paradox:
But one must not think ill of the paradox, for the paradox is the passion of thought,
and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre
fellow. But the ultimate potentiation of every passion is to will its own downfall,
and so it is also the ultimate passion of the understanding to will the collision,
although in one way or another, the collision must become its downfall. This then
is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought
itself cannot think.
3
On Climacus’s hypothesis, the highest passion of thought is to think
something that cannot be thought. To think something less, to confine
oneself to thinking within the horizon of what it is possible to think,
is to fail to extend thinking beyond itself or push it beyond its normal
range. Thinking within the horizon of the possible has all the makings
of mediocrity, of that measured, moderate middle ground that wants to
minimize risk and maintain present boundaries. Mediocrity confines itself
to practicing the art of the possible. What Climacus here calls the ultimate
“potentiation” of a passion, which means raising it to its highest pitch,
means at the same time reaching a point of impotency and impossibility
(which are at root the same word, adynaton) in a kind of phenomenological
coincidentia oppositorum. The full intensity of experience, the fullest passion,
is attained only in extremis, only when a power – which here is “thinking” –
is pushed to its limits, indeed beyond its limits, to the breaking point,
to the point where it breaks open by colliding against what is beyond its
power.
Clearly we can extend Climacus’s hypothesis to other passions and other
powers and formulate a kind of general theory of impossibility, turning
The experience of God 125
on a certain axiom of impossibility, which might represent a kind of
Aristotelianism – a theory of potencies and powers – gone mad but with
a divine madness. Thus the ultimate potentiation of desire would be to
discover something that exceeds desire, that desire cannot desire, in a desire
beyond desire; to desire something that it is impossible to desire because
it is beyond desire’s reach. Desire is thus fully extended and reaches its
apex only when desire wills or desires its own downfall. When we confine
our desire within the horizon of the possible, of the realistically attainable,
will that not always result in something less than we truly desire? What
can arouse desire more than to be told that we cannot have the object of
our desire, that it is forbidden or unattainable? Rather than extinguishing
desire, does not the very impossibility fire and provoke the desire all the
more? Desire is really desire when we desire beyond desire, when the desire
of desire is in collision with itself.
The highest potentiation of a passion and a power is reached when that
power is brought face to face with its own impotency. The impotency and
the impossibility provide the condition of possibility of the potentiation.
The very condition that blocks the expenditure is what intensifies it. Any-
thing less than the impossible just will not do; anything less will leave the
power intact, still standing within the horizon of the same, and will not
push it beyond itself or force it to another register. So to put our axiom
very precisely we can say that for any x, where x is a power, like thinking
or desiring, x reaches its highest potentiation only when it is impossible for
x to act. Thus a power is most intensely itself only when it is brought to
a standstill, brought to the point that it breaks up or breaks open and is
forced beyond itself; it reaches its highest potentiation only when by a kind
of discontinuous leap it moves, or is moved, to another sphere or register,
beyond its own proper potency.
experi ence
The axiom of impossibility, the law of the highest potentiation, goes to
the heart of what I mean by experience, by the passion and intensity of
experience, for an experience must have passion to be worthy of the name.
To have an experience is to have a taste for adventure, for venturing and risk,
which is the meaning of the root peira. Thus to be a real “empiricist” means
not to sniff along the ground of experience like a hound dog but to search
for opportunities, even peril ous ones, like piracy (all of which have the same
etymology).
4
So experience in the positive and maximal sense, experience
that is really worth its salt – and salt is my criterion of experience – is not for
126 j ohn d. caputo
mediocre fellows. The easy hum-drum drift of everydayness is experience
only in the minimal and negative sense that we are not stone dead, fast
asleep, dead drunk, or completely unconscious, although sometimes, it
seems, we might just as well be. Experience is really experience when we
venture where we cannot or should not go; experience happens only if
we take a chance, only if we risk going where we cannot go, only if we
have the nerve to step where angels fear to tread, precisely where taking
another step farther is impossible. (Since the condition of its possibility is
its impossibility.)
Having, or rather venturing, an experience involves a double operation:
first we understand full well that it is impossible to go, that we are blocked
frommoving ahead, that we cannot take another step, that we have reached
the limit: then we go. We venture out and take the risk, perilous as it may
be. First, immobilization, then movement. The movement is mobilized
by the immobilization. We take the Kierkegaardian leap into the rush of
existence, come what may. First we are frozen with fear and immobility;
then we leap. When we go where we cannot go, then we are really moving
and something is really happening, over and above the routinized flow of
tick-tock time that runs on automatic pilot. The immobilization belongs
more to the cognitive domain: we know that this can’t be done; we have
been instructed by the understanding about the limits of what is possible.
But then we go. Thus the movement is carried out by a shift to the sphere of
praxis and the pragmatic order (which is also related to peira), to a certain
non-cognitive leap which overcomes the hesitations of the understanding;
that is what Augustine calls doing the truth, facere veritatem. We knowbetter
but we do it anyway against our knowledge, or – to give this a sharper edge –
we do it for just that reason. Experience is for leapers and risk takers, for
venturers and adventurers, while mediocre fellows would rather stay home
and let the clock run out on life, preferring the safety and security of
their living rooms to the leap. The impossible is what gives experience its
bite, its kick, and draws us out of the circle of sameness, safety, ease, and
familiarity.
Seen from a modernist and Kantian point of view, the position I adopt
is perverse and quite contrarian. According to my axiom of impossibility,
whatever conforms to what Kant calls the “conditions of possibility of
experience” is precisely not what I mean by experience, while the mark
of experience in the highest sense, sensu eminentiore, is the impossible,
which defies and exceeds Kant’s conditions. Experience has to do precisely
with what is not possible, with what violates or breaches the conditions
of possibility that have been set forth by the understanding. Seen from a
The experience of God 127
Lyotardian point of view, experience does not mean merely to make a new
move in an old game, but to invent a new game altogether. An experience
does not move about safely within fixed limits, abiding within prescribed
conditions of possibility, playing the game by the existing rules; rather, it
ventures forth and crosses the borders, transgressing and trespassing the
limits laid down by the understanding, the limits of the possible, of the
safe and sane and the “same.”
god
By “God,” I mean the possibility of the impossible, a sense that is both
Scriptural and phenomenological. I am not speculating about this name
in the manner of an onto-theology, but consulting one of its oldest and
most venerable uses in the biblical tradition.
5
When the angel Gabriel visits
the Virgin Mary and gives her the startling news, Mary first remarks upon
the great unlikelihood that the angel is right, to which Gabriel replies with
angelic imperturbability not to fear “for nothing will be impossible with
God” (Luke 1:37). When Jesus heals the epileptic boy, the disciples wonder
why they could not do the same, and Jesus tells them that it is because
they have too little faith. “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of
a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’
and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20–1).
Nothing is impossible for God, or for those who being faced squarely with
the impossible put their faith in God and let God do the heavy lifting.
When Jesus tells the rich man to sell everything he has and give it to the
poor, and then adds that it will be harder for a rich man to gain entrance to
the kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle,
the disciples are thrown into despair, for who then can be saved? They have
reached the point of the impossible; they see that there is no way to take
a single step forward. Then, when they have been driven to that point,
Jesus says, “For human beings it is impossible, but for God all things are
possible” (Matt. 19:26) – including the impossible. What is impossible for
us (para anthropois) is God’s business, for with God (para theo) nothing is
impossible. That is why Nicholas of Cusa says, and this is another axiom
to add to our axiology of the impossible, “since nothing is impossible
for God, we should look for Him (in whom impossibility is necessity) in
those things which are impossible in this world.”
6
Wherever the impossible
happens, there is God. The impossible (adynaton), then, is a sign of God,
like a marker in the road that points us toward God, ` a Dieu, where the
road swings off, occasioning a shift from our powers and our possibilities
128 j ohn d. caputo
to the powers and possibilities of God, where we pass from the sphere of
human rule to the sphere where God rules, which is what the Scriptures
call the kingdom of God (basileia tou theou). The mark of God’s king-
dom is that there impossibile becomes possibile, adynaton becomes dynaton.
The impossible draws us out of the sphere of the sane and the same, of the
“human,” into another sphere, where a divine madness rules, which is the
rule of God.
It follows that the “experience of God” is closely tied to the “God of
experience” and that the love of God is tied to our love of the impossible.
“Experience” is the sort of thing that calls for God, and the name of “God”
is the sort of thing that raises experience to its highest pitch. Anything
that falls short of God will not have the bite of experience. By the same
token, anything that eludes or has nothing to do with charging experience
to the utmost will not be God. In the experience of God, “experience” and
“God” are keyed to each other in such an intimate way that experience
enters into what we mean by God. To which I should hasten to add,
what we mean by God and what we mean by experience, for by tracking
experience phenomenologists are always tracking someone’s experience, not
some transcendental, transhistorical “essence” in the manner of classical
Husserlian phenomenology; in that sense, phenomenology is ineluctably
hermeneutical, probing the structure of a historical experience.
7
So I am
trying to get a sense of what we westerners mean, we who have a specific
Scriptural and historical tradition behind us, where there is a taste for time
and history, for freedom and decision, in a word, for “experience,” for what
we mean by experience. The experience of God always comes down to our
experience, and our experience is of a God of experience, a God who lends
himself to experience.
the experts of the possi ble
We can put a sharper point on what we mean by this experience of the
impossible by contrasting it with what I will call here the experts of the
possible, the master practitioners of the art of the possible. The experts
of the possible practice what was called by the medieval theologians the
“cardinal” virtues, which would be precisely those virtues that are possible
“for humans” (para anthropois), as Matthew has Jesus say, namely, those
virtues that remain within the horizon of the powers of human beings.
The cardinal virtues are, as the image goes, the “hinges” (cardines) upon
which a hale and whole human life swings, if we have a door hinge in mind.
But since there are in fact four cardinal virtues – practical wisdom, justice,
courage, and moderation – the metaphor seems to suggest the hinges by
The experience of God 129
which the four legs of a table are attached to the table top, and hence
the hinges upon which our moral life is stabilized and firmly planted on
the floor. Either way, the cardinal virtues, which go back to Plato and
Aristotle, have to do with the life of arete, of human excellence. They turn
on the figure of what Aristotle called the phronimos, the man of “practical
wisdom,” or “prudent” man (phronesis was translated as prudentia in the
Middle Ages). Aristotle was the master of those who know what is what
about the possible and the actual, the master theoretician of potencies and
possibilities, and he thought that you could explainanything inthose terms,
so long as you saw that the actual moved about within the horizon fixed by
the potential and stayed as far away as possible from the impossible. That is
the central thesis of onto-theo-logy, which tended to keep a metaphysical
lid on experience in a way that I am resisting. The phronimos is a well-bred,
well-educated, well-trained, and in general well-hinged fellow who knows
how to conduct the business of life amidst its shifting circumstances. He is
a man of good habits and insight, the noble, aristocratic sort of fellow who
shows up all the time in the novels of Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope.
We need not strain to use gender-neutral language here because Aristotle
was only talking about men; it did not occur to him that women (or slaves)
could hit the mark of arete just as regularly as men do (which was not true
of Austen and Trollope).
The phronimos does the good so regularly that it comes to be a kind
of second nature for him, a stratum of virtuous conduct layered over his
basic human nature so thickly that doing the right thing comes almost as
naturally as breathing. The facility in virtuous conduct comes to him by
dint of practice, and the practice breeds the “habit,” the hexis, the natural
possession, of hitting the mark, like the skill acquired by an archer who
practices every day for many hours. All this practice sharpens his eye so
that he can easily sight the mark and hit it. The exact mark is the middle
of the target, neither too high nor too low, neither too much nor too little.
The mark is the median point of moderation, the well-measured middle
mark, right in the center. This moderation does not produce mediocrity
but excellence (arete), because finding the right mark is rare and hard to do
and most people miss it, which is where mediocrity would lie for Aristotle.
For example, the phronimos knows that “courage” does not consist in being
stupid, in putting one’s body in front of a six-axle truck that is roaring
down a street out of control in order to stop it from plowing into a crowd.
He also knows that courage does not mean being cowardly under the cover
of caution, avoiding a situation we should confront, failing to speak up
when a word is required of us. Now this can be very hard to determine and
sometimes requires exquisite judgment. When Pius XII held his tongue
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about Nazi atrocities during the Second World War, his defenders said
that he was being prudent and his critics said that he was being cowardly.
The phronimos avoids excess (hyperbole), overshooting the mark, and defect
(elleipsis), undershooting the mark. He regularly sees and does what is just
right. But this is not a fixed but a moving target, a floating mark that bobs
up and down in the flux of changing circumstances, and it takes a practiced
eye to spot it, which what defines the phronimos.
Now when the phronimos runs into trouble, that is, when he hits an
idiosyncratic and anomalous situation, then far from falling apart, far from
willing his own downfall, far from breaking up from the force of the colli-
sion, this well-hinged fellowhits full stride and comes into his own precisely
as the prudent man that he is. For the phronimos has so sharp and practiced
an eye, an eye that so regularly sizes up what is to be done and what is not
to be done in most situations, that when he hits an irregular and incom-
mensurable circumstance, he has the insight to make a good judgment, to
adjudicate just what is demanded here and nowby this particular situation,
in just these singular circumstances. He is not bowled over by the oddity
of the situation but gets on top of it and reaches a judicious and equitable
judgment about just what is demanded, about just what justice requires,
or courage. The oddity of the situation does not knock him off his hinges,
but he stands firm like a table with all four feet firmly fixed on the ground.
Fromour point of view, the phronimos is a self-possessed fellowwho does
not lose it, whose highest potentiation is to maintain the calm possession
of his powers. He is smart enough to know not to tamper with what lies
outside the domain of his own possibilities. He wisely remains within the
realm of things over which he retains the powers of disposition, over which
he rules with a seasoned eye and practiced self-control. He is, in a word,
a master of his powers, an expert of the possible. He undertakes the risky
business of the hitting the mark in unforeseen circumstances, which is why
we admire his expertise, but he does not dare venture out into that abyss
where he does not rule. The latter is the place where there are no experts,
where, according to the Scriptures, God rules, with whom all things are
possible, including the impossible, where the experts of the possible are
forced to yield to the experience of the impossible.
fai th and the unbeli evable
The expert of the possible is a well-hinged fellow, and who can fail to admire
such excellence? He knows what is what and remains in control. But the
requirement of a genuine experience involves taking a greater risk than that,
The experience of God 131
venturing into the domain where our powers of self-possession slip away
and we are exposed to risk on every side. So in contra-distinction to the four
virtues of the well-hinged, let us offer the three “virtues” of the unhinged –
if that phallocentrism is a word we still want to use at this point (virtues
suggest something virile). In the interest of coming up with something that
comes after onto-theology, let us propose three cases of the frame of mind
of those who will the ultimate potentiation of their powers right on up to
the point of the impossible, where the highest potentiation of one’s powers
lies in willing their downfall.
The phronimos is a prudent man and he does not do foolish things. He
knows what his chances are and he carefully deliberates about when a risk is
worthtaking. This is the sort of fellowone wants as aninvestment counselor.
So when he believes something we can be assured that he has good reasons
for believing it, that it is eminently believable. What he believes is credible,
and his willingness to believe is warranted. His idea is the moderation, not
the ultimate potentiation, of belief, not to believe too much too easily or to
believe too little with too much resistance. For he believes in things just
insofar as they are warrantedandreasonable. But that is tobelieve something
just so far as he can see that it is likely to be so, just where the evidence is the
greatest and the amount of actual faith required is the least. Inasmuch as
his beliefs are organized around the principle of the possible, which is here
the probable or likely, he always prefers the situation that requires the least
faith and the most evidence possible. Once the scale of probabilities tips
against him, he will abandon his belief and put his confidence elsewhere.
So it is not faith that has won the heart of the phronimos but evidence,
seeing, where faith is a kind of tentative supplement or prosthesis that he
employs while waiting for all the evidence to arrive to support his primary
thetic act. But clearly this is a fellow with only a moderate faith in faith,
with only a moderate heart for the ultimate potentiation of belief, for is
not faith most required when things start to look a little unbelievable?
Is not faith really faith just insofar as it tends to be impossible to believe?
We need faith precisely when the odds are against us, when everyone else
thinks it mad to go on, when it starts to look incredible. Faith is faith not in
the reasonable and likely, which is less a matter of faith and more a calculus
of probabilities; faith is faith in the incredible. That’s when we need faith
to go on – just in order to keep on going.
Let us take the case of an innocent man who has been unjustly accused
of wrongdoing. At first his friends believe in his innocence and rally around
himin support, especially early on, when they do not knowthe whole story
and the facts are on his side. But as the tide of evidence shifts against the
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fellow, the more faint hearted among his friends fade away and the crowd
of his supporters thins. For they, alas, are disciples of the principle of the
possible, and they shy away from the axiom of the impossible. They believe
things only insofar as they are believable, that is, reasonable, which is to
believe something only insofar as it requires a minimum of belief. That is
what Johannes Climacus would call the faith of a mediocre fellow who tries
to stick to the golden middle where all the evidence is clustered. But this
poor fellow under unjust accusation needs friends precisely at the extreme
point, which requires a maximumof belief, where all the evidence is against
him, in that darkest midnight hour in which he is condemned as a guilty
man by all the world. To go on believing in this fellow then, when in all
likelihood he is a guilty man, at that point when it seems unbelievable, that
is faith, the ultimate potentiation of the faith one has in a friend, a faith
tried and tested in the fire of the impossible. The rest is just happy-hour
companionship, the vacillating support of a hail fellow well met who heads
for the door at the first sound of trouble.
Faith does not come down to believing things just insofar as they are
believable, but believing in what has become unbelievable, when it has
become impossible to believe. Only the impossible will do to fire the steel
of faith. At that most extreme point, at that darkest hour, when we have
run up against the impossibility of believing and going on, just then, we
believe. Before that, it was just a poker game and we were playing the odds.
At that point, we reach one of the edges of our experience, a boundary or
limit case where our own powers and potentialities reach a breaking point
and we realize that we have entered a domain where we have no control,
where we do not rule, and we put our faith in God – or something, God
knows what, since it is out of our hands. That is one of the ways that the
name of “God” enters out “experience.” For God to gain admission, for
the name of God to come into play, the walls of the possible must be razed
and the experts of the possible must have fled the scene. For God is given
in the experience of the impossible, when we have reached our limits and
conceded that we do not know what to do.
“I believe you, I believe in you, I will stand by you no matter what, even if
for all the world you are condemned as guilty. I will believe the unbelievable,
right on up to the end. And I commend you to God. I will pray for you
and ask God to watch over you. For with God all things are possible, even
the impossible.” For us, for our limited powers, it is impossible, but it is
possible for God. For God makes the crooked straight and makes the lamb
to lie down with the lion. God watches over the little ones and sets his
heart not on the ninety-nine who are in the fold but on the one who is
The experience of God 133
lost, the odd one out. The name of God is the name of one who can make
this possible, even if it is impossible. For God is the giver of all good gifts,
above all if they are impossible. That is what we mean by God, what the
name of God means, and it is this sort of limit-experience – a term that is
in a certain sense redundant – that gives the name of God meaning, what
we might call its phenomenological content, which is in the truest sense of
the word experiential . For to have an experience is to take a risk, to brave
the stormy seas of the impossible, to venture out where common sense
tells us to stick close to the land and keep the shoreline in sight, to expose
ourselves where the odds are against us. We look for God, as Cusa says,
where the impossible happens. The experience of God is to “see” the hand
of God in the course that things take, to take the course of experience as
guided by God, to find a loving hand, a providential care where others see
chance, so that when things happen they happen as a gift, not fortuitously
but gratuitously. But the gift is not a gift of chance, a bit of fortuitousness,
but a gratuity that is marked by a divine graciousness.
Of course, we must concede that this will always include the possibility
that the outcome will be a disaster, that God will have permitted a disaster,
God knows why. As Qoheleth points out, God also makes his sun to shine
upon the wicked and the just so we none of us know how this will turn
out. The disaster may strengthen the hand of those who say that our lives
are not held in the palm of God’s hand but exposed to chance and the
play of forces. That is true, but only on the basis of the logic or onto-logic
of the possible. For the disaster also strengthens the hand of those who
believe in God, because faith is faith in the face of the impossible, in the
midnight hour where night is its element and it has become impossible to
believe, according not to the logic of the possible but to the axiom of the
impossible. I will come back to this complication about chance below.
hopi ng agai nst hope
The experts of the possible have reasonable hopes. Their hope is well
founded on the facts so that they can have every reasonable expectation
that things will turn out well. The physician says that the disease has been
caught in its earliest stages and he expects a full recovery. He has treated
many such cases before and the outcome is almost always favorable. The
future has all the weight of the past behind it; the course of events seems
almost inevitable. That is hope with a minimum of hope and a maximum
of reasonable expectation. That is hope in a “future-present,” a future I can
almost see and taste on the basis of the present, a future that is so strongly
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predictable that it has practically happened already. I have done everything
that is possible, everything that is in my power, to make the future happen
just as I planned. One is reminded of the “future” for stockbrokers who bid
up the price of stocks on the basis of the expectation of good news – like
the expectation that the Federal Reserve Board will lower interest rates –
so that when the expected action by the Board in fact takes place, nothing
happens to the stocks; the future event was already built into the price.
But in the experience of the impossible, all such reasonable calculation
breaks down and things look hopeless: the disease has spread too far and
has not been caught in time and there is no hope for the patient. But are
not those bleak and hopeless times just when hope is required? Is not hope
really hope only when things begin to look hopeless and it is mad to hope?
Is that not when we need to brave the stormy waters of hope, undertake the
risk of hope, which is, we recall, what having an experience means? That
at least is the opinion not of the stockbrokers or of Aristotle but of the
Apostle Paul, whose favorite example is not the phronimos but Abraham,
the father of us all. Abraham is remembered not as the father of the stock
market or of the phronimoi but as the father of faith and hope. Abraham
trusted in the promise of the Lord that he would be the father of many
generations just when it was hopeless, when his body was as good as dead,
and he was nearly a hundred years old, and Sarah’s body was barren. Being
fully convinced that it was impossible, Abraham continued to hope, even
to the point of what Paul calls “hoping against hope” (Rom. 4:18), which
is, it seems to me, an exquisite formulation of the axiom of impossibility.
Hope is hope only when one hopes against hope, only when the situation
is hopeless. Hope has the full force of hope only when we have first been
led to the point where it is impossible to hope – and then we hope against
hope, even as faith is faith in the face of the incredible. Hope is hope when I
all I can do is to try to keep hope alive even though there is no hope. There
is no hope, I know that and I am convinced of that, but still I hope. Only
the impossible will do for the highest potentiation of faith and hope. The
experts of the possible will have long since slipped out the back door.
But why did Abraham continue to hope even when it was hopeless?
Because “God was able to do what he had promised” (Rom. 4:21). For the
name of God is the name of the possibility of the impossible. We invoke
the name of God in order to “keep hope alive,” as Jesse Jackson says – the
name of God is the name of hope for Jackson and for Martin Luther King,
for Ghandi and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for Nelson Mandela and Archbishop
Tutu – to keep the future open, even when every door has been closed. We
need hope when we see no way out, no way to go, when we are blocked
The experience of God 135
on every side in an aporia more complete and encompassing than Aristotle
ever imagined. The name of God is the name of our hope, the power that
steps in our weakness and hopelessness. For “if God is for us, who is against
us?” (Rom. 8:31). Nothing at all – “neither death nor life, nor angels, nor
rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor
depth, nor anything else in all creation” – will be able to stand between us
and our hope (Rom. 8:38–9).
Paul says that “hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what
is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait in patience”
(Rom. 8:24–5). If hope has to do precisely with the unseen, then, in its
highest potentiation, it is concerned not with the unseen but foreseeable,
but with the absolutely unforeseeable, which constitutes a more radical
and “absolute” future than the “future-present” of the stockbrokers. When
the future is more or less planned and foreseeable, time becomes a certain
approximationprocess whichgradually edges closer andcloser tothe hoped-
for point in the future, making asymptotic progress toward the goal. Then
we are filled with rising expectations. But hope that has pushed to its highest
potentiation is blinder than that, more open-ended than that, and cannot
see its way. Hope cannot imagine what the future holds, or how things will
turn around, and when the unexpected happens we are left wondering how
that was possible, given that it was impossible. So insofar as the name of
God is linked to the experience of the impossible, it also opens up another
experience of time and a certain phenomenology of an absolute future.
The name of God is the name of a horizon of absolute expectation, of
unconditional hope. More precisely, the name of God is not the horizon but
rather the hope that lies beyond the horizon when there is no hope in sight,
no hope onthe horizon. The name of God opens closed horizons, interrupts
the predictability of the future. When we are surrounded on every side by
an encompassing horizon that encloses us within hopelessness, when we
see nowhere to turn, then we turn to God. When every possibility has
been dashed, then the way has been made clear for God, for with God
everything is possible, including the impossible. When we reach the limits
of our power to hope, then the power of God steps in to lift us out of
despair.
That, I am suggesting on purely phenomenological grounds, is an im-
portant part of what we mean by God and hope, what we mean, as I have
said, we in the West, where there is a taste for time and history, in a word,
for “experience.” Our experience of God is very much tied to a God of
experience where experience has the sense of venture and adventure, of risk
and exposure to the future. I do not deny that this experience of God is our
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experience, and our idea of God, whoever we are, we who are an ambiguous
mix of Greek and Jew, who live in the difference between the two.
love i s wi thout why
Let there be no mistake, the phronimos has friends and is an advocate of
philia. He thinks that when it comes to friendship the best should stick with
the best and that true philia is possible only among those of equal station,
where it can be properly reciprocated, so that men may love women, slaves,
and animals only in an increasingly weak and proportionate extension of
the term. You need friends to be happy because no mere mortal can make
it alone. You need a talent for friendship and you need the good fortune
not to be born mean, repulsive, and curmudgeonly so that you drive people
away from you. Having a closed circle of friends, of people who mutually
will the good of one another and support each other when times are tough,
belongs to the circle of good that one draws around oneself in order to be
happy. A good wine, a good job, a good investment counselor, and good
friends are all part of the good life.
Now of all the “virtues” that least lend themselves to the phronimos’s idea
of measured moderation, love leads the list, for the only measure of love is
love without measure. The fellow who says that he loves something – be
it a woman or a cause or even his cat – just so far but not too far, neither
too little nor too much, all within the limits of reason and moderation,
since one never wants to go overboard – is a lover without passion, the
very idea of what Climacus means by a mediocre fellow. If upon being
pressed whether he loves his spouse or fianc´ ee, this fellow says, after a
certain amount of deliberation, “yes, in certain respects, and up to a certain
point, very definitely – but you always have to watch out for number one,”
then whatever it is the poor fellow feels, it is not love. For love is measured
by its measureless expenditure, its unconditionality, its no holds barred,
until death us do part commitment and giving. Love does not calculate the
return for its expenditure; it is perfectly true that one loves and desires the
return of love for love, but the return is not the condition or precondition
of the expenditure. Love is a gift that is given unconditionally.
Love, too, perhaps love above all, is governed by this axiomof the impos-
sible, is potentiated or raised to its highest potentiation by the impossible.
For, after all, what is easier than to love those who love us, who sing our
praises, who stick by us, who think well of us, and return our love with
love? Is that not even a common practice among the Mafia, an organization
not widely known for love? Loving those who are lovable and who return
The experience of God 137
our love with love – is that not possible, all too entirely possible? Does it
not rank high among the achievements of the experts of the possible?
But does not love begin to reach its higher registers only when it starts
to become a little more mad, a little more impossible, which would mean
when what we love is not so lovable and tends not to return our love? Like
loving an aged parent who no longer even knows our name or recognizes
us? Or loving an ungrateful child who has no appreciation of the genuine
bond that unites children with their parents? Or an ungrateful friend who
only shows up when he needs a handout and never shows the least bit of
gratitude for all we do for him? We are beginning to move into a space
where love is tested and fired by the increasing heat of – what else? – the
impossible. We start to hit a point where it is not possible to love these
people, where the understanding says, “these people do not deserve our
love,” which is, of course, an eminently reasonable thing to say. But then
again, must love be deserved – or is love a gift? If love must be deserved or
earned, then it is something we owe to the one who earned it, and then it
is more like wages for labor than a gift we give without condition. Is love
given unconditionally or do you have to meet certain conditions in order
to earn it? Does love always have to have be reasonable, to have a logos, a
why, a reason – or is love without why?
But let us raise the stakes still higher, and push love to its highest poten-
tiation. Consider the following hymn to the impossible:
But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
If you love those who love you, what credit is it to you? For even sinners love
those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is
that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you
hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive
as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in
return. Your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High; for
he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is
merciful. (Luke 6:27–8, 32–6)
These sayings are predicated directly on the axiom of impossibility, turning
on the idea that nothing short of the impossible will do, that the impossible
makes for the highest potentiation of love, for here we are asked to love the
completely unlovable, and to love those who return love with hate.
But that is impossible. To be sure. It is mad; yes, indeed. That is why this
love is what it is and why we love this love so much, or at least recognize in it
love’s highest potentiation, even if we keep a safe distance from it ourselves
and would not blame someone who avoided it. Just as thought desires to
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think what cannot be thought, and faith is asked to believe what is most
unbelievable, and hope is called for when it is hopeless, so love is love when
love is faced with the most loveless and unlovable hate, when it is mad to
love. When your love is like that, then this text from 1 John says that you
are the children of love, or of God, for God is love:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves
is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for
God is love . . . God is love and those who abide in love abide in God and God
abides in them. (1 John 4:7–8, 16)
There is no name more closely associated in the Christian Scriptures with
“God” than love.
8
That is what God is, and this comes as close as the
New Testament comes to a “definition” of God, as opposed to defining
God onto-theo-logically in terms of possibility and actuality, essence and
existence. Even so, it would be at best a quasi-definition because in saying
that God is love one is not de-fining God in the sense of setting forth God’s
limits and boundaries, but saying that God is unbounded and unlimited
and unconditional excess, for love is love only in excess and overflow, not
in moderation.
So the experience of God is given in the experience of love. But love
is perfect not when love is drawn around a closed circle of friends and
intimates, which makes perfect sense and is perfectly possible, but precisely
when love is stretched to the breaking point of loving when love is mad
and impossible. The God of love and the God of the impossible seem like
a nice fit, a kind of pre-fit.
thanki ng our lucky stars
Thus to the well-hinged experts of the possible, sane and moderate fellows
that they are, whose acts are always well ordered within the horizon of
the possible and properly proportioned to their potencies, we oppose the
experience of the impossible, which is a kind of divine madness that is
intoxicated with excess and the impossible, that does not get going unless
it is provoked by the impossible, which is when or where God rules.
God – or perhaps just chance? Now we come back to a point I intimated
earlier. With the experience of the impossible, we cannot avoid feeling a
little like June bugs with which children play of a summer’s night, or like
fish caught in a cosmic net, twisting and flipping about until the air gives
out. Here, at this limit point, in extremis, when we are or when someone
we love is struck by a potentially fatal disease, a qualitative shift takes place
The experience of God 139
in our experience and we enter another domain where things slip out of
our control. To speak in strictly phenomenological terms, the things that
are not under our control, where we have run up against the limits of our
powers, are the raw materials of religion, the stuff of which it is made, the
occasion upon which the name of God makes its entry.
We would do well to make it clear that in this confrontation with the
impossible we are not praying for a magical divine interventioninthe course
of nature. For a God who, upon being pressed by our prayers, alters natural
processes is every bit as onto-theological as the causa sui of metaphysical
theology, constituting a kind of divine super-cause who produces effects
that are beyond our human powers. For even after the event, after the
death of the beloved, when history or nature has taken its deadly course
and God has not intervened to stop the disaster or the disease in its tracks,
we are still praying. For our prayer is a way to affirm that there is meaning
in our lives, that behind the meaninglessness and tragic course that is
taken by our lives, both personal and collective, there is a mysterious love,
not blind chance, that our lives have meaning for God in the midst of
this tragedy. The impossible is not that, against all the odds, there will
be a miraculous intervention from on high, but that there is a meaning
here, in this impossible situation, that a meaning is possible where it is
impossible that this death or illness, this tragedy or misfortune, could have
any meaning, for with God all things are possible.
The prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane is paradigmatic in this regard. Fore-
seeing the sufferings that lay ahead, he “threw himself on the ground and
prayed, that if it were possible (dynaton estin), the hour might pass.” Then
he said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible (panta dynata soi);
remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark
14:35–6). First we pray for a specific outcome, for what I want, for with
God, all things are possible. Then, in a second motion, we amend that
prayer and pray for what God wants, that we will have the strength to
believe and hope and love that, come what may, God’s mysterious love is
unfolding in our lives. We do not pray that God rethink the matter and
alter his present plans, but that what is happening in our lives, which it is
impossible to comprehend, is sustained by incomprehensible love.
Still, the question persists, do these limit-situations necessarily present
us with “God” – or with what we sometimes call “the gods,” by which we
just mean chance? At these limit points in our experience have we come
face to face with the gift of God’s grace? Or with a fortuitous turn of events?
Might the impossible be a mark not of the “kingdom of God” but of the
domain of fortune and chance, not of love but of luck?
9
Indeed, if we treat
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life itself as a gift, is it a gift of God? Or is it not just the effect of a quirky
molecular mutation taken in some far-off corner of the universe, just an
idiosyncratic turn of events in the great cosmic stupidity as it hurtles its
way into entropic dissipation? Here we touch upon the question of the gift
and its enigmatic hermeneutic.
In terms of the specific problematic of the impossible, the question is
this: Can one desire to think what cannot be thought, or to hope against
hope, without implicating oneself in God or religion? With God, nothing
is impossible, but might the impossible be possible without God? Is the
“highest potentiation” of our powers an independent phenomenological
structure that stands with or without God, with or without religion? By
confining ourselves to a rigorously phenomenological ground, have we
actually pulled the rug out from under religion? Even if the name of God
is the name of the possibility of the impossible, might “the possibility of
the impossible” go under another name than “God?” Might the name of
God be an incognito under which the possibility of the impossible travels?
Might the impossible still be possible, even without the God of the Jewish
and Christian Scriptures, with whom nothing is impossible? Might there
be an experience of the impossible that would belong to a certain religion
that we can call a religion without religion, which gets along without what
the Scriptures call a loving father? Might the work that is performed by
(in) the “name of God” be carried out in other ways and under other
names? Might a certain “religion” survive as a residue of biblical religion
in the phenomenological structures it leaves behind (if biblical religion
has been left behind, which I doubt)? Are not these structures inscribed
deep within our “experience,” which is the experience of us westerners who
have been shaped by (among other things) these very Scriptures, like it
or not?
We concede that our lives are tossed about by the winds of chance and
there is no benign design behind it all. We hang on to such happiness as we
have by a tenuous gossamer thread, knowing full well that it can be broken
by the slightest shift in the cosmic winds. Johannes de Silentio said that
without faith in God, with whom all things are possible, we can only get
as far as infinite resignation; we need faith in God to believe that we will
get Isaac back, that there will be a repetition, for after having given Isaac up
one would actually be embarrassed to get him back. For faith is not just
believing something in “childlike na¨ıvet´ e and innocence,” which, though it
is a beautiful thing that can “bring the very stones to tears . . . does not dare,
inthe painof resignation, tolookthe impossibility inthe eye.”
10
That is true,
and far be it for me to take onas redoubtable a phenomenologist as Johannes
The experience of God 141
de Silentio. But since I take the results achieved by Johannes Climacus and
Johannes de Silentio to be phenomenological, I can conclude that one
might use the name of God as a kind of “placeholder” or “incognito” for
our hope against hope.
After all, the name of God means the possibility of the impossible. I
did not invent that, and it is not up to me to ban that linguistic usage,
to try to outlaw it. The name of God is the name of one who can make
the impossible possible; the impossible is where we look for God. That
is a large part of what the name of God signifies in the biblical tradition,
which I am treating here as its phenomenological content, its detachable
phenomenological content. For the phenomenon stands with or without
the historical religions, constituting a certain religion with or without the
historical religions. (The next question is this: Is “the possibility of the im-
possible” a kind of freestanding phenomenological unit which sometimes
goes under the name of “God” in religion? Or is it radically parasitic upon
the historical Scriptural traditions, from which we learned it in the first
place?) Things happen in this sphere beyond our control “gratuitously,”
like a grace, but the gift may well be a gift of chance, a bit of fortuitousness,
not the gratuity of a divine graciousness. We believed against all the odds
and kept the faith in order to keep the future open, but we were prepared for
the worst, prepared to go under. Still, we caught a break and our faith and
hope were “rewarded.” The impersonal course of things took a fortuitous
turn. If there is a “gift” here, the gift is not the doing of anyone’s generosity
and there is no one to thank; if we express our gratitude to the stars, we are
engaged in a monologue and we are simply purging ourselves of a need to
express our gratitude. We thank our lucky stars, but the stars, alas, do not
know we are here.
Still the phenomenological structure of ineradicable faith, hope, andlove,
the phenomenological structure of this passion for the impossible, remains
in place, but without the historical religions, constituting the structure of
what Derrida calls a religion without religion. By this Derrida means, and
I am following him here, a passion for the experience of the impossible,
which is a passion that outstrips the conditions of possibility imposed upon
experience by modernist criticism. Modernity is marked by a needless and
distortive secularization of our experience, which is why it has come under
increasing fire ever since Kierkegaard first gave it a piece of his formidable
mind.
There is an ineradicable undecidability here between “God” and “the
gods,” the gift of God and the gift of chance, mysterious love and blind
chance, between two different ways to regard the gift and to treat the
142 j ohn d. caputo
course of events, whose discernment constitutes the stuff of what I like to
call a “more radical hermeneutics.” One might well think that a repetition,
however impossible, is just the sort of thing that might be brought about
by the shifting tides of time and chance, which could bring Isaac back
just as easily as they snatched him away, just so long as we do not give
up, which is what the Scriptural traditions call God. We got lucky, the
gods smiled upon us – or we were blessed by God – and the impossible
happened. To be sure, no such hermeneutics, radical or more radical, will
be able to provide a general formula for resolving the difference, for there
is no higher axiom in virtue of which one could name, identify, or resolve
the irresolvable fluctuation in the experience of the impossible. Making a
move in this impossible situation is what I mean by radical hermeneutics,
which does not set out to resolve this conflict but to identify the precise
point of fluctuation at which a resolution, if there is one, would be carried
out.
I can – indeed, I would say as a phenomenological matter, I must – love
the impossible and think that anything is possible, even the impossible, for
only the impossible will do. And if the impossible happens I thank God,
or my lucky stars. I love God because I love the impossible, but I love
the impossible in any case. When the impossible happens, I thank what
the great Patristic phenomenologist Augustine of Hippo called in the most
intimate and the most powerful phenomenological terms deus meus, “my
God.” Speaking strictly as a phenomenologist, I would say that I thank God
because with God nothing is impossible, but the question is, as Augustine
also said, “what do I love when I love my God?”
11
Now, by way of a parting gesture, a concluding impudent postscript, let
us thicken the plot and complicate the paradox with a final twist that would
call for another and extended analysis: Suppose one said that nothing turns
on how one resolves this fluctuation, that as a phenomenological matter
faith is faith, hope is hope, and love is love, so long as each is fired by
the experience of the impossible, so that it does not matter whether one
makes use of the name of God at all? Then what difference would there be
between standing by the beloved until the end, even though the situation
is impossible, in the name of God, for with God nothing is impossible,
and standing by the beloved until the end, tout court? I have been arguing
that the “experience of the impossible” is the way in which the “experience
of God” is given. But might the “experience of God” be no more than a
name we have for the experience of the impossible, and the “love of God”
be no more than a name we have for our love of the impossible? Perhaps.
But now we ask, as long as one hopes against hope and loves beyond love,
The experience of God 143
does that matter? Recalling that the peira of experience and praxis share a
common root, does not a certain transformation into praxis occur at this
point in virtue of which the experience of God and the experience of the
impossible are caught up in a cognitive fluctuation that is resolved in the
doing, in loving God in spirit and in truth, in spending oneself on behalf
of the democracy to come? Facere veritatem.
Could it be that the experience of God is given in an experience in
which the name of God never comes up? Unlike landing on the moon,
might one undergo an experience of God and never even know that that is
what happened? Would that not correspond rather nicely to what Derrida
calls a “gift,” where no one suspects that anyone gave anyone anything?
Again, would it not correspond to what theology calls God’s kenosis, where
God slips out of sight in order to let the world come into view, where
God withdraws in order to make things possible, all things, including the
impossible, for with God nothing is impossible?
notes
1. Aphenomenology is always concerned with the precise sense of appearing, with
the structure of phenomenality, rather than the objective reality of an appear-
ance. Minimally, it would bracket a causal or realist account of experience and
adhere closely to a descriptive account, without being in principle committed
to a Husserlian theory of “consciousness” and the primacy of the cognitive, as
the history of phenomenology after Husserl testifies. In the case of the Scrip-
tures, it would concentrate on the “sense” of a faith that can move mountains
rather than worrying about its objective physical or metaphysical possibility, on
the sense of the angel Gabriel’s Annunciation to the Virgin Mary rather than
whether the evangelist records an actual historical episode.
2. Given the many meanings of the word “impossible,” it would be arbitrary
to restrict the notion of the impossible to the objectivistic sense of a simple
logical contradiction, which is but one of its many meanings. Some things, for
example, are possible for women that are impossible for men, possible for the
wealthy or strong that are impossible for the poor or weak, or possible for God
that are impossible for human beings; this last sense plays an important role in
this chapter.
3. Kierkegaard’s Writings, vol. vii, Philosophical Fragments, or A Fragment of Phi-
losophy and Johannes Climacus, or De Omnibus Dubitandum est, trans. and ed.
Howard Hong and Edna Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985),
p. 37. Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms constitute clear antecedent figures in the his-
tory of phenomenology: what else are their descriptions of freedom, possibility,
anxiety, despair, etc. than phenomenologies avant la lettre?
4. Joseph T. Shipley, The Origins of English Words (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1984), “per III,” p. 304.
144 j ohn d. caputo
5. The name of God is not primarily a matter for philosophical or theological
speculation but a historical expression in which a community articulates how
“God” has entered into the structure of its everyday life – its births and deaths,
joys and sorrows. Its primary sense is found in its use, in a greeting – “God be
with you” – or a prayer – “O God,” – before its occurrence in any philosophical
treatise. The name of God will flourish as long as there are such communities,
and the speculations of the philosophers and theologians about this name will
always be parasitic upon these practices. Philosophers have neither the means
nor the authority to ban its use; their main role is to respond to the learned
despisers of this name. As William F. Nietmann says, in a religious language,
the name of God is not something requiring justification or explanation, but
something that is invoked in the face of the meaninglessness of life. See his The
Unmaking of God (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1994).
6. De Possest, No. 59; see the translation of De Possest in Jasper Hopkins, A Concise
Introduction to the Philosophy of Nicholas of Cusa, 3rd edn (Minneapolis: Arthur
J. Banning Press, 1986). In De Possest, Nicholas of Cusa is content to show
the coincidence of possibility and actuality in God: posse est, posse/esse, possest,
where God is the actuality of every possibility. But in On the Vision of God (De
Visione Dei), he ventures further to show that God is also the coincidence of
necessity and impossibility, since God by the necessity of his infinite being is
capable of what is impossible for us. There he writes, “I thank You, my God, for
disclosing to me that there is no other way of approaching You than this way
which seems to all men, including the most learned philosophers, altogether
inaccessible and impossible. For You have shown me that You cannot be seen
elsewhere than where impossibility appears and stands in the way. And You, O
Lord, who are the Nourishment of the full-grown, have encouraged me to do
violence to myself, because impossibility coincides with necessity.” See Nicholas
of Cusa’s Dialectical Mysticism, Text, Translation, and Interpretive Study of De
Visione Dei, 3rd edn by Jasper Hopkins (Minneapolis: Arthur J. Banning Press,
1988), No. 39.
7. I donot thinkthat Ricoeur’s attempt todistinguisha phenomenology of essences
from a hermeneutic of historical texts and cultures can stand up; see Paul
Ricoeur, “Experience and Language in Religious Discourse,” in Phenomenology
and the Theological Turn: The French Debate, ed. Dominique Janicaud et al.
(New York: Fordham University Press, 2000), pp. 127–46.
8. One can say this without a trace of supersessionism, for in stressing love the
New Testament is just being as Jewish as possible, despite the polemics of the
new “Way” against the older Jewish traditions. See E. P. Sanders, Jesus and
Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985).
9. The phronimos, for example, knows as well as any reader of the Scriptures that
not everything is under his control and that he can only be praised or blamed for
the things that are up to him. As for the rest, he leaves that up to moira or “the
gods,” which are an essential element (over and above his own virtue) in what
he calls eudaimonia. Eudaimonia, which we usually translate as “happiness,”
means having a “good spirit,” like a “guardian angel,” accompany you through
The experience of God 145
life and protect you from fortune’s more outrageous turns. You need the good
fortune not to be born stupid, ugly, poor, or dispositionally unlovable, or all
of these at once, and to enjoy good luck as life goes on. A good daimon bears
a resemblance to the loving hand of what the Scriptures call “God” watching
out for the least among us, or what Jesus called his abba keeping a loving
care over us, but within a framework governed not by love but by luck, by
the shifting tides of happenstance, catching a break in the cosmic twists and
turns.
10. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, trans. Howard Hong and Edna Hong
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 47.
11. See Augustine, Confessions x.6.
chapter 1 0
Jewish philosophy after metaphysics
Leora Batnitzky
The intellectual biographies of Emmanuel Levinas and Leo Strauss are re-
markably similar. Both are post-Holocaust thinkers attempting to rethink
the philosophical possibility of morality after the Nazi genocide and they
use many of the same philosophical resources to do so. Both studied with
Husserl and Heidegger in the 1920s, both claim a methodological return to
Husserl in arguing against what each maintains is the amorality of Heideg-
ger’s philosophy, and both claim Franz Rosenzweig as a, if not the, major
influence in so doing. The exegesis of classic Jewish texts matters greatly
to both of them, and each claims to be returning to Plato. Both have had
significant Catholic receptions and both continue to have important in-
fluences on contemporary discussions of ethics and politics. Nevertheless,
despite these striking historical similarities, from the perspective of their
philosophies themselves, one might think that Levinas and Strauss do not
have much in common philosophically with one another. And if one made
this claim, it would be based largely on yet another remarkable similar-
ity between Levinas and Strauss, which is their respective constructions of
the relation between what Levinas calls “Greek” and “Hebrew” and what
Strauss calls “Athens” and “Jerusalem.”
As has been argued by a number of recent interpreters, the crux of
Levinas’s philosophy is his reorientation of “Greek” by way of “Hebrew.” In
this light, Levinas is thought to be a Jewish philosopher whose achievement
is to have revived the Jewish tradition philosophically. In contrast, with the
exception of a few recent interpretations, Strauss has been viewed largely
as a political philosopher for whom revelation is, at best, of instrumental
significance. While Strauss maintained that what he called “Athens” is in
necessary tension with what he called “Jerusalem,” many if not most of
Strauss’s interpreters continue to argue that Strauss comes down largely
on the side of “Athens.” Therefore, Levinas’s decidedly “Hebrew” thought
would seem to be opposed philosophically to Strauss’s decidedly “Greek”
thought.
146
Jewish philosophy after metaphysics 147
In this essay, I would like to begin to dismantle these assumptions. I argue
that there is a profound philosophical affinity between Levinas and Strauss
precisely in regard to their arguments about the philosophical possibility of
revelation (and here I emphasize both “philosophical” and “possibility”).
Once we appreciate this philosophical affinity we must rethink the view of
Strauss as anaffiliate of “Athens” andof Levinas as anaffiliate of “Jerusalem.”
I suggest that Levinas and Strauss can be more fully understood in relation
to one another than they can be in relation to current conversations about
post-modernism (in the case of Levinas) or neo-conservatism (in the case
of Strauss).
Let me state clearly that my purpose is not to deny Levinas’s or Strauss’s
philosophical relevance to contemporary post-modern or neo-conservative
discussions, and certainly not to limit their philosophies to a kind of
identity-politics. Far from it. (Indeed, nothing would be more repugnant
to the spirit of each of their philosophies!) Nor is my point to deny the
profound, if not irreconcilable, philosophical differences between Levinas
and Strauss. Instead, I would like to complicate the frameworks that have
been applied to them in order to question what I shall argue has been a
largely Christian, if not Protestant, story about religious thought after and
“during” metaphysics. I shall suggest that this more complicated story is
philosophically significant in relation to questions about the modern mean-
ings of philosophy and only by virtue of this about the modern meanings of
“religion.”
1 on the i mpossi bi li ty and possi bi li ty of
j ewi sh phi losophy
Let me begin with the title of this essay. The title – “Jewish Philosophy
after Metaphysics” – is potentially misleading. My claim is that there is
Jewish philosophy neither after nor “during” metaphysics in the sense that
Jewish philosophy has not been concerned primarily with foundational
proofs for God’s existence. But “Jewish philosophy” is concerned with a kind
of metaphysics that is not utilized for the purpose of ontological grounding,
but rather for its ethical or political implications. Before turning to the
details of the position I am describing, let us recall Heidegger’s notions
of metaphysics and onto-theology, notions that are assumed by much of
contemporary discussion of “religion after metaphysics,” and notions to
which both Levinas and Strauss respond.
As Heidegger defined it in his 1929 inaugural lecture, “What is Meta-
physics?,” “Metaphysics means questioning beyond beings so as to regain
148 leora batni tzky
them, as such and in the unity of a whole, for understanding.”
1
For
Heidegger, metaphysics is coequal with philosophy. Heidegger ends this
lecture by suggesting that “Philosophy . . . means simply enacting the meta-
physics in which philosophy comes to itself and to its explicit tasks.”
2
For
Heidegger, technology is a defining moment in the history of metaphysics
because the world of modern technology blocks out what he argues “most
matters,” which is to “open the space for beings in terms of a whole; then
liberate ourselves for the nothing, i.e., free ourselves from the idols that
each of us has and goes cringing to.”
3
Technology is not merely hardware
or software or even scientific method. Most fundamentally, it is the way in
which being discloses itself to us today. Entities are too present in the age
of technology because we believe that we can truly “know” and manipu-
late them. Ironically, perhaps, because they are too present, the entities of
technology cannot disclose themselves and we cannot “liberate ourselves
for the nothing.” For this reason, Heidegger sought to return to the pre-
Socratics, who he maintained had a pre-metaphysical notion of disclosure.
His own philosophy would prepare the way for a new, post-metaphysical
beginning. For Heidegger, the end of metaphysics is a return to ontology,
by which he means a return to the concealment and revelation of being
or, as Thomas Sheehan has recently translated Dasein, the “being-open” or
“the open-that-we-are.”
4
According to Heidegger, the Western philosophical tradition’s conceal-
ment of being is intimately connected to the history of Western theology. In
a 1957 lecture titled “The Onto-theological Constitution of Metaphysics,”
Heidegger argued that the Western philosophical tradition is itself onto-
theological in nature. Onto-theology is the metaphysical quest to ground
the being of entities in the being of a highest entity, but onto-theology also
characterizes the Western philosophical tradition’s fundamental forgetful-
ness of being. Heidegger maintained that theology’s quest to ground the
being of entities in the being of a highest entity is made possible by the
error of metaphysics itself, which is the inability to distinguish between
the being of entities and the being of being. The overcoming of metaphysics
is thus by definition also the overcoming of theology (which he understands
as always being “onto-theology”) as it has been historically known.
Heidegger links metaphysics with the Western philosophical tradition
that begins with Plato. As Heidegger remarked in his Nietzsche lectures,
“all Western philosophy is Platonism. Metaphysics, Idealism, and Platon-
ism mean essentially the same thing . . . Plato has become the prototypal
philosopher.”
5
In an early work defining his philosophical agenda, Levinas
revalues this assertion of Heidegger’s, declaring that “all philosophy is
Jewish philosophy after metaphysics 149
Platonic.”
6
Levinas, like Strauss, seeks to resuscitate Plato after Heideg-
ger has declared an end of metaphysics. So both Levinas and Strauss seek to
resuscitate Western philosophy, though, as we shall see below, with impor-
tant differences. Levinas and Strauss are further linked by their claim that
Platonism itself must be understood within the context of and by way of
Jewish revelation. In fact, for both it is Jewish revelation that holds the key
to rereading Plato after Heidegger and thus, both argue, for the possibility
of the moral restoration of Western civilization after the Nazi genocide.
More particularly, for both Levinas and Strauss, the medieval Jewish
philosopher Moses Maimonides is the paradigm for the revitalization of
philosophy and also Western civilization. For Levinas, Maimonides marks
the peak of Jewish religion as well as the de-ontologization of ethics and
religion. In Levinas’s words,
Jewish monotheism does not exalt a sacred power, a numen triumphing over other
numinous powers but still participating in their clandestine and mysterious life . . .
Here, Judaismfeels very close to the West, by which I mean philosophy. It is not by
virtue of simple chance that the way towards the synthesis of the Jewish revelation
and Greek thought was masterfully traced by Maimonides.
7
Like Levinas, Strauss argues that Maimonides is truly a Platonist. And like
Levinas, Strauss places the explication of the possibility of a philosophical
return to Maimonides at the center of his thought.
Yet there is a fundamental difference between Levinas’s and Strauss’s
reading of Maimonides, a difference that is in fact noted by Levinas in a
comment whose referent seems to be Strauss.
8
Concurring with, though
not acknowledging, Hermann Cohen’s reading of Maimonides, Levinas
states that
Maimonides is not an accident of Holy History . . . in Maimonides himself, to
whom rational knowledge of God, metaphysical knowledge, is the supreme good
of the human person. . . The imitation of God! The love of one’s neighbor is at
the summit of a life devoted to supreme knowledge. This is a remarkable reversal,
unless we are to question the sincerity of this teacher, suggesting that he may have spoken
otherwise than he thought, to avoid unsettling pious minds.
9
In what Levinas calls Maimonides’ “remarkable reversal,” we find a sum-
mary of Levinas’s own philosophical project: to present what he calls meta-
physical knowledge that is not fundamentally ontological in nature – and
thereby not onto-theological – but ethical. It is Strauss who has, in Levinas’s
words, questioned “the sincerity of this teacher,” a position that Levinas
elsewhere dismisses.
10
150 leora batni tzky
Whether Strauss considers Maimonides insincere is a matter not only of
interpretation but speculation. And one’s interpretation of and speculation
about this question will depend in large part on whether one accepts or
rejects Strauss’s basic premise, whichis that revealedreligionandphilosophy
are fundamentally irreconcilable. If one disagrees with Strauss’s premise, it
is difficult to imagine that Strauss considers Maimonides philosophically
sincere. On the other hand, if one takes Strauss’s premise seriously – that
the relation between revealed religion and philosophy is philosophically
irreconcilable –thenone might understandStrauss’s reading of Maimonides
as a reflection on what Strauss argues (and argues that Maimonides argues)
is a, if not the, profound philosophical problem.
This seemingly irreconcilable difference between Strauss and Levinas on
the question of the relation between revealed religion and Judaism masks
what is in fact a deep formal similarity in their arguments. Both attempt
to argue that Jewish revelation provides philosophy with its most funda-
mental insight, which is philosophy’s need of revelation. Revelation, to be
sure, means something different for each of them. For Strauss, revelation
attests to a divine ordering of the world, while for Levinas, revelation is
and remains an interhuman experience. As we shall see in the next sec-
tion, this difference is highly significant. But in order to gauge the signif-
icance of this difference we must first appreciate the formal similarity of
Strauss’s and Levinas’s arguments. To do so, we must turn to a more de-
tailed discussion of their arguments about the relation between Judaismand
philosophy.
Neither Strauss nor Levinas attempts to harmonize Judaism and phi-
losophy. For Strauss, such a harmonization is impossible because Judaism
and philosophy represent two fundamentally opposing attitudes toward the
world. Though they both seek wisdom, the wisdom of biblical religion and
the wisdom of philosophical reflection are in marked contrast to one an-
other. Philosophy for Strauss is the search for wisdom that begins with the
thinker’s unending quest for the nature of the good.
11
In contrast, Judaism
is rooted in revelation, which begins not in thought, but in obedience to
God and the revealed law.
Strauss argues that we must choose between Jerusalem and Athens not
only because they are fundamentally different but also because they are in
basic opposition to one another.
12
This doesn’t mean that one can’t be a Jew
interested in philosophy or a philosopher interested in Judaism. Indeed,
as Strauss puts it, “every one of us can be and ought to be either . . . the
philosopher open to the challenge of theology or the theologian open to the
challenge of philosophy.”
13
But this formulation only underscores Strauss’s
Jewish philosophy after metaphysics 151
well-known statement that “being a Jew and being a philosopher are
mutually exclusive”
14
because such an identity is self-contradictory.
Like Strauss, Levinas does not believe in the harmonization of Judaism
and philosophy. His reason, however, is not that they are fundamentally op-
posed, but that they are fundamentally similar. In Levinas’s words, “I have
never aimed explicitly to ‘harmonize’ . . . both traditions. If they happen
to be in harmony it is probably because every philosophical thought rests
on pre-philosophical experiences, and. . . the Bible has belonged to these
founding experiences.”
15
Judaismand philosophy are similarly oriented, ac-
cording to Levinas. Both approach the goodness beyond being embodied
in the responsibility for the other. As Levinas puts it even more explicitly,
“philosophy derives [d´erive] . . . from religion. It is called for by religion
adrift [en d´erive], and in all likelihood religion is always adrift.”
16
Philoso-
phy andreligionthus exist ina relationof mutuality, for Levinas. Philosophy
derives from religion, but philosophy also gives direction and purpose
to religion. Judaism and philosophy do not need to be harmonized for
Levinas because they are already in fundamental harmony with one an-
other. Judaism, or what Levinas elsewhere calls “religiosity” (le religieux) is
the pre-philosophical stuff out of which philosophy arises. Judaismand phi-
losophy are thus organically connected. From Levinas’s perspective, Jewish
philosophy is impossible because it is redundant.
“Jewish philosophy” is impossible for both Levinas and Strauss, but for
opposite reasons. Because he believes that Judaism and philosophy ulti-
mately mean the same thing, the notion of Jewish philosophy is at best
superfluous for Levinas. In contrast, Jewish philosophy is incoherent for
Strauss because such a notion betrays the meanings of both Judaism and
philosophy. While Levinas and Strauss both make a claim for the im-
possibility of Jewish philosophy, both also claim that “Judaism” – as the
originator of monotheism – somehow makes not Jewish philosophy pos-
sible, but philosophy itself possible. To put it simply, their shared claim
is that “Judaism” understands something that philosophy anticipates but
cannot quite articulate on its own terms. Significantly, Levinas and Strauss
each make this point with reference to Plato. For both, Plato anticipates
but does not fully articulate revelation. In Totality and Infinity, Levinas
maintains that the true universality of reason is predicated upon Plato’s
conception of discourse, which “implies transcendence . . . [and] the revela-
tion of the other to me.”
17
It is in fact this Platonic anticipation of revelation
that defines ethics as first philosophy, for Levinas. Recall that Totality and
Infinity is, as its subtitle indicates, “an essay on exteriority.” Philosophy, for
Levinas, anticipates the exteriority of revelation. Therefore, philosophy is
152 leora batni tzky
bound to revelation, which reorients philosophy. Totality and Infinity ends
with a succinct summary of this reorientation:
Freedom is not justified by freedom. To account for being or to be in truth is not
to comprehend nor to take hold of . . . but rather to encounter the Other without
allergy, that is, in justice.
18
Freedom, for Levinas, which includes philosophical freedom, cannot justify
itself on its own terms. My freedom is justified by the other, by the other’s
revelation to me.
Strauss, I maintain, from a formal perspective at least, puts forward this
very argument about philosophy’s bondage torevelation. Note Strauss’s very
Levinasian formulation in his early work Philosophy and Law, in which he
argues that philosophy’s “freedom depends upon its bondage. Philosophy is
not sovereign. The beginning of philosophy is not the beginning simply.”
19
While Philosophy and Law is admittedly a transitional work for Strauss, the
theme of philosophy’s dependence on and anticipation of revelation marks
Strauss’s mature work.
20
Recall, for instance, Strauss’s argument in Natural
Right and History that: “Philosophy has to grant that revelation is possible.
But to grant that revelation is possible means to grant that philosophy is
perhaps not the one thing needful . . . or [that] philosophy suffers from a
fatal weakness.”
21
The notion that philosophy requires and anticipates revelation is a con-
stant theme throughout Strauss’s writings, a theme that, from a formal
perspective at least, parallels Levinas’s own arguments. One might object
that Strauss rejects Jerusalemfor the sake of Athens or, at the very least, that
we don’t know where Strauss comes down on the question of Jerusalem or
Athens. In my view, this often-stated objection (whatever its form) misses
the mark, and here I believe that the parallels with Levinas are not only
important, but in fact decisive.
Before turning to the implications of comparing Strauss with Levinas
for understanding the import of Strauss’s view of revelation, let me say
that even on “Straussian” terms the question about Strauss’s “own” view of
revelation skews what I suggest is the philosophical question that he poses
in regard to revelation. As Strauss puts it in regard to Nietzsche, “Through
judging others, Nietzsche had himself established the criterion by which
his doctrine is to be judged.”
22
Among the criteria by which Strauss is
to be judged is his own claim that “the problem inherent in the surface
of things, and only in the surface of things, is the heart of things.”
23
As
Strauss puts it in his discussion about the tensions between Jerusalem and
Athens, “If we wish to understand Plato, we must take him seriously. We
Jewish philosophy after metaphysics 153
must take seriously in particular his defense of Socrates.”
24
Just as Strauss
urges us to take seriously Plato’s defense of Socrates if we are to take Plato
seriously, if we are to take Strauss seriously we must take seriously Strauss’s
philosophical arguments about revelation. A comparison with Levinas, I
suggest, allows us to appreciate the serious philosophical nature of Strauss’s
arguments about revelation.
If Jewish philosophy is as impossible for Levinas as it is for Strauss, then
what we are able to see is that Levinas and Strauss make very similar claims
about the philosophical status of revelation. Indeed, both of their arguments
concern not the philosophical vindication of “Judaism” and revelation –
for both Levinas and Strauss, such a proof would be impossible – but the
inadequacy of philosophy conceived without “Judaism” or revelation. Strauss,
like Levinas, poses a fundamental question about philosophy’s need to rec-
ognize its own possible bondage to something outside of philosophy. If his
thought is understood in this way, it does not matter what Strauss’s “own”
views of revelation actually are, for the philosophical question remains the
same: Does philosophy require the philosophical possibility of revelation?
In order to begin to answer this question, let us return to Strauss’s treat-
ment of Plato. For Strauss it is the Plato of the Laws and not of the Republic
(or, as Levinas argues in greater detail in Totality and Infinity, the Plato of
the Phaedrus) that is definitive for recognizing philosophy’s anticipation
of revelation. While I do not mean to discount the different conceptions
of ethics and politics that emerge from Strauss’s and Levinas’s respective
interpretations of Plato (a subject beyond the scope of this essay), note the
striking formal similarity of Strauss’s and Levinas’s use of Plato. Each uses
Plato to argue for philosophy’s anticipation, but not full articulation of
revelation. Strauss argues that in the Laws,
Plato transforms the “divine laws” of Greek antiquity into truly divine laws, or
recognizes themas truly divine laws. Inthis approximationtothe revelationwithout
the guidance of the revelation we grasp at its origin the unbelieving, philosophic
foundation of the belief in revelation. . . Platonic philosophy had suffered from an
aporia in principle that had been remedied only by the revelation.
25
Strauss analyzes the life world of medieval Jewish philosophy in which “the
situation of philosophy was altered from the ground up by the reality of
revelation.”
26
Like Levinas, Strauss follows Husserl in the attempt to de-
scribe phenomenologically the pre-philosophical life world out of which
philosophy arises. What Levinas does for the Bible Strauss does for me-
dieval Jewish philosophy. Levinas and Strauss’s phenomenological analyses
of these respective pre-modern “Jewish” life worlds attempt to establish
154 leora batni tzky
the possibility of the truth of revelation, a possibility that for both Levinas
and Strauss must alter our very conceptions of ethics and politics in the
contemporary world.
Most basically, Strauss’s and Levinas’s interpretations of Plato are in the
service of altering the contemporary view that ethics is shaped by culture
and history. Each argues that philosophy’s bondage to revelation makes
possible a philosophical glimpse of a non-historicist conception of morality
in the contemporary world. In the abstract of his doctoral thesis, which
later became Totality and Infinity, Levinas writes that ethics
is not a byproduct of self-knowledge. It is completely heteronomous . . . To state
that the Other, revealed by the visage, is the first intelligible . . . is to affirm also the
independence of ethics with regard to history . . . To showthat the first signification
emerges in morality . . . is a return to Platonism.
27
The common strategy of Strauss’s “political” reading of Plato and of Lev-
inas’s “ethical” reading of Plato becomes clear. Strauss and Levinas both
maintain that when philosophy understands itself primarily with regard
to questions of ontology (and here the reference for both is primarily to
Heidegger), philosophy loses sight of its most important pre-philosophical
foundation, which for Strauss and Levinas concerns nothing less than the
possibility of human goodness.
As Strauss puts it in Philosophy and Law,
The necessary connection between politics and theology (metaphysics) . . . vouches
for the fact that the interpretation of medieval Jewish philosophy beginning from
Platonic politics . . . does not have to lose sight of the metaphysical problems that
stand in the foreground for the medieval philosophers themselves. And this proce-
dure, so far fromresulting in the underestimation of these problems, actually offers
the only guarantee of understanding their proper, that is their human, meaning.
If, on the other hand, one begins from the metaphysical problems, one misses . . .
the political problem, in which is concealed nothing less than the foundation of
philosophy, the philosophic elucidation of the presupposition of philosophizing.
28
Metaphysics for Strauss, as for Levinas, serves political and ethical ends.
29
For both, metaphysics and ethics exist in a necessary tension. Metaphys-
ical speculation philosophically secures the ethical possibilities of society,
but politics and ethics make metaphysics possible in the first place. Be-
cause metaphysics for Levinas and Strauss is not primarily ontological in
character – neither is interested in grounding the being of entities in the be-
ing of a highest entity – their shared claimfor metaphysics is for a non-onto-
theological metaphysics. As Strauss puts it, “the philosophic foundation of
the law, in spite of outward appearances, is not a teaching among others but
is the place in the systemof the Islamic Aristotelians and their Jewish pupils
Jewish philosophy after metaphysics 155
where the presupposition of their philosophizing comes under discussion.”
30
While they understand Maimonides differently, both Strauss and Levinas
present a picture of Jewish philosophical thinking – both medieval and
modern – that is not concerned primarily with ontological foundational-
ism. Rather Levinas and Strauss are both concerned with the interrelation
between philosophical (what they each call metaphysical) reflection and the
possibility of ethics and politics. Indeed, Strauss and Levinas both argue
that this is the case for the Hebrew Bible as well. As Strauss puts it,
What kind of God is He? . . . This question was addressed to God Himself by
Moses . . . God replied: “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.” This is mostly translated: “I am That
(Who) I am.” One has called that reply “the metaphysics of Exodus” in order
to indicate its fundamental character . . . but we hesitate to call it metaphysical,
since the notion of physis is alien to the Bible. I believe that we ought to render
this statement by “I shall be What I shall be,” thus preserving the connection
between God’s name and the fact that He makes covenants with men, i.e., that He
reveals Himself to men above all by His commandments and by His promises and
His fulfillment of the promises.
31
Here Strauss uses the term“metaphysics” in an “onto-theological” sense and
argues that the Bible is not concerned with the onto-theological status of
God. Levinas agrees in finding the meaning of the Bible and its subsequent
interpretations not in attempting to ground the being of beings in some
highest entity but in what he calls the rupture of ethics.
32
We have seen that Levinas and Strauss both utilize a conception of Jewish
revelation to defend not the philosophical truth of Judaism but the true possi-
bility of philosophy, which for both is the possibility of morality. Levinas and
Strauss’s respective arguments for the impossibility of Jewish philosophy are
premised on a shared argument for the philosophical possibility of the truth
of revelation. I would like to suggest that as such, when compared with one
another, Levinas’s and Strauss’s philosophies do enact philosophically a type
of twentieth-century Jewish philosophy. Jewish philosophy would here be
defined only by the negative task of showing philosophically that Jewish
revelation cannot be disproved philosophically and that this conclusion has
profound implications for philosophy itself.
Indeed, both Levinas and Strauss fit Strauss’s description of the medieval
Jewish philosopher Judah Halevi’s argument in the Kuzari:
In defending Judaism, which, according to him [Halevi], is the only true revealed
religion, against the philosophers, he was conscious of defending morality itself
and therewith the cause, not only of Judaism, but of mankind at large. His basic
objection to philosophy was then not particularly Jewish, nor even particularly
religious, but moral.
33
156 leora batni tzky
The “Jewish philosophy” of Levinas and Strauss thus attempts to defend
morality to humanity at large. Part of the goal of this essay has been to
show not only that there is a profound if at first unlikely philosophical
affinity between Levinas and Strauss but also that Strauss’s thought fits this
characterization of “Jewish philosophy.”
2 on the di fferences between levi nas and strauss or
on the modern meani ngs of phi losophy
If comparing Levinas and Strauss helps us to rethink Strauss’s place within
the context of the rubric of “Jewish philosophy,” the comparison also helps
us to rethink Levinas in a number of ways. Perhaps ironically, comparing
Levinas and Strauss on the impossibility and possibility of Jewish philos-
ophy shows Levinas to be more of a defender of philosophy (and not of
Jewish revelation) than Strauss is. Indeed, this is the implication of their
difference on the relationship between Judaism and philosophy. To return
to Strauss’s characterization of Halevi, Strauss writes:
by going so far with the philosophers . . . he [Halevi] discover[s] the fundamental
weakness of the philosophic position and the deepest reason why philosophy is
so enormously dangerous. For if the philosophers are right in their appraisal of
natural morality, of morality not based on Divine revelation, natural morality is . . .
no morality at all .
34
Here, Strauss emerges as the defender of the moral necessity of revelation
against Levinas, who maintains that philosophy is not fundamentally athe-
istic in regard to the proper, philosophical understanding of revelation and
that therefore “at no moment [does] the Western philosophical tradition. . .
lose its right to the last word.”
35
Whereas Strauss argues that philosophy
qua philosophy cannot give the law (or revelation) to itself, the implication
of Levinas’s philosophy is that philosophy qua philosophy can come to
revelation on its own terms.
36
Could it be then that Levinas is a modern
defender of philosophy while Strauss is a defender of revelation?
As a preliminary answer, I would venture “yes.” Recall Levinas’s state-
ment, “philosophy derives [d´erive] . . . from religion. It is called for by re-
ligion adrift [en d´erive], and in all likelihood religion is always adrift.”
37
While Levinas is critical of aspects of the Western philosophical tradition,
his task is to return this tradition to what he argues is its true meaning:
Plato’s notion of a good beyond being. One could argue that Strauss’s task
also is to return the Western philosophical tradition to its former glory.
While this is certainly one aspect of Strauss’s project, the comparison with
Jewish philosophy after metaphysics 157
Levinas allows us to see that for Strauss, philosophy is much more limited
when it comes to ethical and political matters than it is for Levinas. Strauss
argues strongly that philosophy itself cannot articulate a universal ground
for morality, while Levinas contends that it is a matter of finding the right
philosophy to articulate this philosophical ground.
Strauss argues that philosophy is fundamentally limited, but he never-
theless reserves a role for philosophy in social and moral thought. Strauss
argues perhaps most clearly in Natural Right and History that if philoso-
phers acknowledge the philosophical relevance of the non-philosophical
foundation of revelation, philosophers have a clarifying role in deducing a
social philosophy. Yet if philosophers do not acknowledge the possibility
of revelation, philosophers can only have an adversarial role in regard to
social and moral philosophy. This is because for Strauss philosophy is not
fundamentally social in character.
In regarding philosophy as asocial and religion as social, Strauss is more
Heideggerian than Levinas. The important philosophical and historical
issue here is about the respective association between the public realm and
religion on the one hand, and the private realm and philosophy on the
other. Unfortunately, arguments about the relation between individual and
public experience often degenerate too quickly into reductive judgments
about mass–elite distinctions. Certainly a consideration of such distinc-
tions is philosophically important, but we miss an opportunity for critical
reflection by jumping too quickly into political judgment on these matters.
We need to ask first about the philosophical descriptions they provide of
“philosophy” and “religion” respectively, and only then, I’d like to suggest,
about the political implications of these suggestions.
More recent Heidegger scholarship has complicated this issue in terms of
Heidegger’s thought as much of the secondary literature has moved toward
recognition of the philosophical importance of sociality for Heidegger.
38
Where the early “existentialist” reading of Heidegger insisted on a di-
chotomy between sociality and authentic being in the world, many recent
interpreters have questioned it. As Thomas Sheehan puts it, for Heidegger,
“Our sociality – co-extensive with finitude, and its first gift – is what makes
it possible and necessary to take-as and to understand ‘is.’ Our sociality is
die Sache selbst.”
39
It is beyond the scope of this essay to provide a full ac-
count of sociality in Heidegger, but from our very brief discussion a helpful
point can be made, which is relevant for our consideration of Strauss.
Strauss shares with Heidegger the notion that philosophy is grounded
upon a prior sociality for which philosophy cannot account. And Strauss
concludes withHeidegger that philosophy itself is incapable of transcending
158 leora batni tzky
sociality. Instead of concluding too quickly that Strauss wants to maintain
an illiberal elite–mass distinction (which still may be the case), why not
recognize first that Strauss, like Heidegger, insists on a fundamental limita-
tion of philosophy as it has come to be understood in the modern period?
Strauss’s view of the moral and political limitation of philosophy has ev-
erything to do with his association of “religion” with the public and social
sphere. Strauss’s argument in this regard is intimately connected to what
is, historically, an accurate depiction of Jewish religion. Jewish religion, as
opposed to Protestant religion, is concerned fundamentally (though not
exclusively) with outer forms of social life, forms that are enacted primarily
in public.
Here the contrast with Levinas is instructive. Levinas wants to maintain
that philosophy can ultimately account for the truth of religion and that this
accounting has profound social implications (indeed, one could sum up
Levinas’s entire project with this one sentence). Contending that prophecy
is the “fundamental fact of man’s humanity,” Levinas argues that “next to the
unlimited ethical exigency, prophecy interprets itself in concrete forms . . .
In these concrete forms, become religions, men find consolations. But this
by no means puts the rigorous structure I [Levinas] have tried to define back
into doubt.”
40
The rigorous structure that Levinas has in mind is the result
of philosophical reflection. Levinas argues that religions offer consolation
while philosophy may not, and that “a humanity which can do without
these consolations perhaps may not be worthy of them.”
41
Nevertheless,
it is philosophy that articulates the truth of religion and marks what, for
Levinas, is the deep structure of human existence, one that is “outside of
every sacramental signification.”
42
Philosophy does not overcome the truth
of religion, for Levinas, but nonetheless articulates the ground of this very
truth in a kind of transcendental reflection that has universal implications
for human behavior.
While Levinas and Strauss share with Heidegger the notion that philoso-
phy’s most fundamental insight begins inanddoes not transcendour natural
attitude toward the world, Levinas maintains a role for philosophy that is
closer to Husserl’s than it is to Heidegger’s.
43
Like Husserl, Levinas is a de-
fender of the modern, philosophical project: to articulate a universal, philo-
sophical account of what it means to be human. No doubt, the endpoints
of Husserl and Levinas’s projects are different. For Husserl, the task of phe-
nomenology is to“knowthy self.”
44
For Levinas, the taskof phenomenology
is recognition of howthe other constitutes me. Nonetheless, Levinas under-
stands his philosophy as continuous with the Husserlian project. As Levinas
puts it,
Jewish philosophy after metaphysics 159
The framework of Husserlian phenomenology may have been broken open in the
course of the transcendental analysis, but the “destruction” of the dominant me in
which it was anchored is not some step along the way to the insignificance of the
person. . . The “discovery” of others (not as datum exactly, but as a face!) subverts
the transcendental approach of the I , but retains the egological primacy of this I
that remains unique and chosen in its incontestable responsibility.
45
Levinas assumes a social and political status for philosophy that Strauss
puts into question. In Strauss’s words:
In most of the current reflections on the relation between philosophy and society,
it is somehow taken for granted that philosophy always possessed political or social
status . . . Here, we are touching on what, from the point of view of the sociology
of philosophy, is the most important difference between Christianity on the one
hand, and Islam as well as Judaism on the other. For the Christian, the sacred
doctrine is revealed theology; for the Jew and the Muslim, the sacred doctrine
is, at least primarily, the legal interpretation of the Divine Law (talmud or fiqh).
The sacred doctrine in the latter sense has, to say the least, much less in common
with philosophy than the sacred doctrine in the former sense. It is ultimately for
this reason that the status of philosophy was, as a matter of principle, much more
precarious in Judaismand in Islamthan in Christianity: in Christianity philosophy
became an integral part of the officially recognized and even required training of
the student of the sacred doctrine. This difference explains partly the eventual
collapse of philosophic inquiry in the Islamic and in the Jewish world, a collapse
which has no parallel in the Western Christian world.
46
This long quotation comes from the introduction to Strauss’s Persecution
and the Art of Writing. These comments are of course related to Strauss’s
hermeneutical approach to philosophical and political texts, in which he
maintains that awareness of the historical lack of social status of philosophy
should alert us to the complex relation between esoteric and exoteric writ-
ing. It is not, however, this much-debated aspect of Strauss’s contention that
I would like to examine. Instead, I would like to focus on the philosophi-
cal and historical issues that Strauss raises here in regard to contemporary
conceptions of what philosophy “is.”
In his early Philosophy and Law, Strauss states that “medieval philosophy
differs from ancient, as from modern, philosophy because of the situation
given with the reality of the revelation.”
47
We have seen throughout this
essay some of the reasons why Strauss claims that medieval philosophy is de-
pendent on revelation and why, in Strauss’s words referring to Maimonides,
“a philosopher as a philosopher may have an interest in the revelation.”
48
For Strauss, it is not only for political reasons that “philosophy” properly un-
derstood does not have social status. Strauss also has a philosophical point.
160 leora batni tzky
Much like Heidegger, Strauss maintains that philosophy cannot ground
or even articulate, on its own terms, social practice. Levinas, in contrast,
argues that the modern philosophical project of providing a transcendental
description of the self – albeit a self who is beholden to another – is one
worth maintaining, preserving, and revitalizing.
conclusi on: i mpli cati ons for “reli gi on
after metaphysi cs”
I have argued in this essay for a reading of Levinas and Strauss that consid-
ers both the content and the form of their respective arguments in terms
of the question of religion after metaphysics. In terms of the content of
their respective arguments, I have suggested that neither presents an onto-
theological picture of Jewish revelation, while both nonetheless make claims
for the necessity of metaphysics after Heidegger. In different ways, Levinas
and Strauss both argue that the Jewish philosophical tradition, and the
medieval tradition in particular, is not oriented around ontological foun-
dationalism, but around ethical and political presuppositions.
In terms of the form of their respective arguments, I have suggested
that the real argument between Levinas and Strauss is not about “religion,”
but about philosophy itself . Although Levinas is today often considered a
philosophical defender of Jewish revelation, I have suggested that Levinas’s
project is in fact to defend the possibilities of Western philosophy for
directing social and ethical life. In contrast, I have suggested that while
Strauss argues that philosophy has a clarifying role in society, he is critical
of what he argues is the modern premise that philosophy itself has the ability
to direct moral and social life. Hence, when compared with Levinas, Strauss
in fact emerges as a defender of the philosophical possibility of revelation.
These conclusions raise a twofold question about “religion after meta-
physics” which is both historical and philosophical. First, the paradigm of
metaphysics as onto-theology assumes a fusing of philosophy and revealed
religion as well as an ontological orientation for philosophy and religion
that in many cases is historically inaccurate. The assumption that religious
truths are fundamentally “onto-theological” in character is in tension with
at least some dominant aspects of the historical Jewish tradition’s primary
(but not exclusive) emphasis on the social and political forms of religious
life. We should appreciate that the story about “religion after metaphysics”
may be a very particular, if not misleading, story. This story is infused with
what I would suggest is a particular Protestant narrative (which may not
do justice to the full array of the Protestant tradition) that disassociates
Jewish philosophy after metaphysics 161
“religion” from public life. While I am aware that it is all too simple to call
this Protestant caricature, and what is likely a caricature of Protestantism,
symptomatic of modernity, I’d like to suggest that there is some truth to this
claim. Could it be that the dissociation of “religion” from public life goes
hand in hand with a particularly modern claim that philosophy is capable
of grounding social and political life? And could it be that a rejection of
this modern role for philosophy opens up the possibilities of conceiving
religion as a public, and not only a private, matter? These questions are no
doubt complex. Still it is necessary to begin to acknowledge that historically
speaking there are religions and not “religion” as well as traditions within
a “tradition.” This isn’t just a question about the relationship between
Judaism and Christianity, but also one about the constitution of Christian-
ity itself.
49
Philosophically, the debate about “religion after metaphysics” reveals
more about the current status (or lack of status) of philosophy than it
does about “religion.” I am in agreement here with Hent de Vries, who,
in his very interesting book Philosophy and the Turn to Religion, attempts
“to demonstrate the philosophical relevance of the religious without re-
sorting to the axioms or the types of argumentation of either metaphysica
specialis (that is, ontotheology) or its mirror image, the empirical study of
religion as an ontic or positive (cultural, anthropological, social, psycho-
logical, linguistic) phenomenon.”
50
Yet I wonder if, on his own terms, de
Vries, or Derrida for that matter, is justified inclaiming (purportedly against
Heidegger) that “one can – or, perhaps, cannot but be – on both sides of
the line at once, that is to say, that this line dividing the philosophical
and the theological was never given (certain or theoretically justifiable) in
the first place.”
51
As Derrida himself asks, in relation to Levinas, does not
the claim that the “line dividing the philosophical and the theological” fall
back to the philosophical?
52
When de Vries, following Derrida, states that
in regard to “religions,” he is interested “less in their theological message
than in the structural inflection of what is commonly held to be possible
and what not,” is this not a philosophical question? I cannot offer any con-
clusive answers here, but I can suggest that Strauss’s impulse to question
the philosophical relation between philosophy and revealed religion may
still be worth considering.
Finally, if, as I have argued, the question about “religion after meta-
physics” is largely a question about the status of philosophy, what is the
philosophical questionthat is at stake here? There are certainly strictly philo-
sophical reasons to question the modern status of philosophy, but there
are also pressing existential reasons, the most important of which are the
162 leora batni tzky
perceived evils of the twentieth century. If philosophy in the late twentieth
century turned to religion, it did so largely in response to these particular
horrors. As Derrida, drawing on Kant, writes in “Faith and Knowledge,”
“The possibility of radical evil both destroys and institutes the religious.”
53
It is certainly an attempt to account for evil that is at the root of both
Levinas’s and Strauss’s philosophical projects. Their claim for metaphysics
is simultaneously a claim that an account of evil requires metaphysics, no
less (if not more) than an account of the good does. The question of religion
after metaphysics raises the question of whether evil can be accounted for
philosophically without metaphysics. It is this philosophical question that
shapes Levinas’s and Strauss’s attempts to think about what it would mean
to reinvigorate philosophy itself.
notes
1. Translated in Thomas Sheehan, “Reading Heidegger’s ‘What is Meta-
physics?,’” The New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Phi-
losophy 1 (2001), p. 196.
2. Ibid., p. 199.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid., p. 182.
5. MartinHeidegger, Nietzsche, ed. David F. Krell (SanFrancisco: HarperCollins,
1991), vol. iv, p. 164.
6. Emmanuel Levinas, Noms propres, 2nd edn (Paris: Livre de Poche, 1987),
pp. 57–8.
7. Emmanuel Levinas, “A Religion for Adults,” in Difficult Freedom, trans. Sean
Hand (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), pp. 14–15.
8. See Levinas’s comments about Strauss, whomhe characterizes as “the American
philosopher,” in “Have You Reread Baruch?,” translated in Difficult Freedom,
p. 111.
9. Emmanuel Levinas, In the Time of the Nations, trans. Michael B. Smith
(Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1994), p. 172, my italics.
10. Again, see “Have You Reread Baruch?” in Difficult Freedom.
11. In contrast, Judaism is rooted in revelation, which begins not in thought but
in obedience to God and the revealed law. In Strauss’s words “the beginning of
wisdomis fear of the Lord; according to the Greek philosophers, the beginning
of wisdom is wonder” (“Jerusalem and Athens,” in Jewish Philosophy and the
Crisis of Modernity, ed. Kenneth Hart Green [Albany: State University of New
York Press, 1997], pp. 379–80). Because these basic perspectives are so different,
Strauss maintains that “We are thus compelled from the very beginning to
make a choice, to take a stand” (p. 380).
12. In marked contrast to the philosophical perspective, the human being from a
biblical perspective “is not master of how to begin; before he begins to write
Jewish philosophy after metaphysics 163
he is already confronted with writings, with the holy writings, which impose
their law on him” (“On the Interpretation of Genesis,” in Jewish Philsophy and
the Crisis of Modernity, p. 374).
13. Leo Strauss, “The Mutual Influence of Theology and Philosophy,” Independent
Journal of Philosophy 3 (1979), p. 111.
14. Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1988), p. 19, my italics.
15. Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, trans. Richard Cohen (Pittsburgh:
Duquesne University Press, 1985), p. 24.
16. Emmanuel Levinas, Du sacr´e au sainte (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1977),
p. 156.
17. Emmanuel Levinas, Totalit´e et infini, 4th edn (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff,
1971), trans. Alphonso Lingis as Totality and Infinity (Pittsburgh: Duquesne
University Press, 1969), p. 73.
18. Totality and Infinity, p. 303.
19. Leo Strauss, Philosophy and Law: Contributions to the Understanding of Mai-
monides and his Predecessors, trans. Eve Adler (Albany: State University of New
York Press, 1995), p. 88.
20. On this point, see Kenneth Hart Green, Jew and Philosophy: The Return to
Maimonides in the Jewish Thought of Leo Strauss (Albany: State University of
New York Press, 1993).
21. Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1950), pp. 75–6.
22. Leo Strauss, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1965), p. 12.
23. Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1958), p. 13.
24. Strauss, “Jerusalem and Athens,” in Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Moder-
nity, p. 400.
25. Strauss, Philosophy and Law, p. 76.
26. Ibid., p. 57.
27. Emmanuel Levinas, “Totalit´ e et infini,” Annales de l’Universit´e de Paris 31
(1961), p. 386.
28. Strauss, Philosophy and Law, pp. 78–9.
29. Strauss and Levinas of course value “politics” differently. For the purposes of
clarity, however, I use the variants of the phrase “politics and ethics” to talk
about both Strauss and Levinas. Although Levinas is critical of “politics,” he
nonetheless has a positive evaluation of politics when it is informed by “ethics.”
For this reason, I don’t believe that this phrasing is inaccurate with regard to
Levinas.
30. Strauss, Philosophy and Law, p. 75, my italics.
31. Strauss, “Jerusalem and Athens,” p. 393.
32. See especially Emmanuel Levinas, “From Ethics to Exegesis,” in In the Time
of the Nations, pp. 109–13.
33. “The Law of Reason in the Kuzari,” in Strauss, Persecution and the Art of
Writing, p. 141. Interestingly, Levinas offers a somewhat similar reading of
164 leora batni tzky
Halevi. He writes, “What matters to me in that work [the Kuzari] . . . is the
possibility of an original thinking and intelligibility other than the immanence
of knowledge . . . The proximity and sociality that the philosophers will seek
in knowledge will appear in Judah Halevi as irreducible possibilities of the
meaningful. Sociality together with transcendence! . . . Religion is the excel-
lence proper to sociality with the Absolute, or, if you will, in the positive sense
of the expression, Peace with the other” (Levinas, In the Time of the Nations,
pp. 170–1). Levinas is, however, far more dismissive of Halevi than Strauss is.
34. Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, p. 140, my italics.
35. Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, p. 24.
36. In Strauss’s words, “the philosopher cannot give this law either to himself or
to others; for while he can indeed, qua philosopher, know the principles of a
law in general and the principles of the rational law in particular, he can never
divine the concrete individual ordinances of the ideal law, whose precise stip-
ulation is the only way the law can become effectual, or simply, can become –
law” (Philosophy and Law, p. 71).
37. Levinas, Du sacr´e au sainte, p. 156.
38. It is worthnoting that the social dimensionof Heidegger’s thought was pursued
almost immediately by his students Hannah Arendt and Karl L¨ owith.
39. Thomas Sheehan, “A Paradigm Shift in Heidegger Research,” Continental
Philosophy Review 34 (2001), p. 200. Indeed, Levinas agrees with Sheehan’s
description and, interestingly, he does so in the context of a criticismof Martin
Buber. See “MartinBuber’s Theory of Knowledge,” trans. Michael B. Smith, in
Proper Names (Stanford: StanfordUniversity Press, 1996). Prefacing his remarks
with the qualification that “It is not, surely, to Heidegger that one should turn
for instruction in the love of man or social justice,” Levinas defends Heidegger
against Buber on the issue of care and mutuality: “But F¨ ursorge, as response
to essential destitution, is a mode of access to the otherness of the Other . . .
But Buber allows himself to say ‘All dialogue draws its authenticity from
consciousness of the element of Umfassung [embracing].’ [Yet] Consciousness
reappears behind Umfassung . . . Relation itself, apart fromits goal, differs from
knowledge” (pp. 33–4, translation altered slightly).
40. Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, p. 114.
41. Ibid., p. 118.
42. Ibid., pp. 117–18
43. As Levinas puts it, “The phenomenological epoche does not destroy the truths
proper to the natural attitude but wants only to clarify their sense.” See Em-
manuel Levinas, The Theory of Intuition in Husserl’s Phenomenology, 2nd edn,
trans. Andr´ e Orianne (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1995), p. 147.
44. See in particular the end of Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations, trans. Dorion
Cairns (The Hague: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1977).
45. Levinas, In the Time of the Nations, pp. 181–2.
46. Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, pp. 18–19.
47. Strauss, Philosophy and Law, p. 58.
48. Ibid., p. 64.
Jewish philosophy after metaphysics 165
49. This said, Strauss’s own contention mentioned above, that the Catholic tradi-
tion of natural law represents this fusing, might also be historically inaccurate,
as a number of recent interpreters have argued in the context of Thomas
Aquinas. See John A. Bowlin, Contingency and Fortune in Aquinas’s Ethics
(New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), as well as Vic-
tor Preller, Divine Science and the Science of God: A Reformulation of Thomas
Aquinas (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967).
50. Hent de Vries, Philosophy and the Turn to Religion (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1999), p. 38.
51. Ibid., p. 42.
52. “Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas,”
in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1978), pp. 79–153.
53. “Faith and Knowledge,” in Religion, ed. Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo
(Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 65.
chapter 1 1
The “end of metaphysics” as a possibility
Jean-Luc Marion
Translated by Daryl Lee
The reference to what is unthought in philosophy is not a criticism of
philosophy.
1
More than a thesis, the “end of metaphysics” announces itself as a theme –
the theme of a question, and of a question that remains yet open. That this
phrase is most often misunderstood, and only taken in a polemical sense,
simply betrays a twofold ignorance: that of the disguised, complex, and
paradoxical history of the concept of “metaphysics,” and that of Heidegger’s
long and complex meditation on the phrase, “end of metaphysics.” Having
attempted to assess the first term elsewhere,
2
in this chapter I would like to
clarify the second.
3
The most perfect misinterpretation possible regarding what Heidegger
is attempting to think under the title of “end of metaphysics”
4
would con-
sist of ascribing to it the reductive slogans of the usual iconoclasms; the
ones, moreover – regularly refuted by real thinking – according to which
metaphysics has already disappeared, or will surely disappear soon, or again
should have disappeared, or in any case has no right to continue, to the
point, finally, where it must be gotten rid of (for example, Hume, the En-
lightenment, Comte, or Carnap, etc.). For Heidegger, on the contrary, it is
essentially a matter of understanding that “this ‘overcoming of metaphysics’
does not abolish metaphysics.”
5
This is so for two principal reasons. First,
because if metaphysics is coming to an end today, the time for the “ending
(Verendung) lasts longer than the previous history of metaphysics”
6
– in
other words, we will not be finished with metaphysics by thinking its over-
coming, but are obligated to dwell within this overcoming as if within an
epoch of thinking, an epoch that will continue. Next, because “with the end
of philosophy, thinking is not also at its end, but in transition to another
beginning”
7
– in other words, we will only linger within the overcoming
of metaphysics in order to prepare or wait for a revival of thinking (or of
philosophy) itself.
166
The “end of metaphysics” as a possibility 167
To broach this inquiry, I will follow the central theme of one of Hei-
degger’s last lectures, given in 1964 under the title “The End of Philosophy
and the Task of Thinking.”
8
1 culmi nati on
9
If metaphysics carries on at the very moment it is coming to an end, it is
because, strictly speaking, that end is achieved – because it accomplishes
its own end in the mode of a culmination. The most elementary misin-
terpretation would consist, on the contrary, in supposing that metaphysics
reaches its end in just the way that one makes an end or is at the end,
that one can be done with something, in short, just like a death or an
end game. Yet metaphysics finds its end only in attaining its goal, thus,
in accomplishing its finality. “What is meant by the talk about the end
of philosophy? We understand the end of something all too easily in
the negative sense as mere cessation, as the lack of continuation, perhaps
even as decline and impotence. In contrast, what we say about the end of
philosophy means the completion of metaphysics.”
10
Indeed, given that in
old German Ende meant the same as Ort, or “place,” one may understand
that “the end of philosophy is the place, that place in which the whole of
philosophy’s history is gathered together in its most extreme possibility.”
11
And not only must a culmination be seen here, but a completion of possi-
bilities. These possibilities define so many of the forms of beings, therefore
so many historically imaginable and playable versions of metaphysics –
already thought and therefore already played. For the succession of major
metaphysical doctrines does not add up to the nonsensical sum of all the
absurdities that could have been pronounced concerning beings; rather, it
lays out the almost necessary and exhaustive series of all the conceptual
forms made possible by the initial deal of the being of beings.
12
Instead
of railing against the philosophers, it would almost be necessary to claim
that not a single great metaphysician has ever gotten it wrong, since in the
face of the beings to be thought and thematized, each has played the right
card or cards, at the very least the best cards possible from among those
that the tradition had transmitted and dealt to him. Each metaphysician,
having formed an interpretation of beings that had a marked influence on
his age, has thus arrived at this end-place, because he managed to make the
best hand possible with the cards at his disposal. From one winning hand
to the next, metaphysics has played all of its cards and has finally fulfilled
its contract. From Plato to Nietzsche, all the possible forms for being have
been imposed upon beings (or rather: beings have laid claim to all of the
168 j ean- luc mari on
useful and necessary forms of being). Metaphysics does surely arrive at its
term, because it arrives at the end of the game; but the game reaches its end
only because metaphysics won it.
13
“But then what does it mean, ‘the end of metaphysics’? It means the
historical moment (Augenblick) in which the essential possibilities of meta-
physics are exhausted.”
14
Or again: “With Nietzsche’s metaphysics, philoso-
phy is completed (vollendet). That means: It has gone through the sphere of
prefigured possibilities.”
15
Or yet again: it is “a stage in Western metaphysics
that is probably its final stage; for inasmuch as through Nietzsche meta-
physics has in a certain sense divested itself of its own essential possibility,
other possibilities of metaphysics can no longer appear.”
16
This understand-
ing of metaphysics as organized around its endpoint, with this end taken as
a culmination that exhausts all of its final possibilities, has raised many ques-
tions. More than anything it has nourished an unending polemic between
Nietzsche specialists who, quite often, consider it an infamy to continue
to include the thinker of Eternal Return in the continuity of metaphysics.
This reaction seems nevertheless a fragile one, if only because it owes so
much to the Heideggerian interpretation. It owes Heidegger first of all the
possibility even of discussing the place of Nietzsche in the history of phi-
losophy, since – it must not be forgotten – prior to Heidegger’s lectures,
Nietzsche did not, strictly speaking, belong to philosophy, but rather, in
the best of cases was perceived as a moralist or a “poet,” and in the worst
was redeemed by the most nauseating of ideologies. Next, this reaction
owes to the Heideggerian interpretation the very concept of metaphysics,
as a historical and critical category, without which it would not even be
possible to dream of excluding Nietzsche. That the question concerning
the precise metaphysical status of Nietzsche’s philosophy remains open is
one thing (and without Heidegger his interpreters are making no headway
on this mission); that metaphysics remains an insurmountable horizon for
Nietzsche is another thing, one it would be difficult to broach. Nor can
one honestly reproach Heidegger for a certain hermeneutic imperialism –
as if, in the manner of Aristotle and Hegel, he were reinterpreting the his-
tory of philosophy to his own profit and according to his own position.
This cannot be, precisely because Heidegger expounded his thinking on
the end of metaphysics after having renounced, during the Kehre (and wher-
ever one might wish to place it exactly), the 1927 project of a fundamental
ontology as an “impasse.”
17
Unlike the metaphysicians (including, on this
count, Nietzsche himself ), Heidegger does not describe metaphysics as
the system of aporias that his own doctrine would resolve; rather, he con-
fronts it without defense and without presuppositions, precisely because
The “end of metaphysics” as a possibility 169
his first theoretical effort was unable to liberate itself from it entirely, or to
overcome it.
More than anything, this effort alone to understand metaphysics as an
accomplishment, which victoriously exhausts all of the possibilities, allows
from the beginning the overcoming of one of the deepest difficulties which
confounds other conceptions of philosophy: what to make of technology,
that is, of the modernity of our world, as it extends itself further and has
continued to build strength for more than a century. Mainstream phi-
losophy has typically tended to fall into an aporetic alternative: Either
one constructs philosophy in opposition to or ignorant of technology
(existentialism, “spiritualism,” a part of the analytic tradition, philosophy
of language, etc.), or one dissolves philosophy into a simple commentary
on science and technology, arriving late and often unfavorably viewed (pos-
itivism, part of analytic philosophy, the cognitive sciences, etc.). Here, on
the contrary, “the end of philosophy proves to be the triumph of the ma-
nipulable arrangement of a scientific-technological world and of the social
order proper to this world. The end of philosophy means the beginning of
the world civilization that is based upon Western European thinking.”
18
In
other words: “The name ‘technology’ is understood here in such an essen-
tial way that its meaning coincides with the term ‘completed metaphysics’
(deckt mit dem Titel: die vollendete Metaphysik).”
19
Not only are we not able
to read in this any rejection (whether romantic or ideological) of modernity,
but we are obliged in the end instead to see a radical effort to attribute a
conceptual significance to technology and to steal it away fromthe insignif-
icance that so often makes it barbarously absurd to us. We must admit to
bearing the responsibility not only for understanding rationality, but also
for thinking it as a “world civilization that is just now beginning (jetzt erst
beginnende),”
20
as “an order of the earth which will supposedly last for a
long time (lang dauernde).”
21
Yet why would technology arise from the cul-
mination of metaphysics? Apparently because its destiny is wrapped up in
that of the flourishing of the sciences. But especially because this flourish-
ing itself draws its own possibility from the modern figures of metaphysics:
representation as the redefinition of beings, the ego as the determination
of mankind implementing the Mathesis Universalis, the principle of suffi-
cient reason as a unique point of access to phenomenality, etc. Technology
synthesizes in fact all of the possibilities that metaphysics has realized and
embodies it throughout – or rather, manifests its disembodiment. And if
technology progresses without end and without any other goal than its
own expansion, it is due to the fact that no other possibility presents itself
to technology, or to us. Technology reproduces itself and expands because
170 j ean- luc mari on
it has no other choice, no other possibility than persevering in its closed
beingness. Without end – without ceasing, but also, without goal. Technol-
ogy does not only accomplish all the acquired possibilities of metaphysics –
it also realizes the absence of any new possibility for metaphysics. And this
absence of new possibilities is precisely what provokes progress – which for
Heidegger means an accumulation, distracted by nothing, of the same in
its eternal return.
Thus, far fromholding philosophy back, the “end of metaphysics,” para-
doxically perhaps, returns terrain to philosophy – the revision and the ac-
complishment of all of its possibilities – and opens it to the most difficult
and determinant problem of our time – thinking technology in its true
motivation, which may in no way be reduced to mathematical rationality,
which it in fact puts into play, and which it does not have to think.
2 destructi on
To interpret the “end of metaphysics” as a completion (and even as the
exhaustion of every new possibility) would have no meaning if it were im-
possible to specify what it accomplishes and achieves in its very exhaustion.
But in order to recognize it, it is necessary to look at metaphysics not only
as a totality, but also from a point of view that transcends it. Heidegger
names this elect point of view destruction: “We understand this task as one
in which by taking the question of Being as our clue, we are to destroy the tra-
ditional content of ancient ontology.”
22
Still, it must be remembered that
destruction, understood thus, does not seek to ruin, but on the contrary to
institute, liberate and open:
But this destruction is just as far from having the negative sense of shaking off the
ontological tradition. We must, on the contrary, stake out the positive possibilities
of that tradition, and this always means keeping it within its limits; these in turn
are given factically in the way the question is formulated at the time, and in the way
the possible field for investigation is thus bounded off. On its negative side, this
destruction does not relate itself towards the past; its criticism is aimed at “today”
and at the prevalent way of treating the history of ontology, whether it is headed
towards doxography, towards intellectual history, or towards a history of problems.
But to bury the past in nullity [Nichtigkeit] is not the purpose of this destruction;
its aim is positive; its negative function remains unexpressed and indirect.
23
In fact, destruction destroys nothing, so much as it makes manifest – “only
the gradual removal (Abbau) of these obscuring covers –that is what is meant
by ‘destruction.’”
24
For destruction – in opposition to recent “deconstruc-
tion” – brings out (negatively) only that which in the metaphysical tradition
The “end of metaphysics” as a possibility 171
of ontologia dissimulates and hides (even more negatively) the question of
being under the auspices of an inquiry into beings, like stucco that covers
a fac¸ade or a coating that conceals a fresco. Destruction denies negation,
uncovers a covering – in a word, it attempts to make visible, to draw into
the light as a rightful phenomenon, what metaphysics has made invisible,
namely, being as being, hidden by the science of beings in their being and
by the domination of beings. In clearing out the space of the question,
destruction operates in the manner of a phenomenological reduction: just
as reduction returns objective perceptions back to the primary given of the
lived experiences of consciousness, in an abstraction from objects supposed
to be already constituted, so too destruction channels ontic enunciations to
the point where they conceal the being of beings, but as being, and the on-
tological difference as such. In order to drawout the mode of being through
subtraction, destruction also works by bracketing off into parentheses: no
longer the objects in their reality, but beings in their beingness. We thus see
why the positive nature of destruction remains hidden behind a mask – as
long as attention is focused on beings – and why this positivity illuminates
as soon as the gaze allows beings to withdraw into the background and the
being of beings as such to step into the foreground.
But destruction could not assume this strictly phenomenological func-
tion if it weren’t a matter of making manifest, as is always the case in good
phenomenology, a phenomenon that, above all, did not show itself. What
remains hidden here, or what “remains unthought in the matter of philos-
ophy as well as in its method”?
25
Heidegger never ceased responding to this
question in the same way, though with different formulations. In 1943: “In
the beingness of beings, metaphysics thinks being, yet without being able
to ponder the truth of being in the manner of its own thinking.”
26
In 1945,
this impotence is more accurately ascribed to the metaphysical mode of
thinking, representation, which inescapably privileges the permanence of
presence, thus beings: “Metaphysics, insofar as it always represents only be-
ings as beings, does not recall Being itself,”
27
or: “In fact, metaphysics never
answers the question concerning the truth of Being, for it never asks this
question. Metaphysics does not ask this question because it thinks Being
only by representing beings as beings.”
28
Only the 1957 lecture devoted to
“The Onto-theo-logical Constitution of Metaphysics” definitively demar-
cates what remains unthought in, about and by metaphysics: “For it still
remains unthought by what unity ontologic and theologic belong together,
what the origin of this unity is, and what [is] the difference of the differ-
entiated which this unity unifies.”
29
Metaphysics thinks beings, because it
thinks only in the mode of representation; it thus only broaches ontological
172 j ean- luc mari on
difference within the horizon of beings and their mode of being. It there-
fore substitutes an ontic difference in place of the ontological difference –
that of beings in general with beings par excellence; onto-theological dif-
ference (and its unity) unavoidably masks the difference between being and
beings, which from that point on remains unthought. Metaphysics does
of course think in terms of ontological difference – where else could it be
found but in this difference? – but it does not think this difference as such.
Ultimately, then, the ontological difference in metaphysics appears neither
ontological nor even theological (in the sense of Revelation), but uniquely
ontic.
Reading the history of metaphysics from this standpoint would not
simply amount to reconstituting the doctrines of philosophers in order to
measure them against the question of the principles of beings and draw out
these principles simply fromthe history of ideas;
30
it also means developing
a hermeneutic of “destruction.” Destruction first reviews all of the forms
of metaphysics as so many onto-theologies (of formulations of the ontic
difference between the theological and the ontological), then regards these
ontic differences as so many decisions regarding the being of beings as
beings, and finally, thinks through how the fact that beings are privileged
in their beingness points each time toward being even as it masks it. For
“history is not the succession of eras, but a unique nearness of the Same
that, in incalculable modes of destining and out of changing immediacy,
approaches and concerns thinking.”
31
3 ni hi li sm
To consider the history of philosophy as metaphysics dealing out possible
forms of beings (in their being, no doubt, but always only as beings) implies
the attempt to understand the deal for what it claims for itself (the forms
of onto-theology) as well as for what it does not allow to be seen – which is
to say, being as such obfuscated by beings as beings and enslaved by beings.
Metaphysics must therefore be read on two levels: for what it shows – beings
in their being; and for what it does not show – being as such. Nevertheless,
as surprising as these two orientations appear, they can scarcely be discussed.
This is true because metaphysicians – and this fact is hardly in question –
are silent on the question of being in itself and never work on anything
but beings or in view of establishing beings (by a supreme being or by the
being of beings). They ask what beings are as beings and respond to this
question as Aristotle did through the ousia or its later figures: the existentia,
the cogitatum, the Setzung, the concept, the will to power, etc., thus always
The “end of metaphysics” as a possibility 173
and again through the beingness of beings. In short, in metaphysics, the
question, like the answer, always revolves around beings; and even when
there is concern for being – especially when there is explicit concern –
reassurance comes by defining, in response, the mode of the being of beings,
in fact, a mode of beingness. But on being itself, we find nothing. As a
result, in metaphysics, “nowhere do we find such an experiencing of Being
itself . Nowhere are we confronted by a thinking that thinks the truth of
Being itself and therewith thinks truth itself as Being . . . The history of
being begins, and indeed necessarily, with the forgetting of being.”
32
One
clue that identifies and confirms this forgetting of being arises from a
similar powerlessness to think nothingness as such: it always falls back into
the simple negation of being, without its ever being suspected that such a
negation of being in its totality draws its potential for transcendence from
the beings of nothingness – that is, from its function as a prologemenon
to being: “the nothing makes itself known with beings.”
33
This occurs in
such a way that “perhaps the essence of nihilism consists in not taking the
question of the nothing seriously.”
34
The phenomenological reading (in
other words, destruction as defined above) of the history of metaphysics
(of metaphysics as a history that is internally coherent, as the initial deal
and all of the successive hands which do nothing but display and affirm its
destinal unity) requires thena two-foldtask: first, interpreting philosophical
doctrines according to their onto-theological constitution; and second,
reading what these versions of onto-theology leave unthought and how
they leave it unthought – being as such.
The immense difficulty of such a task suggests at the very least that it is
absolutely not a question of teleological reading, whether direct (truth ap-
pearing in the end: Hegel, Marx, or Nietzsche), indirect (truth being found
inthe past andthus temporarily neglected: neo-Thomism, neo-Kantianism,
neo-Platonism, etc.), or inverted (truth being found in a forgotten origin:
the Greeks, the pre-Socratics). Heidegger rejected more forcefully than
anyone else this latter thesis, that of a phantasmatic return to the origin,
by asking (in the conclusion of the text we are in the process of follow-
ing) nothing less than that we “experience aletheia in a Greek manner
as unconcealment,” consequently, not as a return to the way in which the
Greeks considered it, but thinking it “above and beyond the Greek. . . as the
clearing of self-concealing.”
35
For the privilege granted to beings follows
inevitably from this mode of thinking, which privileges the representa-
tion of stable presence. Properly speaking, being, which is not reducible to
beings, is not, because it does not establish itself in presence, precisely be-
cause it establishes presence. It does not dwell, making itself available for its
174 j ean- luc mari on
representation, but takes place unexpectedly and withdraws, like lightning,
anevent without substance or background. Wouldovercoming metaphysics
then mean overcoming the mode of thinking that has predominated to the
point of imperialism – the imperialism of representation, armed with the
power of ordering and mathematical calculation?
No doubt. What remains is to know what such an overcoming of rep-
resentational thinking requires. For it is a matter of just that: “The task of
thinking would then be the surrender of previous thinking to the determi-
nation of the matter for thinking”
36
; that is, abandoning the thinking still
in force – representation, classification, and calculation, in short, think-
ing that dispenses with thinking because it has no use for it in order to
master beings, science; or, to be more precise, the thinking of technology
as an informational science of computers (for this is exactly what Hei-
degger had anticipated in speaking of “cybernetics”) – in order to think
the non-representable, the non-orderable, the non-calculable, being. And
that requires making appear what cannot be shown as beings, what is
phenomenalizable without assuming the forms of beings. It is always still
a phenomenology, but this “phenomenology is a phenomenology of the
inapparent.”
37
Here we arrive at a troubling paradox. Many have taken
this as a contradiction of terms, if not a dangerous absurdity. It is not my
place here to defend this formulation (it stands up on its own as it is) or to
illustrate it (that task remains far beyond us). The very least we can do is
underscore its perfect coherence. Being that presents beings never presents
itself as part of beings; never presenting itself, by definition it escapes rep-
resentation. Only a meditation without representation, thus lacking order
and calculation (without the Mathesis Universalis), could possibly reach
this. While we wait for this we will have to learn to interpret the con-
cealment of being without evidence of beings, as the paradoxical mode of
engaging being in the world. Because even, if not especially, in nihilism,
“metaphysics occurs (sich ereignet) in virtue of Being, and the overcoming
of metaphysics occurs as the incorporation of Being (die
¨
Uberwindung der
Metaphysik als Verwindung des Seins).”
38
The term Verwindung, which is
barely translatable, indicates that one gets over something by coming back
from what one desired or refused and by overcoming it. We must accept
that being will inevitably and necessarily withdraw, whenever representa-
tion rules metaphysical thinking; but accepting this loss and pursuing this
mourning would allow, first of all, withdrawing from metaphysics, in or-
der to see clearly what it says and what it will never be able to say; and
then, this would allow for the reconsideration of the question of being
as a question that it and it alone poses – according to its conditions and
The “end of metaphysics” as a possibility 175
with its own demands. By means of this Verwindung yet to be defined, the
¨
Uberwindung reaches a profound meaning – neither a deconstruction nor
a reconstruction, but the possibility, at least in outline, of conceiving what
it would mean to “think Being without beings, that is to say: to think Being
without regard to metaphysics . . . to cease all overcoming, and leave meta-
physics to itself.”
39
Metaphysics must therefore first let itself be constituted
onto-theologically, thus elevated to the status of a thinking of beings in
their being (unthought as such), in order to provide the privileged ontic
phenomenon (like Dasein’s position in the question of being attempted by
Being and Time) on which the questioning of being as such could itself take
place.
4 what i s sai d i n the “i t gi ves”
Destruction draws out what in nihilism continues to point toward being –
toward being as it is folded back into beings, not even in the figure of the
being of beings. To refer to what is unthought in this way is tantamount to
shedding light ontosomething phenomenologically. This is what Heidegger
calls, using a term that is hardly illuminating, a clearing.
40
How are we to
understand this? In the following way, to be sure: the clearing does not bring
fully to light, but at least it no longer preserves the shadow. Like twilight,
the clearing already dissipates shadow, which recedes precisely as shadow,
because clarity, without causing it to disappear, forces it to withdraw and
encircles it as such. Now, we find ourselves today in just such a clearing
at this historical moment. To this point in the history of philosophy, it
has been a matter of making a simple diagnosis, in the trivial sense of the
word, concerning the state of philosophy as metaphysics: the diagnosis of a
transition, the destruction of which has recognized a bygone age (with the
being of beings figuring as a nihilism unto itself ), without the coming age
having come out of its obscure clarity. But in many of Heidegger’s texts, and
not merely on a superficial reading, he seems to disappoint expectations by
driving “thinking” toward a phantasmatic “task.”
41
The very last words of
the text, which serve as a guide, seem to confirm this by offering a vague
tautology: “The task of thinking would then be the surrender of previous
thinking to the determination of the matter for thinking.” But if we attend
patiently to the penultimate sentence of this text, what comes to light is the
true question, the one that imposes silence on too hasty answers, because
it involves a substantial and very specific difficulty.
“Does the title for the task of thinking then read, instead of Being and
Time: Lichtung und Answesenheit, Clearing and Presence? But where does
176 j ean- luc mari on
the clearing come from and how is it given? What speaks in the ‘There is /
It gives’?”
42
Let us pause on these brief lines. Our first task involves proposing a
substitution – that of rejecting the problematic of being and time (and
therefore also of the book that bears these words for its title, Sein und Zeit),
in which being must liberate itself from its subjection to beings, to erect
itself as a question sufficient to itself based on one privileged entity (Dasein)
and in alignment with temporality, in order to open an investigation into
the presence of being as such (Anwesenheit); for this presence would no
longer approach Dasein from its remarkable being of beings, as the 1927
work had supposed, but from being itself, or rather from something even
prior to this being, the clearing. A decisive essay from 1962, “Zeit und
Sein,” had in fact accomplished this substitution two years before the essay
guiding our inquiry:
We say of beings: they are. With regard to the matter “Being” and with regard to
the matter “time,” we remain cautious. We do not say: Being is, time is, but rather:
there is Being and there is time. For the moment we have only changed the idiom
with this expression. Instead of saying “it is,” we say “there is,” “It gives.”
43
It is obvious that withthis substitutionwe have already gottenmuchfurther.
What remains to be determined is what is happening here – what step have
we in fact made, groping along, without yet understanding it? But, in
fact, bringing these two texts together appears at first glance to conjoin
erroneously two very distinct theses: in 1962 it involved substituting “there
is” [il y a] for “it is” [il est], whereas in 1964 it was a matter of replacing
“Being and time” with “presence and clearing.” This distinction remains
superficial, however, because the 1964 text makes it clear that the shift to
“presence and clearing” itself presupposes confronting a question far more
radical, which it alone makes thinkable – the question “how does it come
about that ‘there is’ [il y a] the clearing?” It is in exactly this way that we
recover the situation of the 1962 text, in which there is already the shift
from “it is” [il est] to “there is” [il y a]. How, indeed, does the clearing come
about if we are, as is the case with being and time, unable to reach it by
saying that it ‘is’? We are unable to do this because all that is, and being
itself, even and especially “Being without regard to metaphysics,” “Being
without regard to its being grounded in terms of beings,”
44
manages to
come to us only through it – the clearing. It must therefore come to us
from elsewhere, if not prior to the “it is” [il est], so that it comes from what
Heidegger constantly calls the “there is” [il y a]. Or rather, what he calls “es
gibt,” which the French renders as il y a, but which literally should translate
The “end of metaphysics” as a possibility 177
as “it gives” [cela donne] – es gibt. In the sense, of course, of a donation that
arrives; in the sense also in which the painter, sculptor, or certain artisans
distance themselves from their immediate work, in order to see with some
detachment what it gives – in short, in order to see the work appear in
its proper unfolding, remote from its worker, as if freely and no longer an
object reducible to its production. Searching out the “it gives” (rather than
the “it is”), affords the possibility of accessing, on this side of (or beyond)
beings, what precedes it – being, time, presence, and the clearing. For in
the it gives – es gibt, and in it alone, is played and drawn out an Anwesenheit
more originary than the being of beings of metaphysics. It is only in the
“it gives” that the clearing comes to inscribe itself. The question of the
clearing now becomes one and the same with that of the “it gives.”
It is from this vantage point that we may more easily understand that the
question of the “it gives – es gibt,” in the last place, is the one that enables
an access to the clearing and a new passage from the being of beings to
being itself. From here, everything depends on what is played out in this
“it” in the simple formulation, “it gives – es gibt,” supposing that what it
pronounces is given and specifically gives itself to us. In addition, from this
perspective the last question of the text corresponds to the next to the last
one (how does the clearing come about?), because it asks “what speaks in
the ‘it gives’?” In other words, in the final account, in the final question,
in the final “destruction,” the overcoming of metaphysics depends on the
determination of what the “it gives – es gibt” involves. Let us fully measure
the stakes of this final question. It is certainly not about hastily affixing an
identity to “it – es,” as if forcing it back to the status of beings – Heidegger’s
strict warning on this count must remain in force here.
45
Instead, it is a
matter of drawing out the stakes of what lets itself be given, when “it gives,”
which requires a much more arduous effort, since it is left without any way
out ontically or ontologically. How then do we attempt to respond to the
question? First, by establishing what, in the eyes of Heidegger himself, lets
itself be manifest in the “it gives – es gibt.” Next, by examining whether
this “it gives – es gibt” is tied to the question of being, or goes beyond it.
5 the i ndeci si on of what gi ves
In confronting this phrase – “it gives” – there is room for hesitation. Isn’t it
merely an expression from everyday language, without conceptual validity?
What is more, does it not singularly belong to the German language?
The French “there is” [il y a] omits the reference to the infinitive “to give”
[donner] and thus spatializes the phrase, and the English “there is” makes do
178 j ean- luc mari on
with the verb “to be,” thus negating the distancing effect that Heidegger was
searching for. This widely accepted and sensible objection would be valid
only if, in Heidegger’s German, the phrase es gibt remained idiosyncratic
or a play on language without conceptual reach; in this case, it would
certainly be wrong to grant it philosophical authority. If, on the contrary,
it so happens that es gibt attains a conceptual status and sustains rigorous
analysis, then in clothing itself in conceptual dignity it would be imperative
to grant it rights even in the vernacular languages which on their own
ignored it. In short, in order to follow what is advanced in the German, we
should search out equivalents elsewhere, with the hope of thinking simply
what it involves; we would, therefore, validate the expression “it gives” as a
legitimate conceptual formulation.
Are we obligated to grant the expression “es gibt – it gives” the status of
concept? If we study the occurrences of this term in Heidegger’s writings, it
seems that this formulation, far from intervening superficially or belatedly,
like some sleight of hand without conceptual consequence, arises in Hei-
degger’s earliest observations and regularly marks his advances. It is worth
revisiting those occurrences. (A) As early as 1927, Being and Time under-
scores the fact that in order to say “being,” it is necessary to reject the phrase
“it is” and use instead “es gibt – it gives”: “Only so long as Dasein is . . .
‘is there’ [gibt es] being.”
46
Which is exactly what another passage confirms:
“Being (not entities) is something which ‘there is’ only in so far as truth
is. And truth is only in so far as and as long as Dasein is.”
47
In this way,
es gibt intervenes in order to speak the clearing of being, as it differs from
beings and beingness through Dasein. (B) When in 1929 What is Meta-
physics? returns to and radicalizes the analysis of anxiety, once “the nothing
is conceded (zugegeben)” even by its scientific rejection, the question of its
status arises immediately in terms of the it gives: “Is the nothing given only
because the ‘not,’ i.e., negation, is given? Or is it the other way around? Are
negation and the ‘not’ given only because the nothing is given?” And in
that case, is it not necessary to take the next step and inquire “if the nothing
itself is to be questioned as we have been questioning it, then it must be
given beforehand”?
48
(C) Yet, once it is determined that being as such, in
opposition to beings (and to the being of beings), itself is not, but comes
from the “it gives, es gibt,” the question then arises as to the status of the
“it – es.” The texts that precede “On Time and Being” (1962) unfailingly
show some hesitation and indecision. On the one hand, the “Letter on
Humanism” relates the “it – es” directly to being: “For the ‘it’ that ‘gives’ is
being itself. The ‘gives’ names the essence of being that is giving, granting
its truth. The self-giving into the open, along with the open region itself,
The “end of metaphysics” as a possibility 179
is being itself.”
49
Likewise the Introduction, added to the 1929 lecture in
1949, reasserts in fine this same conflation, when it stands amazed “that
with Being It is really nothing” for metaphysics.
50
In contrast, the 1955 text
“On the Question of Being” seems to ascribe to the “it – es” its own proper
and enigmatic singularity:
Nor can we ponder it for so long as we fail to ask: What is “it” that does the “giving”
here? In what kind of giving does it give? To what extent does there belong to this
“giving of being and nothing” something that gives and entrusts itself to this gift
in preserving it? We can easily say: There is a giving [es gibt]. Being no more “is”
than nothing. But there is a giving of both.
51
Univocally assigning the “it – es” to being itself seems to be held in suspen-
sion from this point on, precisely because being (on the same level with the
nothing) depends upon the unnamed event which gives it and therefore
precedes it.
Whichone of these twohypotheses shouldwe choose? What follows from
each? Before deciding anything, it would no doubt be worth measuring the
stakes of such a choice from the outset. If we take as a given the possibility
of reaching being as such, separate from beings, through the nothing or
anxiety, this access to being would not fall upon beings, but upon the fact
that “it gives – es gibt” the nothing, being, time; this anteriority traces a
gap. Two paths present themselves regarding such a gap: either repatriating
the “it gives – es gibt” in the last event to what it makes possible – once
again, and as always, assigning it to being; or confirming the primacy of
the “it gives – es gibt” over everything it makes possible and first of all
over being – thus preserving its essential anonymity. Following the first
path, the overcoming of metaphysics would go well beyond nihilism, but
in view of being as such – and the thinking to come will remain a thinking
of being. Following the second path, the overcoming of metaphysics will
most certainly reach being as such, but fromthe standpoint of the “it gives –
es gibt,” so in a field which is by definition more vast than being (because it
makes being possible) – and the thinking to come will become a thinking
of what gives.
6 the questi on of donati on as such
Any overcoming of metaphysics is beholden to the clearing of being as
such. Yet, since this clearing opens up in its turn only to the extent of
what it gives, the operation of overcoming, no less than the horizon that it
opens, is decided according to the “it – es” that gives – or, more precisely,
180 j ean- luc mari on
according to the answer to the question that gives this “it – es,” which is
operating in “it gives.” But in order not to proscribe any possible answer,
it would first be advisable to let the question formulate itself properly.
Heidegger can once again guide us in this difficult work, especially since he
himself seems sometimes to hesitate. For this we will follow the indications
furnished in 1962 in On Time and Being, a text whose Protocol (dated the
same year) gathers support from the same §43 of Sein und Zeit, which first
mentions the fact that being is not, but that “‘it gives’ being.” In this “it
gives” Heidegger clearly recognizes “a ‘neutrale tantum’, the neutral ‘and’
in the title ‘time and Being.’”
52
We must question this neutrality.
Afirst, definitive given is readily apparent fromthe start: because “We do
not say: Being is . . . but rather: it gives Being and it gives time,” it follows
that “instead of saying ‘it is,’ we say . . . ‘it gives.’”
53
The question of the “it
gives” therefore precedes most clearly that of being, fromthe simple fact that
the former question makes the latter possible. Still, this “it gives” does not
show itself in person in the being that it permits and places; it is rather the
reverse, since “in the beginning of Western thinking, Being is thought, but
not the ‘It gives’ as such.”
54
Strictly speaking, the question of being sheds its
primacy, all the while passing over in silence that from which it originates,
the “it gives.” Whence this paradox that, taken literally, the overcoming of
metaphysics leaps not only beyond the being of beings, but well beyond
being itself, with a view to and in accordance with the “it gives” and its
irreducible neutrality. In other words, being no longer arises from itself.
“What is peculiar to Being is not anything having the character of Being
(Das Eigent¨ umliche des Seins ist nichts Seinsartiges).”
55
Consequently, Dasein
can do nothing but disappear from the game, in the form of a being which
transcends beingness towards being, in order to become “Man: standing
within the approach of presence, but in such a way that he receives as a gift
the presencing that It gives.”
56
Dasein, too, disappears (or is accomplished),
because it is no longer a case of opening beings,
57
even privileged ones, to
being, but of exposing itself to the “it gives,” that is, of welcoming the
gift. Being (and beings) disappear in another event, which in the same
movement renders it possible and precedes it.
Given the primacy of the “it gives – es gibt” over the question even of
being and a fortiori over the question of the being of beings, there follows a
second given, still more remarkable. Indeed, the well-known and most fre-
quent conclusion – by which metaphysics is stigmatized as a thinking of the
being of beings that leaves the ontological difference unthought, because it
leaves being itself unthought
58
– remains unintelligible today, as long as it
does not explain the cause of this inability to think being in its difference
The “end of metaphysics” as a possibility 181
from beings; unintelligible and therefore, in appearance, arbitrary. To the
contrary, the motivations behind what is obstinately unthought become
visible as soon as the difference between being and beings is transposed (or
translated) in the very terms of the “it gives”; for, each time that “it gives”
(es gibt), there necessarily follows a gift or donation (die Gabe). Now, this
gift or donation persists there, precisely because it is truly given, and as if
abandoned to itself in its henceforth independent presence; in persisting
there, it occupies it, as an actor occupies a scene. Thus, by occupying the
scene, it hides what placed it in the scene, the giving itself (das Geben);
59
for the property of giving is to give a gift (something given), to deliver it,
thus to deposit it in presence, from which at the same instant it abstains,
since it does not give itself as something given. The director only places
actors in the scene, but never the staging itself (without its becoming an-
other actor). Henceforth, the giving (das Geben, or better, in verb form, the
geben) disappears precisely and to the extent that it has made to appear the
gift that it gives (die Gabe). Which is to say, the “it gives” itself “withdraws
in favor of the gift which It gives. That gift is thought and conceptualized
from then on exclusively as Being with regard to beings. A giving which
gives only its gift, but in the giving holds itself back and withdraws, such a
giving we call sending.”
60
From which it follows that “to giving as sending
there belongs keeping back. . . What we have mentioned just now – keep-
ing back, denial, withholding – shows something like a self-withdrawing,
something we might call for short: withdrawal.”
61
Why, then, does being
remain unthought? Not because of the ideological or psychological de-
ficiencies of philosophers; or for epistemological reasons (transcendence,
inconceivability, etc.); or even for strictly ontological reasons (the privilege
of presence, etc.). It remains unthought because it withdraws on its own on
this side of phenomenality; and it does so because it is obedient, in a manner
more originary than for the ontological difference itself, to the “it gives,” on
which it thoroughly depends. Being conceals itself in non-manifestation,
because it arises from donation and because “the sending in the destiny of
Being has been characterized as a giving in which the sending source keeps
itself back and, thus, withdraws from unconcealment.”
62
In donation, in
fact, the giving (Geben) gives to presence the gift (Gabe), so completely and
radically that this gift alone occupies presence and, in appearing, necessarily
masks its own donation; or, more properly speaking, the gift (Gabe, beings)
has no need of illegitimately obfuscating the giving (Geben, being), since
it is the right of the giving itself, on the contrary, not to be able to give
the gift, to offer it, to deliver it, to put it to the fore, but by concealing
itself behind it, because giving can never appear as something given since it
182 j ean- luc mari on
exhausts and accomplishes itself in allowing to appear – it does not occupy
the opening, because it opens it.
63
The unthought belongs then to being by
virtue of its more essential determination – through the “it gives,” through
donation. Wide is the way that opens up: the “end of metaphysics” leads,
in the end, all the way to the horizon of donation.
Why is it that Heidegger does not admit this? Because he doesn’t in any
strict manner adhere to the “it gives” through to the end; he moves away
from it at the end, in order to fall back upon an entirely other instance,
Ereignis: “Accordingly, the It that gives in ‘It gives Being,’ ‘It gives time,’
proves to be Appropriation (Ereignis).”
64
This transposition is evidently,
and uniquely, desirable for being able to suspend the register of donation.
It is all the more surprising that this transposition explicitly contradicts
Heidegger’s insistent call to vigilance in “bring[ing] the It and its giving
into view, and capitaliz[ing] the ‘It,’”
65
so as to preserve its “undetermined”
and “enigmatic” character, which is, in fact, “something distinctive.” This
transposition even contradicts a warning made perfectly clear just prior
to this: “There is a growing danger that when we speak of ‘It,’ we arbi-
trarily posit an indeterminate power which is supposed to bring about all
giving of Being and of time”
66
– in short, identifying the It – Es would
threaten to reduce it to the level of a being operating as a foundation, if
not some causality. But is it not true that turning to the noun Ereignis
leads precisely to introducing an indeterminate force, if not to sketching
the shadow of a being? In the end, “Appropriation appropriates”;
67
while
the tautological form of this claim will not be questioned (it is perfectly
acceptable in good logic), what will be criticized is that it seriously com-
promises the phenomenological and speculative force of the “it gives,”
from which it comes but which it also masks. To conclude that “Being [is]
the event of Appropriation”
68
doesn’t say too much – for the question of
being most certainly goes beyond being – but in fact says too little – for
the difference between being and beings leads back, beyond Ereignis, to
donation.
7 the possi bi li ty of a radi cal overcomi ng
Let us return to the penultimate line and final question of the 1964 text:
“What speaks in the ‘There is / It gives’?”
69
The end of philosophy, which
for Heidegger equates to the overcoming of metaphysics (for “philosophy is
metaphysics,” says the opening of the same text
70
), accomplishes itself only
by recourse to the “it gives – es gibt.” The true implement for overcom-
ing metaphysics is found in the donation, because the contrasting game of
The “end of metaphysics” as a possibility 183
giving and the gift requires the surpassing of representational thinking –
and it is only this game that affords it. But, then, how to avoid a paradox
brimming with contradictions? The overcoming of metaphysics by means
of donation does not merely lead to the thinking of being without consider-
ing beings, that is, to leaving metaphysics to itself, but leads into an entirely
other dimension than being – that of the “it gives – es gibt,” thus, a dimen-
sion of giving, of the gift, and of the contrasting game between the two.
Everything takes place as though, in order to escape the being of beings –
in other words to escape being held under the privilege of beings – it were
necessary to overcome being itself. And, in fact, even in limiting ourselves
to his withdrawal into Ereignis, that appears to be Heidegger’s final inten-
tion – the question of non-metaphysical thinking no longer arises from, or
aims any longer at, existence. It seeks a non-ontological case. Only in this
context does it become possible to stigmatize how Heidegger brutally stops
his own advance by thrusting donation back onto Ereignis. Only in this
context does it also become necessary to follow Heidegger against himself
and take donation seriously – to ask what speaks in the “it gives.”
The question of the overcoming of metaphysics could thus require over-
coming the question of being itself. At the very least, Heidegger’s itinerary
uncontestably shows the possibility of this overcoming. If from behind
the being of beings, from behind the ontological difference that remains
unthought and behind the onto-theological constitution, being does not
emerge, but something other than being, the “task of thinking” will consist
first of all in determining this new horizon.
Metaphysics is defined as an overcoming. The crux of the matter be-
comes one of defining precisely what it overcomes. It could overcome the
being of beings, if not being itself, provided that it is understood on the
basis of donation. This self-transcendence would not destroy it, but would
render it impossible to overcome, for at each overcoming – including the
overcoming of itself – it would accomplish its own essential definition. And
if it were necessary definitively to abandon the name and notion of meta-
physics, if only to avoid its confusions and restorations, it would not for
all that require abandoning the name of philosophy (despite Heidegger’s
repeated conflation of the two). Indeed, philosophy is not defined directly
by wisdom (or, for that matter, by knowledge, and even less so by science
or representation), but by its strange, complex, and unquestioned relation
to wisdom. A relation of affinity, of inclination, of familiarity, of desire,
and of lack as well – a relation to what it lacks and loves to possess. Phi-
losophy does not know wisdom, does not produce it, but reaches for it,
anticipates it like a gift one would offer. In sum, it might be that in order
184 j ean- luc mari on
to define philosophy, especially after metaphysics and perhaps even beyond
the question of being, we cannot follow any other path than that indicated
by the question: “What speaks in the ‘It gives’?”
notes
1. “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” in Heidegger, Basic
Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper & Row, 1993), p. 446 /
“Das Ende der Philosophie und die Aufgabe des Denkens,” in Zur Sache des
Denkens (ZSD) (T¨ ubingen: M. Niemeyer Verlag, 1969), p. 76.
2. “La science toujours recherch´ ee et toujours manquante,” in La m´etaphysique:
son histoire, sa critique, ses enjeux, ed. Jean-Marc Narbonne and L. Langlois
(Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1999).
3. At issue here is the correction and completion of a previous essay’s arguments,
“The End of the End of Metaphysics,” Epoch´e 2 (1994), pp. 1–22.
4. The phrase “end of metaphysics,” furthermore, must be rigorously and dou-
bly distinguished from the phrases “end of philosophy” and “overcoming of
metaphysics.”
5. Martin Heidegger, “Introduction to ‘What is Metaphysics?,’” in Pathmarks,
ed. William McNeill (Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 279 / “Einleitung
zu ‘Was ist Metaphysik?,’” in Gesamtausgabe, vol. ix: Wegmarken (GA ix)
(Frankfurt-on-Main: Klostermann, 1976), p. 367.
6. “Overcoming Metaphysics,” in The End of Philosophy, trans. Joan Stambaugh
(New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 85 / Gesamtausgabe, vol. vii: Vortr¨ age und
Aufs¨ atze (GA vii) (Frankfurt-on-Main: Klostermann, 2000), p. 69.
7. “Overcoming Metaphysics,” p. 96 /GA vii, p. 81.
8. This text was first delivered in French by J. Beaufret at UNESCO in April
1964.
9. [Translator’s note: The French ach`evement, translated here as “culmination,”
implies completion, perfection, accomplishment, the finality of death; its ver-
bal pair, (s’)achever, means to come to or bring to an end, to die out or kill
off. Ach`evement is the term used in the French version of “Das Ende der
Philosophie und die Aufgabe des Denkens”; the semantic range of Heideg-
ger’s Vollendung, which is akin to the English term “full,” implies wholeness
or completion.]
10. “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” p. 432 / ZSD, p. 62.
11. “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” p. 433 / ZSD, p. 63,
translation modified.
12. [Translator’s note: In this paragraph Marion exploits a network of terms relat-
ing to card playing: cartes (cards), jouer (to play), gagner (to win), la lev´ee (the
act of gathering up cards), fin de partie (the final phase of a game, or, more
fruitfully here, an endgame – metaphysics is the endgame), and, significantly,
la donne (of cards, a hand or deal). While the dealing out of cards evokes Hei-
degger’s concept of “the dispensation,” since the substantive donne is linked to
the infinitive donner, “to give,” Marion is playing off the German term with
The “end of metaphysics” as a possibility 185
so much currency in Heidegger’s essay and commenting on it later in the essay
through the French cela donne, es gibt, the “it gives.”]
13. John Sallis, in an otherwise illuminating study, claims on the contrary that
accomplishment (Vollendung) must not be understood in the sense of per-
fection (Vollkommenheit). Delimitations: Phenomenology and the End of Meta-
physics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986). This is certainly true
if it involves challenging accomplishment in the Hegelian sense of the term;
but this does not exclude that even the final nihilism assumes the form of an
accomplishment, which sums up and puts the final touches on the possibilities
of the initial hand dealt by metaphysics.
14. Martin Heidegger, “European Nihilism,” in Nietzsche, vol. iv, trans. Joan
Stambaugh, David Farrell Krell, and Frank A. Capuzzi (New York: Harper
& Row, 1991), p. 148 / Gesamtausgabe, vol. vi.2: Nietzsche, vol. ii (GA vi.2)
(Frankfurt-on-Main: Klostermann, 1997), p. 179. It follows that this “moment”
permits and demands a “historical decision” (“European Nihilism,” p. 149 /
GA vi.2, p. 180): we must bring ourselves (in the form of Dasein accom-
plishing the “anticipatory resoluteness”?) to positing and thinking the end of
metaphysics – no longer to play the hand of metaphysics, but to prepare (or
wait for the next distribution of cards, the new hand [le new deal ]).
15. “Overcoming Metaphysics,” p. 95 / GA vii, p. 81.
16. “The Word of Nietzsche: ‘God is Dead,’” in The Question Concerning Technol-
ogy and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977),
p. 53 / Gesamtausgabe, vol. v: Holzwege (GA v), p. 209.
17. [Translator’s note: the German term is Sackgasse, a “blind alley” in the English
translation.] “Letter on Humanism,” Pathmarks, p. 261 / “Brief ¨ uber den
Humanismus,” in GA ix, p. 343. (This term, it is true, has been taken up,
here with reservation, by objectors.) At the same time, it is the abandonment
of the 1929 substitutive project of a “metaphysics of Dasein” (Kant and the
Problem of Metaphysics, trans. Richard Taft [Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 1997], §41, pp. 157ff., Gesamtausgabe, vol. iii: Kant und das Problem
der Metaphysik [Frankfurt-on-Main: Klostermann, 1991], §41, pp. 230ff., or
“What is Metaphysics?’” in Pathmarks, p. 96, “Was ist Metaphysik?,” in GA ix,
p. 122) alone that has allowed this question of the interpretation of metaphysics
in its essence following the lectures on Nietzsche to be reopened.
18. “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” p. 435 / ZSD, p. 65.
19. “Overcoming Metaphysics,” p. 93 / GA vii, p. 79.
20. “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” p. 437 / ZSD, p. 67.
21. “Overcoming Metaphysics,” p. 95 / GA vii, p. 81.
22. Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York:
Harper & Row, 1962), p. 44, Gesamtausgabe, vol. ii: Sein und Zeit (GA ii)
(Frankfurt-on-Main: Klostermann, 1977), p. 30.
23. Being and Time, p. 44 / GA ii, pp. 30–1.
24. “Time and Being,” in On Time and Being, trans. Joan Stambaugh (New York:
Harper, 1972), p. 9 (translation modified), “Zeit und Sein,” in ZSD, p. 9.
This is a late response to an earlier declaration: “a destruction (Destruktion) – a
186 j ean- luc mari on
critical process (Abbau) in which the traditional concepts, which at first must
necessarily be employed, are deconstructed down to the sources from which
they were drawn. Only by means of this destruction can ontology fully as-
sure itself in a phenomenological way of the genuine character of its con-
cepts.” The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, rev. edn, trans. Albert Hofstadter
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), p. 23, Gesamtausgabe, vol. xxiv:
Grundprobleme der Ph¨ anomenologie (Frankfurt-on-Main: Klostermann, 1975),
p. 31.
25. “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” p. 441 / ZSD, p. 71.
26. “Postscript to ‘What is Metaphysics?,’” in Pathmarks, p. 232, “Nachwort zu
‘Was ist Metaphysik?,’” in GA ix, p. 304.
27. “Introduction to ‘What is Metaphysics?,’” p. 278 / GA ix, p. 367.
28. “Introduction to ‘What is Metaphysics?,’” p. 281 / GA ix, p. 370.
29. “The Onto-theo-logical Constitution of Metaphysics,” in Identity and Differ-
ence, trans. Joan Stambaugh (University of Chicago Press, 1969), p. 60, “Die
Onto-theo-logische Verfassung der Metaphysik,” in Identit¨ at und Differenz
(Pfullingen: G. Neske, 1957), p. 52.
30. On these tasks, and their specificity and legitimacy, see my study “D’une
quadruple m´ ethode pour lire les textes de la philosophie –la pertinence d’Henri
Gouhier,” Le regard d’Henri Gouhier, ed. Denise Leduc-Fayette (Paris: Vrin,
1999).
31. “The Word of Nietzsche: ‘God is Dead,’” p. 57 / GA v, p. 212.
32. “The Word of Nietzsche: ‘God is Dead,’” p. 108–9 / GA v, p. 263.
33. “What is Metaphysics?,” p. 90 / GA ix, p. 113. See GA ix, pp. 114, 115
(Heidegger’s marginal notes added later), and pp. 120, 307.
34. “European Nihilism,” p. 21 / GA iv.2, p. 43. It will be noted that in the page
preceding this citation are a response to and critique of Bergson’s critique of
the idea of nothingness. L’´evolution cr´eatrice, ch. 4, in Œuvres (Paris: Presses
Universitaires de France, 1959), p. 728, taken from “L’id´ ee de n´ eant,” Revue
philosophique 62 (1906), pp. 449–66.
35. “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” p. 448 / ZSD, p. 79.
Likewise: it is “from the beginning (sogleich)” that the Greeks think uncon-
cealment as representation. For “the natural concept of truth does not mean
unconcealment, not in the philosophy of the Greeks either” (“The End of
Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” p. 447 / ZSD, p. 77). This radical
and essential thesis can be traced to Being and Time, pp. 22, 70, 201 / GA ii,
pp. 4–5, 60, 211.
36. “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” p. 449 / ZSD, p. 80.
37. “Z¨ ahringen Seminar,” in Gesamtausgabe, vol. 15: Seminare (Frankfurt-on-
Main: Klostermann, 1986), p. 399.
38. “Overcoming Metaphysics,” p. 85 / GA vii, p. 70. Contrary to what a note
from the French translation leads one to believe, Verwindung, which derives
from verwinden and as such indicates turning over or change of direction
(a tailspin in aeronautics), does not relate to verwenden, to employ or uti-
lize, which the translation situates in relation to “being able to accept.” In
The “end of metaphysics” as a possibility 187
fact, Heidegger makes use of Verwindung in order to reverse the term that
Carnap had used against What is Metaphysics? in his own “
¨
Uberwindung der
Metaphysik durch logische Analyse der Sprache,” Erkenntnis 2 (1931), trans-
lated as “The Elimination of Metaphysics through Logical Analysis of Lan-
guage,” in Logical Positivism, ed. A. J. Ayer (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1959).
39. “Time and Being,” p. 24 (translation modified) / ZSD, p. 25.
40. [Translator’s note: the French term´eclaircie suggests, inits climatological sense,
a burst of light in a cloudy or rainy sky – connoting simultaneously clarity
and opening, and therefore echoing the German Lichtung as it pertains to a
clearing or glade in a forest. The French word for glade, the feminine noun
clairi`ere, derives from a related semantic field, since both ´eclaircie and clairi`ere
draw their meaning from a root in the Latin clarus, “clear” or “light.”]
41. In this vein, and in tandem with many other similar readings, see A. Renault,
“La fin de Heidegger et la tˆ ache de la philosophie,” Les Etudes Philosophiques
4 (1977), pp. 485–92.
42. “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” p. 449 / ZSD, p. 80.
Cf. n. 36 above.
43. “Time and Being,” pp. 4–5 / ZSD, pp. 4–5.
44. “Time and Being,” pp. 24, 2 / ZSD, pp. 25, 2.
45. “Time and Being,” pp. 5, 18–19 / ZSD, pp. 5, 18–19. It is so important to
respect this warning that it can legitimately be turned back against Heidegger
himself, who was too quick to baptize the “it – es” also as a noun – as it happens,
Ereignis (“Time and Being,” p. 19 / ZSD, p. 20). See my Etant donn´e. Essai
d’une ph´enom´enologie de la donation (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France,
1998), §3, pp. 54 ff., translated as Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of
Givenness, trans. Jeffrey L. Kosky (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002).
46. Being and Time, p. 255 / GA ii, p. 281, translation modified. This text is cited
explicitly in “Letter on Humanism,” pp. 254, 256 / GA ix, pp. 334, 336–7 (see
note 49).
47. Being and Time, p. 272 / GA ii, p. 304. See also Heidegger’s reservations in
Being and Time, p. 26 / GA ii, p. 8: “The Being of entities ‘is’ not itself an
entity”; and Being and Time, p. 228 / GA ii, p. 244: “Being ‘is’ only in the
understanding of . . . entities.”
48. “What is Metaphysics?,” p. 86 / GA ix, p. 108. Along the same lines: “The
nothing unveils itself in anxiety – but not as a being. Just as little is it given
as an object.” “What is Metaphysics?,” p. 89 / GA ix, p. 113. For the totality
of beings, which the nothing eliminates, is also “given in advance” (“What is
Metaphysics?,” p. 86 / GA ix, p. 109), without, properly speaking, being in
the mode of these or those beings.
49. “Letter on Humanism,” pp. 254–5 / GAix, p. 334. Along the same lines: “Being
comes to destiny in that It – es, being, gives itself.” “Letter on Humanism,”
p. 255 / GA ix, p. 335.
50. “Introduction to ‘What is Metaphysics?,’” p. 290, / GA ix, p. 382.
51. “On the Question of Being,” in Pathmarks, p. 317 / “Zur Seinsfrage,” in
GA ix, p. 419.
188 j ean- luc mari on
52. On Time and Being, p. 43 / ZSD, p. 47.
53. “Time and Being,” pp. 4–5 / ZSD, p. 5, translation modified.
54. “Time and Being,” p. 8 / ZSD, p. 8. And this is true from the very beginning,
before metaphysics even constitutes itself as such: “At the beginning of Being’s
unconcealment, Being, einai, eon is thought, but not the ‘It gives.’ Instead,
Parmenides says esti gar einai, ‘For Being is.’” “Time and Being,” p. 8 / ZSD,
p. 8, translation modified.
55. “Time and Being,” p. 10 / ZSD, p. 10. Along the same lines (with one decisive
nuance, which I will take up shortly): “Being would be a species of Appro-
priation, and not the other way around. . . Being vanishes in Appropriation.”
“Time and Being,” pp. 21–2 / ZSD, p. 22.
56. “Time and Being,” p. 12 / ZSD, p. 12. This may be connected to the “ekstatische
Innestehen in der Wahrheit des Seins,” GA ix, pp. 325, 330 (the “ecstatic
inherence in the truth of being,” “Letter on Humanism,” pp. 248, 251).
57. “Nowhere in beings is there an example for the essence of Being (es f¨ ur das
Wesen des Seins nirgends imSeienden ein Beispiel gibt),” “The Onto-theo-logical
Constitution of Metaphysics,” p. 66 (translation modified) / “Die Onto-theo-
logische Verfassung der Metaphysik,” p. 58.
58. “The Onto-theo-logical Constitution of Metaphysics,” pp. 50ff., 60–1, 62, 73 /
“Die Onto-theo-logische Verfassung der Metaphysik,” pp. 40ff., 52, 53, 65.
The text nevertheless does make one reference to the “it gives”: “We represent
Being in a way in which It, Being, never gives itself” (“The Onto-theo-logical
Constitution of Metaphysics,” p. 66 / “Die Onto-theo-logische Verfassung
der Metaphysik,” p. 57); but the relation between being and this “it gives”
here continues to be arbitrary and superficial.
59. [Translator’s note: In the German das Geben, the “giving” but also the term
for a card deal, one can discern the card metaphor developed by Marion in
§1, including the figure of la donne.]
60. “Time and Being,” p. 8 / ZSD, p. 8.
61. “Time and Being,” p. 22 / ZSD, p. 23.
62. “Time and Being,” p. 22 / ZSD, p. 23.
63. In “The Onto-theo-logical constitution of Metaphysics,” pp. 64–5 / “Die
Onto-theo-logische Verfassung der Metaphysik,” p. 56, Heidegger attempts
to showthis same mysterious drama of presence and concealment by opposing
the advent of being (
¨
Uberkommnis) to the arrival of beings (Ankunft); but the
two terms here remain external to each other, without the phenomenological
necessity of their game being discovered; what they are lacking, in fact, is the
logic of the gift to articulate the one to the other, as occurs respectively with
the “giving” and the “given.”
64. “Time and Being,” p. 19 / ZSD, p. 20. This occurs in such a way that it is
not merely “being [that] disappears in Ereignis,” but more than anything the
“it gives” itself, meaning, finally, the phenomenological explanation of the
obligatory dissimulation of being in the evidence of beings; whence, since this
retreat must be named, the introduction of Enteignis (expropriation, ZSD,
p. 44) – which is hardly convincing, because it undermines what Ereignis
The “end of metaphysics” as a possibility 189
does, instead of the two movements (the advance of the given, the withdrawal
of giving) coinciding perfectly in the lexicon of the “it gives”. Changing the
phraseology therefore provokes a phenomenological regression.
65. “Time and Being,” p. 5 / ZSD, p. 5.
66. “Time and Being,” pp. 16–17 / ZSD, p. 17. See also “Time and Being,” pp.
4–5, 17, 18 / ZSD, pp. 5, 18, 19. On this – Heidegger’s final breach vis-` a-vis
donation, at the very moment of its ultimate meditation on the “it gives” –
see my analysis, Etant donn´e: essai d’une ph´enom´enologie de la donation, §3,
pp. 55–60, which I hold to here.
67. “Time and Being,” p. 24 / ZSD, p. 24.
68. “Time and Being,” p. 21 / ZSD, p. 22. Despite its title, D. Panis’s book
Il y a le il y a: l’´enigme de Heidegger (Brussels: Ousia, 1993) does not tackle this
difficult topic.
69. “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” p. 449 / ZSD, p. 80.
70. “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” p. 432 / ZSD, p. 61. (See
“The thinking that is to come is no longer philosophy, because it thinks more
originally than metaphysics,” “Letter on Humanism,” p. 276 / GA ix, p. 364.)
Index
Abraham 1, 96, 98, 99, 109, 134
actual 129
actuality 138, 144
Adorno, Theodor 33
aesthetic 19, 20, 28, 31, 38, 89, 93
aletheia 173
anti-clericalism 39, 45
anti-essentialism 37, 38
anxiety (Angst) 178, 179, 187
aporia 135, 153, 168
appearance 70, 85, 168, 174, 177
as an event 143
as illusion 37
appropriation (Ereignis) 78, 80, 182, 188
Aquinas, Thomas 105, 165
Arendt, Hannah 164
arete 129
Aristotle 24, 34, 37, 108, 111, 115, 120, 125, 129,
134, 135, 154, 168, 172
Arnold, Matthew 59
art 20, 22, 108
asceticism 24
atheism 3, 9–10, 12, 29, 30, 34, 38, 39, 47, 56, 59,
70, 108, 120, 156
Athens 146, 150, 152
attunement 4, 73, 75, 77, 78, 83, 84
Audi, Robert 46
Augustine 1, 126, 142
Austen, Jane 129
authenticity (Eigentlichkeit) 5, 32, 41, 85, 108,
157, 164
authority 29, 30, 41, 43, 56, 178
availability 72, 74, 76
Barth, Karl 40, 41
Batnitzky, Leora 6
Beckett, Samuel 9, 18
beginning 107, 148, 152, 166, 186,
188
behaviorism 111
being (Sein) 2, 5, 32, 35, 110, 111, 112, 148, 152, 171,
172, 173, 174, 175, 176, 178, 179, 180, 181,
182, 188
being-in (Insein) 112, 114, 120, 157
being-with (Mitsein) 111, 112, 113, 114
of beings 148, 154, 155, 167, 171, 172, 175, 178,
180, 183
event of (Ereignis) 32, 35, 188
history of 32, 34
mode of 111, 113, 171, 172
question of 170, 171, 172, 174, 177, 180, 182,
183, 184
truth of 42, 171, 173
understanding of 2, 3, 4, 102
belonging 75, 77, 78
B´ enichou, Paul 61
Benjamin, Walter 31
Bergson, Henri 107
Blondel, Maurice 107
Bonaventura 108, 110, 119
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich 134
Borgmann, Albert 80
Brahms, Johannes 9
Brandom, Robert 43
Buber, Martin 164
building 82
Bultmann, Rudolf 38
Bush, George 39
Calosso, Roberto 66
Caputo, John 5, 99
care (F¨ ursorge) 112, 164
Carnap, Rudolf 166, 187
Carter, Stephen 46
Catholicism 40, 43, 44, 65, 146, 165
causa sui 106, 107, 139
cause 105, 106
charity 43, 114
see also love
Christ, see Jesus Christ
190
Index 191
Christianity 5, 10, 14, 15, 24, 29, 43, 55,
58, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 85, 89, 90,
91, 93, 99, 101, 108, 109, 120, 147,
159, 161
clearing (Lichtung) 6, 175, 176, 178, 179
Clement 107
Climacus, Johannes 124, 132, 136, 141
see also Kierkegaard, Søren
closed world structures (CWSs) 47, 49, 51, 52,
62, 65, 66
see also world
Cohen, Hermann 149
commitment 89, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100, 101
communism 29, 31, 65
comportment 73
Comte, Auguste 62, 166
concealment 2, 17, 148, 171, 174, 181,
188
concern 173
conditioning 79, 80, 81, 82, 84
mutual see appropriation 80
see also mattering, weightiness
Copernicus, Nicolaus 43
coping 50, 51
cosmos 55, 63, 84, 110
see also universe, world
Darwin, Charles 43, 55
Dasein 91, 111, 148, 175, 176, 178, 180
Dawkins, Richard 54, 56
deconstruction 50, 51, 170, 186
see also destruction
deism 64, 65, 120
Dennett, Daniel C. 54
Derrida, Jacques 37, 123, 141, 143, 161, 162
Descartes, Ren´ e 7, 35, 51, 92, 107, 113, 116
Cartesianism 34, 42, 106, 117
desire 3, 9, 13, 14, 16, 17, 22, 125, 183
despair 40, 94, 95, 99, 100, 101, 102, 127
destruction (Destruktion) 159, 170, 175, 177,
185
Dewey, John 37, 41, 45
disclosure 76, 103, 148
divine, the 1, 3, 4, 35, 78, 84, 85, 88
divinities, divinity 69, 70, 73, 76, 78, 79, 81, 82,
84, 85
donation 6, 182, 183
Dostoevsky, Fyodor 1, 9, 23, 57
Dreyfus, Hubert 5, 76, 77, 86
Duns Scotus, John 112
dwelling 69, 78, 79, 80, 83, 88, 166, 173
earth 69, 78, 79, 80, 81
ego 110, 113, 117, 169
enframing (Gestell ) 72, 79
engagement 15, 23, 24, 84, 113, 118, 174
Enlightenment 23, 30, 34, 45, 53, 66, 107,
166
epistemology 42, 49, 50, 66, 115
see also knowledge
eros, erotic 13–28, 117
essence 2, 37, 71, 73, 82, 90, 102, 112, 128, 138
essentialism 6, 90, 102
ethics 6, 105, 116, 149, 154, 155, 163
existence, spheres of 3, 89, 99
see also life, forms of
existentialism 13, 116, 169
experience 123, 125, 128, 130, 132, 133, 135, 138, 139,
140, 143
faith 10, 26, 58, 98, 109, 114, 127, 131, 132, 133, 134,
138, 140, 141, 142
farness 75
Feyerabend, Paul 34
Fichte, Johann Gottlieb 117
Fiore, Joachim of 35
Foucault, Michel 33, 62
fourfold 4, 50, 66, 69, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83,
86, 88
Fraassen, Bas van 37
Frankenberry, Nancy 40
freedom 22, 42, 96, 99, 101, 152
Freud, Sigmund 8–9, 20, 23, 28, 31, 43, 61,
107
future 44, 105, 141
Galileo 123
gathering 79, 82, 87
Gay, Peter 66
Ghandi, Mahatma 134
Gibbon, Edward 63, 64, 66
God 123, 127
Christian 1, 66, 67, 71
death of 1, 3, 4, 7–8, 9, 10, 13, 14, 22, 28, 52, 55,
58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 69, 70, 72, 73, 77, 78, 84,
86
existence of 5, 57, 58, 147
godly 106, 108
God-man 5, 89, 100, 101; see also Jesus Christ
metaphysical 1
of the philosophers 1, 4, 84, 106, 109–10
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von 13
Good 73, 110, 112, 115, 150, 156
Goodman, Nelson 33
grace 41, 85, 109, 139
Greek thought (“Greek”) 37, 91, 93, 96, 106, 136,
146, 149, 162, 173, 186
see also philosophy
192 Index
Gregory of Nyssa 119
ground, grounding 1, 2, 4, 73, 100, 101, 105,
106, 107, 120, 147, 154, 155, 157, 158,
161, 176
Habermas, J¨ urgen 37
Halevi, Judah 155, 156, 163
Hannay, Alastair 101
Hebrew thought 146
Hegel, G. W. F. 20, 22, 24, 29, 37, 39, 41, 42,
105, 107, 108, 110, 111, 116, 117, 120, 168,
173, 185
Heidegger, Martin 1–3, 4, 5, 6, 16, 31, 32, 33, 34,
41, 50, 66, 69–86, 88, 89, 103, 106, 107, 111,
113, 120, 121, 146, 147, 154, 157–8, 160, 161,
164, 166, 168, 170, 171, 173, 174, 175, 176,
177, 178, 180, 182, 183, 184, 187, 188
Being and Time 37, 90, 91, 111, 175, 178
Heraclitus 28
hermeneutics 91, 105, 113, 116, 128, 140, 142, 144,
159, 168, 172
historicism 37
history 34, 41, 56, 67, 154
of being (Seingeschichte) 35, 173
of metaphysics 172, 173
of nihilism 3, 33, 35
of philosophy 168, 172, 175
of salvation 35
Hobbes, Thomas 15, 110
H¨ olderlin, Friedrich 81, 108
holiness, holy 44, 81, 83, 85
home 77, 80, 82
Homer 9, 106
hope 133, 134, 138, 139, 141, 142
horizon 6, 34, 42, 58, 59, 60, 66, 71, 111, 113, 119,
124, 125, 128, 135, 168, 172, 179, 182
humanism 53, 58, 60, 62
atheist 58, 64
Hume, David 39, 40, 51, 63, 64, 65, 166
Husserl, Edmund 51, 90, 116, 117, 128, 143, 146,
153, 158
identity 96, 97, 98, 99, 100, 101
importance 73, 77, 78, 82, 84
existential 74, 76, 77, 78, 79, 83, 84
instrumental 74, 75, 76, 77, 79
see also mattering, weightiness
impossible, the 123, 124, 125, 126, 127, 128, 130,
132, 133, 136, 137, 139, 140, 141
involvement 96, 103, 116, 118
Isaac 1, 96, 98, 99, 109, 140, 142
Islam 29, 120, 159
Israel, Jonathan 45
“it gives” (es gibt) 176, 177, 178, 179, 180, 181, 182,
188, 189
Jackson, Jesse 134
Jacob 1, 109
Jacobi, Friedrich Heinrich 107
James, William 37, 40, 41, 45
Jerusalem 146, 150, 152
Jesus Christ 43, 95, 97, 101, 109, 128, 139, 145
Jobs, Steve 96
Judaism 43, 108, 120, 136, 140, 144, 146, 147, 149,
150, 155, 158, 159, 161, 162
Jewish philosophy 151, 153, 154, 155–6
and philosophy 150–1, 156
Justin 107
Kafka, Franz 9, 18
Kant, Immanuel 7, 19, 20, 38, 39, 40, 42, 45, 111,
113, 126, 162
kenosis 41, 43, 143
Kierkegaard, Søren 1, 5, 13, 40, 87, 88–102, 126,
141, 143
see also Climacus, Johannes, Silentio,
Johannes de
King, Jr., Martin Luther 96, 134
knowledge 11, 13, 23, 31, 41, 43, 49, 51, 60, 164,
183
epistemic arena 4, 40, 42, 44, 45; see also
epistemology
Kripke, Saul 90
Kuhn, Thomas 99, 103
language 31, 32, 104
everyday 104, 177
law 19, 22, 154, 156, 159, 162, 163, 164
natural 12, 55, 165
Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm 116
Levinas, Emmanuel 5, 6, 40, 112, 118, 146–62,
163, 164
liberalism 14, 34
life, forms of 1, 3, 4, 7, 22, 24, 29, 60, 72, 160
Locke, John 51, 63, 64
love (philia) 15, 17, 23, 41, 44, 123, 136, 139, 141,
142
see also charity
L¨ owith, Karl 164
Lowrie, Walter 101
Lucretius 93
Lyotard, Jean-Franc¸ois 127
Machiavelli, Niccol` o 15
Madonna 53
Maimonides, Moses 149, 155, 159
Mandela, Nelson 134
Marion, Jean-Luc 6, 68, 184
Marx, Karl 20, 29, 34, 65, 107, 173
Mary 127, 143
materialism 10, 52, 54, 56, 58, 62
Index 193
mattering 73, 74, 78, 80, 89
see also importance, weightiness
Matthew 128
meaning 16–17, 21, 26, 31, 32, 71, 74, 84, 88, 93,
96, 98, 139
see also value
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice 50
metaphor 8, 22, 31, 32, 71, 79, 86
metaphysics 2–3, 32, 42, 60, 101, 105, 147, 154,
183
end of 3, 4, 6, 7, 31, 148, 166, 170, 175, 182
overcoming of 2, 3, 6, 174, 177, 179, 180,
182–3, 189
Mill, John Stuart 66
mirroring 81, 82
modernity 1, 29, 32, 33, 35, 58, 60, 141, 161,
169
moment (Augenblick) 97, 98, 99, 168
mood (Stimmung) 8–9, 73
morality 27, 156, 157
mortality, mortals 69, 78, 79, 81
Moses 109, 155
Musil, Robert 9
Nasio, Juan-David 24
Nazis, the 130, 146, 149
Neoplatonism 105, 107
Newton, Isaac 43
nearness 69, 75, 82, 172
Nicholas of Cusa 107, 119, 127, 133, 144
Nietmann, William F. 144
Nietzsche, Friedrich 1, 3, 7–28, 31, 33, 41, 43, 65,
66, 70, 71, 72, 86, 99, 121, 152, 167, 173
nihilism 3, 5, 10–11, 13–14, 15, 22, 23, 34, 37, 86,
88, 173, 174, 175, 179, 185
ontology 34, 70, 148, 154, 168
onto-theology 1–6, 104, 105, 120, 139, 148, 160
openness 84
Othello 57
Other 41, 110, 112, 113, 114, 115, 118, 119, 151, 154,
158, 164
paganism 66, 89, 101
Parmenides 34, 108, 188
Pascal, Blaise 1, 91, 92
Patroclus 106
Paul 13, 41, 134, 135
Peperzak, Adriaan 5
phenomenology 5, 42, 111, 112, 123, 158
philosophy 2–3, 6, 30, 37, 51, 105, 107, 112, 114,
115, 117, 154–6, 157, 162, 166, 169–70, 171,
183–4
analytic 2, 169
ancient, see Greek thought
continental 2, 30, 104
end of 3, 7, 166–7, 169, 182
history of 107, 168, 172, 175
Jewish 151, 153, 154, 155–6
and Judaism 150–1, 156
medieval 120, 159
modern 12, 20, 35, 110–11, 114, 116
and poetry 31
post-modern 114, 117
and religion 4, 33, 34, 36, 41, 107, 150, 151, 158,
160–1
and revelation 6, 150, 152–4
and science 4, 33, 36
social, and sociality 110, 117, 157
Western 107, 110, 114, 148–9, 156, 160
phronimos 129, 130, 131, 134, 144
physis 110, 155
Pinkard, Terry 37
Pippin, Robert 3, 88
Plato 1, 7, 14, 24, 37, 91, 93, 97, 105, 110, 112, 120,
129, 146, 148, 151, 152, 153, 154, 156, 167
Platonism 105, 108, 115, 121, 148, 154
Plotinus 105, 110
post-modernism 93, 105, 114, 117, 147
potentiation 124, 125, 130, 131, 136, 140
praxis 116, 126, 143
prayer 108, 109, 112, 119, 120, 139
presence, presencing 105, 120, 148, 171, 173, 175,
176, 180, 181, 188
pre-Socratics 148
Prometheus 21, 22
Protestantism 65, 147, 158, 160
Proust, Marcel 23, 28
Putnam, Hilary 33
Pynchon, Thomas 18
Raphael 143
real, the 30, 35, 36, 37
real things 78, 79
reflection 88
Reformation 62, 71
religion 29, 33, 104, 108, 116, 149
after metaphysics 3, 160–1, 162
after onto-theology 4, 5, 6
essence of 42
and science 36, 37, 39, 43, 62
see also Christianity, Islam, Judaism
Renan, Ernest 62
resource 4, 70, 72, 74, 75, 78, 79, 82, 83, 88
revelation 149, 151, 152, 153, 156, 157, 159, 160, 162,
172
Ricoeur, Paul 144
Rilke, Rainer Maria 75
romanticism 19, 65
Rorty, Richard 4, 30, 33, 90, 99, 102
194 Index
Rosenzweig, Franz 31, 146
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques 20
Sagan, Carl 56
Said, the (le Dit) 115, 117
Sallis, John 185
salvation 35, 85
history of 35, 43
Sartre, Jean-Paul 13, 103
Scheler, Max 117
Schiller, Friedrich 19, 24, 28
Schleiermacher, Friedrich 40
scholasticism 105, 117
Schopenhauer, Arthur 20
science 2, 8, 30, 33, 49, 52, 54, 55, 57, 66, 169, 174
natural 37, 90
see also religion and science
Scriptures 128, 130, 138, 140, 141, 142, 143, 144
self 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 100, 101, 102
self-consciousness 30, 116, 117
self-overcoming 24
Sheehan, Thomas 148, 157, 164
Silentio, Johannes de 140, 141
see also Kierkegaard, Søren
sky 69, 78, 79, 80, 81
sociality 157, 164
Socrates 13, 15, 23, 24, 153
Sophocles 13
Spinosa, Charles 66, 76, 77, 86
Spinoza, Baruch de 106, 107, 116
spirit 11, 15, 90, 107
stand, taking a 91, 100
Strauss, Leo 6, 146–62, 163, 165
Taylor, Charles 4, 69, 90
technology 4, 36, 69, 77, 80, 83, 86, 88, 101, 148,
169, 170, 174
technological age 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 76, 77, 80
teleology 11, 41
temporal 176
Tennyson, Alfred 18
theism 47
theology 41, 42, 148, 159
thinking 2, 15, 166, 172, 174, 175, 179, 189
Tillich, Paul 38
time 175, 176, 179, 180, 182
Tocqueville, Alexis de 65
totality 2, 48, 110, 112, 114, 116, 119, 120, 170, 187
transcendence 2, 10, 18, 24, 35, 44, 48, 49, 61, 63,
66, 67, 73, 98, 116, 128, 151, 157, 158, 164,
170, 173, 181
Trollope, Anthony 129
truth 10, 11, 29, 32, 41, 42, 43, 126, 178, 186
of being 42
as correspondence 32
as interpretation 34
of religion 155, 158
see also aletheia
Tutu, Desmond 134
unconcealment 2, 78, 173, 181, 186, 188
uncovering 171
universe 55, 57, 63, 107, 112, 113, 114, 116, 117, 120,
140
see also cosmos
unthought 166, 171, 173, 175, 180, 181, 183
value 10, 12–13, 15, 16–17, 22, 49, 51, 71, 73, 75, 113
Vattimo, Gianni 3, 40, 41, 43
Voltaire 63
Vries, Hent de 161
Wagner, Richard 9, 15, 20
Weber, Max 38
weightiness 72–3
see also importance, mattering
Wesley, John 65
withdrawing 143, 171, 174, 175, 181, 189
Wittgenstein, Ludwig 48
Wolterstorff, Nicholas 46
world (Welt) 16, 33, 48, 49, 53, 74, 99, 103
real 116
technological 72, 75, 169
understanding of 4
see also closed world structures, cosmos
Wrathall, Mark 4, 88
Zarathustra 11, 15

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R E L I G I O N A F T E R M E TA P H Y S I C S

How should we understand religion, and what place should it hold, in an age in which metaphysics has come into disrepute? The metaphysical assumptions which supported traditional theologies are no longer widely accepted, but it is not clear how this “end of metaphysics” should be understood, or what implications it ought to have for our understanding of religion. At the same time there is renewed interest in the sacred and the divine in disciplines as varied as philosophy, psychology, literature, history, anthropology, and cultural studies. In this volume, leading philosophers in the United States and Europe address the decline of metaphysics and the space which this decline has opened for non-theological understandings of religion. The contributors are Richard Rorty, Charles Taylor, Jean-Luc Marion, Gianni Vattimo, Hubert L. Dreyfus, Robert Pippin, John D. Caputo, Adriaan Peperzak, Leora Batnitzky, and Mark A. Wrathall. m a rk a . w r at h a l l is Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy, Brigham Young University, Utah. He has published articles in a number of journals and has contributed to books in the Cambridge Companions to Philosophy series. He is co-editor of Appropriating Heidegger (2000), Heidegger, Authenticity, and Modernity (2000), and Heidegger, Coping, and Cognitive Science (2000).

RELIGION AFTER METAPHYSICS e d i t e d by MARK A. WRATHALL .

Cambridge  . Subject to statutory exception and to the provision of relevant collective licensing agreements. and does not guarantee that any content on such websites is.org Information on this title: www. Cape Town. accurate or appropriate. São Paulo Cambridge University Press The Edinburgh Building. . Singapore. Madrid.cambridge.org/9780521824989 © Cambridge University Press 2003 This book is in copyright.   Cambridge. First published in print format 2003 -  isbn-13 978-0-511-06241-4 eBook (NetLibrary) -  isbn-10 0-511-06241-9 eBook (NetLibrary) -  isbn-13 978-0-521-82498-9 hardback -  isbn-10 0-521-82498-2 hardback - 978-0-521-53196-2 paperback isbn-13  -  isbn-10 0-521-53196-9 paperback Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of s for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this book.cambridge. Melbourne. United Kingdom Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press. New York www. or will remain. New York. no reproduction of any part may take place without the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

Contents List of contributors Preface 1 2 3 4 5 6 Introduction: metaphysics and onto-theology Mark A. Wrathall page vi vii 1 7 29 37 47 Love and death in Nietzsche Robert Pippin After onto-theology: philosophy between science and religion Gianni Vattimo Anti-clericalism and atheism Richard Rorty Closed world structures Charles Taylor Between the earth and the sky: Heidegger on life after the death of God Mark A. Dreyfus 88 104 123 146 166 190 8 9 10 11 Religion after onto-theology? Adriaan Peperzak The experience of God and the axiology of the impossible John D. Caputo Jewish philosophy after metaphysics Leora Batnitzky The “end of metaphysics” as a possibility Jean-Luc Marion Index v . Wrathall 69 7 Christianity without onto-theology: Kierkegaard’s account of the self’s movement from despair to bliss Hubert L.

lu c m a r i o n . University of Chicago r i c h a rd ro rt y. University of California – Berkeley j e a n . c a p u to. Princeton University j o h n d . McGill University g i a n n i vat t i m o.Contributors l e o r a b at n i t z k y. d rey f u s. Villanova University h u b e rt l . University of Turin m a rk a . Loyola University Chicago ro b e rt p i p p i n. w r at h a l l. Universit´ de Paris I – Sorbonne e a d r i a a n pe pe r z a k. Stanford University c h a r l e s tay lo r. Brigham Young University vi .

Andy West. Andrew Skinner. Katie Treharne. Van Gessel. Ron Woods. I am indebted in particular to Alan Wilkins. It was Bert Dreyfus who provided the inspiration for this project. and I am grateful to him for the many conversations and correspondences we have had on the subject. James Olsen.Preface I would like to thank Julie Lund. and Katie Treharne for their contributions to the conference. vii . Many people and entities at Brigham Young University contributed time and resources in support of the conference out of which this volume has grown. Dennis Rasmussen. and James Faulconer for their invaluable help in the preparation of the typescript of this book.

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” as it figured in that title. philosophers in the West have proposed various conceptions of a supreme being that was the ground of the existence and intelligibility of all that is. These thinkers argue that the absence of a foundational God opens up access to richer and more relevant ways for us to understand creation and for us to encounter the divine and the sacred. and the idea of metaphysics and “onto-theology. In any event. 2001. most contemporary thinkers agree with him that the metaphysical understanding of God is no longer believable. however. In the works of St. Isaac. A note is in order about the title of this volume. the death of the philosopher’s God may have provided us with new and more authentic possibilities for understanding religion that were blocked by traditional metaphysical theology (or onto-theology). But several of the most distinguished thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – for example. this metaphysical god became identified with the Judeo-Christian creator God. Utah in July. is not itself a disaster. and even the loss of belief in a creator God who produced the heaven and the earth. Augustine (and perhaps before).” This volume grew out of a conference entitled “Religion after Onto-Theology. by the time that Nietzsche announced “the death of God. In modernity. Wrathall 1 Since Plato. was popularized by Heidegger as a catch-phrase for the failings of the metaphysical tradition 1 .” it was clear that something important had changed in the form of life prevailing in the West. Søren Kierkegaard.” which was held at Sundance. Martin Heidegger. and Nietzsche himself – held that the loss of belief in a metaphysical god that is the ground of all existence and intelligibility. The term “onto-theology. Whether Nietzsche’s actual diagnosis of the change is right. Fyodor Dostoevsky. the philosopher’s foundationalist conception of God has become increasingly implausible.chapter 1 Introduction: metaphysics and onto-theology Mark A. and Jacob. The decline of the metaphysical God was perhaps first noted when Pascal declared that the God of the philosophers was not the God of Abraham. Thus.

A central problem of that conference. is understanding the consequences of the demise of the metaphysical tradition for thinking about religion. the analytical “elimination” of metaphysics through logical analysis and deference to the empirical sciences could. according to Heidegger. for it always represents beings (Àν) only with an eye to that aspect of them that has already manifested itself as being (¨€ Àν). inductive science. it is by its very essence excluded from the experience of Being. philosophers in both the analytic and continental traditions became concerned to free philosophical inquiry from the dominance of “metaphysics. only lead to a deeper entanglement in metaphysics.” This means that metaphysics tried to understand the being of everything that is through a simultaneous determination of its essence or most universal trait (the “onto” in “onto-theology”).”1 For Heidegger (and the continental philosophers influenced by him). . and mathematical modes of thought is. because all metaphysics took the form of “ontotheology. w r at h a l l in philosophy. for it tries to understand the transcendental ground of all beings as a transcendent being. This amounts. scientific.”2 According to Heidegger. thereby obstructing our relationship with the divine.”4 Heidegger argues that the onto-theological structure of metaphysical inquiry has had deleterious effects on both philosophy and theology: it has prevented philosophy from thinking about being as something that is not itself a being. according to Heidegger. the error of the metaphysical tradition consisted in its striving for an “alleged knowledge of the essence of things which transcends the realm of empirically founded. In the twentieth century. Indeed. an “alleged knowledge of the essence of things” – one in which beings are best represented in logical and mathematical terms – which fails to ask about the foundation of this understanding of being. the result of the prevailing metaphysical understanding of being.3 In “The Onto-Theo-Logical Constitution of Metaphysics. all metaphysical philosophy was essentially oblivious to being.2 m a rk a . For the analytic.” The oddity of these parallel calls for the “overcoming of metaphysics” lies in the fact that the analytic and the continental camps saw one other as the main culprit in the continuation of metaphysical modes of inquiry. and it has misconstrued the nature of God. But metaphysics never pays attention to what has concealed itself in this very Àν insofar as it became unconcealed. and a determination of the ground or source of the totality of beings in some highest or divine entity (the “theo” in “onto-theology”). and consequently of this book. on the other hand. in fact. Heidegger believed that a central trait of metaphysical thought is a preoccupation with beings and a failure to ask properly about their being: “As metaphysics. This is because the dominance of logical. to a profound confusion.

the concern is not primarily with metaphysics as a speculative. that of inspiring enough desire and longing to sustain life itself. is onto-theology something that we should want to overcome? What does unite the essays in this volume is an interest in the state of religion in an age in which metaphysics has come into disrepute. the death of the onto-theological God needs to be understood in terms of the impossibility of believing in an .” unable even to long for the God that is absent. That is to say. Nietzsche’s declaration of the death of God. as Robert Pippin notes. Pippin argues.” which has rendered us “pale atheists.) 2 Reflection on religion after metaphysics. “has come to represent and sum up not just the unbelievability of God in the late modern world. 7 below). For Gianni Vattimo.5 or. the project of overcoming metaphysics cannot be accomplished through logical or conceptual analysis. In the face of the widespread pale atheism that characterizes the modern age. And whatever their opinion of Heidegger’s critique of onto-theology. In thinking about the important changes in the forms of existence that once supported metaphysical theology. and one can find them disagreeing on issues such as: is it indeed the case that all philosophy is “always” metaphysical /onto-theological?. then. or even. that the central focus of Nietzsche’s claim is a certain “loss of desire. and his account of the history of nihilism and the death of God. or even the end of philosophy itself” (see p. however.Introduction: metaphysics and onto-theology 3 It is worth observing that the contributors to this volume are anything but unanimous in their assessment of the details of Heidegger’s critique of ontotheology. (See Jean-Luc Marion’s analysis in the final chapter of this volume. In the Heideggerian tradition. the challenge for us after the death of God is. needs to be understood in terms of thought about the place of religion in an age where the understanding of being that legitimized certain traditional modes of conceptualizing the sacred and the divine is called into question. the end of metaphysics. but the ‘death’ of a Judeo-Christian form of moral life. but with metaphysics as an obliviousness to the understanding of being that governs an age. the natural starting point is Nietzsche’s work. the contributors all tend to think about metaphysics along the lines projected by Heidegger. what precisely is the failing of onto-theological metaphysics?. or the unsuccessful attempt to end metaphysics. non-empirical mode of inquiry. on this view. on the other hand. but only through an openness to the way that an understanding of being comes to prevail. rather than along the lines of the analytic opposition to metaphysics.

Heidegger believes that the only hope for salvation from the dangers of technology is a life attuned to the fourfold of earth. Rorty hopes. Charles Taylor. typified by Rorty’s chapter. Mark Wrathall reviews Heidegger’s diagnosis of the ills of contemporary technological society in terms of the reduction of all the things which once mattered to us or made demands on us to mere resources. the challenge facing a religion after ontotheology is that of reviving the possibility of having a direct relation to the divine. sky.” The predominant world structures tend to “occult or blank out the transcendent” (p. religion. Rorty argues that religion remains a kind of “unjustifiable nostalgia. The next two chapters in the volume explore this vision of a nononto-theological God as the basis for responses to contemporary pragmatic dismissals of religion. Taylor argues that the marginalization of religious practices. w r at h a l l objective truth or a uniquely valid language or paradigm for understanding the world. and science. argues that the contemporary West is characterized by the progressive fracturing of a unified understanding of being into a multiplicity of “world structures. Without this metaphysical belief in an objective and universal foundation – that is. with the end of metaphysics – Vattimo argues that there is now room for a “truce” between philosophy.4 m a rk a . when recognized as such. and divinities. and thus marginalize religious practices and modes of discourse. Some of the authors see the failure of onto-theology in the way it strips the divine of all personal attributes. A relation to the divine. On this reading of the onto-theological tradition. 40). It should be apparent by now that there is considerable room for disagreement over the nature of the death of the philosopher’s God and the direction in which Western culture is moving. however. mortals. should yield to a more open stance toward religious forms of life. leaves us free to respond to the core of the Judeo-Christian message. we can eventually learn to live. 66). Richard Rorty agrees with Vattimo in reading the end of onto-theology as the end of a certain metaphysical universalism in religion. in turn. there are also sharply contrasting views of what was wrong with the metaphysical account of God. thus taking religion out of the “epistemic arena” (p. But in contrast to Vattimo. rather than seeing in our history a uniform and inevitable progress of secularization. is based on an “over-hasty naturalization” which. As the next set of essays demonstrates. the divine no longer is able to have the kind of presence within the world necessary to give our lives worth.” without which. If God is made the transcendental ground of the world and of all intelligibility. on the . This. thereby turning God into the God of the philosophers.

Caputo suggests. is “the One who cannot be caught by any categorical or conceptual grasp” (p. with the God-man who is finite and temporal” (p.” Peperzak sees the work of Levinas as a basis for a “retrieval of the onto-theo-logical project” (pp. 107). “Kierkegaard has succeeded in saving Christianity from onto-theology by replacing the creator God. Unlike Heidegger. because he sees it as the inevitable consequence of the onto-theological tradition. Peperzak and Caputo understand the limitations of onto-theology in terms of a reduction of God to a being about whom we could come to have a pretension of theoretical clarity. Dreyfus argues. Kierkegaard accepts the futility of resisting the nihilism apparent in the levelling of all meaningful distinctions. Caputo argues that. The end of onto-theology thus holds out the promise of an authentic relationship to an incomprehensible God. 112) of thinking God simultaneously as a person to whom we can relate and as that which makes all relations possible – in Heideggerian terms. to think God simultaneously as a being and Being. 129).Introduction: metaphysics and onto-theology 5 Heideggerian account. who is metaphysically infinite and eternal. to recognize that God has a kind of majesty and incomprehensibility that we do not find in intra-worldly beings. after ontotheology. . by “responding to the call” of a “defining commitment” (p. that is. according to Kierkegaard. The hope for religion after onto-theology is. we can engage in a phenomenology of the experience of God. has shown us the only way to get the factors together and thus escape from despair: namely. which. 110. The failing of onto-theology. but a necessary part of a life worth living in the technological age. whose nature could be categorized. for these authors. Christianity. While agreeing that the onto-theological attempts at trying to get a conceptual grasp of God “have (at least partially) failed. Hubert Dreyfus explores the Kierkegaardian response to the nihilism of the present age. Peperzak notes. But rather than seeing this as destroying the possibility for an authentic relationship to the divine. onto-theology obstructed access to an authentic experience of the divine by making God a being who could be understood. 96). is a phenomenology of the experience of the impossible. was that it was unable to entertain the possibility of the impossible. and whose existence could be proved. Kierkegaard sees it as clearing the way for us to confront our despair at being unable to unify the seemingly contradictory factors in human existence. 101). and thus it “tended to keep a metaphysical lid on experience” (p. he argues. God. is thus not just a matter of personal preference. In this way. Rather than seeing the failing of onto-theology in terms of its failure to admit the possibility of encountering God within the world. That is.

Marion argues.” in Logical Positivism.” Nietzsche. 1969). 2. 5. Heidegger.’ ” in Pathmarks. Instead. William McNeill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. needs to be pursued if there is to be a “radical overcoming” of metaphysics. ed. Ill. 155). And. Marion brings us back to the general question of the possibilities available for thought at the end of metaphysics – a central issue which. motivates every other chapter in this volume. If the revelation contained in the Bible “is not concerned with the ontotheological status of God” (p. n ot e s 1. Gesamtausgabe. but hesitates before the possibility of. 1959). “The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language. then the philosophical appropriation of the revelation cannot be understood as articulating the metaphysical essentialism implicit in the revelation. ed. 4. 88. iv. Batnitzky suggests that the task for us is to think through the possibilities for a philosophical but nonmetaphysical account of ethics and politics – an account which must be grounded in the revelation if it is to “defend morality to humanity at large” (p. in a volume by philosophers on the topic of religion after onto-theology. See “Nihilism as Determined by the History of Being. A. 210–11. vol. It is this opening that. Leora Batnitzky reviews the work of Leo Strauss and Emmanuel Levinas in terms of their efforts to articulate the relation between philosophy and revelation. Joan Stambaugh (University of Chicago Press. w r at h a l l Of course. In Identity and Difference. a recurring theme in many of the chapters is the question of the kind of philosophical inquiry appropriate to post-onto-theological religious experience. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper & Row. In the final chapter. 155). Marion explores the nature of Heidegger’s critique of metaphysics. 1988). ed. J. . 288. Rudolf Carnap. p. 3. pp. more or less self-consciously. and his enduring effort to think through the end of metaphysics. the nature of post-metaphysical philosophy is at least as much in issue as the nature of post-metaphysical religion. Ayer (Glencoe. Schelling: Vom Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit. opens the horizon of. p. “Introduction to ‘What is Metaphysics?. 80. Martin Heidegger. 1998). 1982). trans. The last essays in this book address this problem directly. xlii (Frankfurt-on-Main: Klostermann. p.: Free Press. overcoming metaphysics in and through a thought of the donation – the giving of a clearing by “something other than being” (p. 183). vol. not surprisingly.6 m a rk a . Heidegger. Marion argues.

and that all must bear the burden of guilt (for centuries) for this horrible murder.2 The announcement is made by a crazy man who carries a lantern in the daylight.” The Collected Poems [New York: Vintage. “Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction: It Must be Abstract. Yet the passage is also quite mysterious and suggests a number of interpretive problems. There was a project for the sun and is. but the “death” of a Judeo-Christian form of moral life. der tolle Mensch. 1990]. ephebe. Like other famous images in philosophy. or even the end of philosophy itself. There is a project for the sun. 381) Section 125 of Nietzsche’s The Gay Science is justifiably famous. The very idea of a death or end to a form of life (rather than a refutation or enlightenment) is worth considerable attention in itself. who proclaims that God is dead. that we all collectively have killed him.chapter 2 Love and death in Nietzsche Robert Pippin Phoebus is dead. It has come to represent and sum up not just the unbelievability of God in the late modern world. but the literary details of this little drama are even more striking. gold flourisher. it is perhaps the most famous passage in all of Nietzsche. promptly begins his prophetic activity anew and with more 7 . or the unsuccessful attempt to end metaphysics. seeks a God who he clearly knows does not exist. The sun Must bear no name. the passage has taken on a life of its own quite independent of its place and function in what may be Nietzsche’s most beautiful and best-thought-out book. but be In the difficulty of what it is to be. Nietzsche introduces a character. and after proclaiming that the time for such an announcement is not right and that he will not be understood. the crazy man. But Phoebus was A name for something that never could be named. like Plato’s cave or Descartes’s evil genius or Kant’s island of truth surrounded by seas of illusion. p. (Wallace Stevens. the end of metaphysics.1 In it.

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intensity, breaking into churches and screaming his message. (He is clearly crazy, but in what sense is he crazy?3 ) The announcement itself suggests a kind of insanity. On the face of it, the announcement that “God is dead” is, even metaphorically, opaque. If there had been a god, we could not have killed him. If we could have killed him, he could not have been a god. If “God” existed only as a constructed object of belief, a kind of collective “illusion” in Freud’s famous claim, then exposing this illusion might be unsettling and make for much anxiety; and afterwards, it might be impossible to return to the same illusion, but the content of such unease could not be about a “death,” or, especially, guilt at having “caused” it, even if one reads the claim metaphorically. (One interpretation might be “we destroyed the old illusion that there was a god.” If that were the literal meaning, the only guilt relevant would have to be guilt at having allowed ourselves to be so deceived, and could not be guilt at ending the delusion.) Indeed, Nietzsche himself provides, in his own voice, not the voice of a persona, a much simpler gloss on the claim and one far different in tone. He explains in section 343 that “The greatest recent event – that ‘God is dead’” should simply be taken to mean “that the belief in the Christian God has become unworthy of belief.”4 So, the oddness of the language in section 125 itself, and Nietzsche’s own very different gloss (especially since the theme of the later passage in Book 5 is “cheerfulness,” not guilt), directs our attention to the contrasting uncheerful, indeed morbid, tone of the first passage, the famous locus classicus often cited as Nietzsche’s own “belief ” that “God is dead.” (Cheerfulness [Heiterkeit] is the important issue here because the most important interpretive question at stake is the possibility of a “joyous science” [fr¨hliche Wissenschaft] and so not nihilism and guilt.) But it would seem o that Nietzsche is trying most of all to draw attention to, rather than express or identify with, the “melancholic” tone, both of the announcement and perhaps of the coming culture of melancholy – the tone appropriate to the belief that a kind of death has occurred, that we were responsible, and that this death results only in some unbearable, frightening absence. So one extraordinary feature of the history of the reception of the passage is that what seems clearly to be a kind of symptom of a modern pathology, for which Nietzsche wants a diagnosis, is often taken as the diagnosis of the modern “orientation” or mood itself! Indeed, I have tried to show elsewhere that Nietzsche is here anticipating Freud’s famous distinction between mourning and melancholy in reaction to a loss or trauma, suggesting that the madman’s madness is this kind of melancholic obsession with what has been lost, complete with its narcissistic assumption of grandiose

Love and death in Nietzsche

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responsibility, lurid details of murder and blood and guilt, and repetitive compulsion.5 Freud famously contrasts the genuine work of mourning, in which the loss of a loved one, or a disappointed expectation or rejection, is finally acknowledged (something that also presupposes that the genuine separateness of the person or the independence of the world is also acknowledged), so that one’s libido can be redirected then to other such objects; and the absence of such work for the melancholic, whose world is so narcissistic that he believes that he could not have been left, even while, also out of such narcissism, he also believes that he must have been somehow responsible for the loss. Both reactions deny the separateness and independence of the other and so deny the other’s death, preserving in unovercomeable grief (which Freud points out must be as constantly and repetitively exhibited and staged as the madman’s) a kind of morbid living presence of the other and the continuing importance of the subject. It is this pathology, perhaps the typical pathology of a “modernist” culture of melancholia (Dostoevsky, Musil, Kafka, Beckett), likewise inspired by a type of narcissism, that Nietzsche precisely wants to avoid with his gaya scienza. (Nietzsche’s name for such an illness is as often “romanticism” as melancholy. He links both in some of his remarks on Brahms and Wagner, saying of the former that “his is the melancholy of incapacity; he does not create out of an abundance; he languishes for abundance”6 and that it is when Brahms “mourns” for himself that he is “modern.” This distinction between desire as a lack – and the death of God as a new lack – and desire as abundance, excess – and so the death of God as freeing such generosity – will emerge frequently in what follows.) The most significant feature of the passage, for our purposes in this volume, concerns what Nietzsche appears to think the appropriate response to this announcement should be. In setting the context for the announcement, especially the audience to whom it is made, Nietzsche goes out of his way to suggest that what we normally regard as “atheism” is far too simplistic a description of what it would be truly to “incorporate” this truth. The opening passage describes, as the madman’s audience, a group of people who “did not believe in God” and, when they hear the madman proclaim that he seeks God, jeer sarcastically and joke, “Has he got lost?” “Did he lose his way like a child?” “Is he hiding?” “Is he afraid of us?” “Has he gone on a voyage?” But if the madman is mad, these jeering atheists are clearly portrayed, as they are elsewhere in Nietzsche, as thoughtless, smug, self-satisfied boors. In other passages, Nietzsche’s Homeric epithet for such atheists is “pale atheists,” suggesting this lack of vitality or even sickness.

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(Thus we need to understand why, if the death of God signals a general end to the possibility of transcendence, religion, morally significant truth, and so forth, the successor culture would not simply have to be a culture of such pale [joking, ironic] atheists.)7 If Nietzsche wants to suggest that the madman is pathologically wrong to treat the absence of God as a loss, wrong to take on the burden of a self-lacerating guilt, he seems just as dissatisfied with these village atheist types who are too easily satisfied with a secular materialism and so do not understand the aspirations and ideals Nietzsche elsewhere treats as “a condition of life.” So my question will be, why does Nietzsche treat these self-satisfied atheists this way? What are they missing? What does Nietzsche want us to understand by his rejecting both the notion of a now absent God and the stance of what appears to be straightforward, Enlightenment atheism? In his own terms, this means understanding why a life guided by the “old values” is just as impossible as a life guided by “no values,” or why a “transvaluation,” an “Umwertung,” of all values is what is now necessary and what it would be like. This question already reflects Nietzsche’s earlier way of posing it in The Birth of Tragedy: the unbelievability of monotheism in no way necessarily ushers in the age of a-theism, the anti-religion of “last men.” (In The Birth of Tragedy a modern “polytheism” still seemed possible to Nietzsche.) That dogmatic anti-dogma (atheism) is hard to understand as a way of life, he often suggests, as in this evocative passage from The Gay Science:
We are, in a word – and it should be our word of honor – good Europeans, the heirs of Europe, the rich, well-endowed, but also over-rich, obligated heirs of centuries of European spirit: as such also those who have grown up and away from Christianity, and just because we have awakened from it, because our forebears were Christians from an unreflective sense of the righteousness of Christianity, who willingly for their faith sacrificed blood, position and fatherland for it. We – do the same. But for what? For our lack of faith? For a kind of disbelief? No, you know better than that, my friends. The hidden yes in you is stronger than all the no’s and perhaps from which you and your age are sick; and if you have to sail the seas, you wanderer, something also compels you to do so – a faith!8

Nietzsche’s most comprehensive term for the historical and psychological situation that in the present age requires this “transvaluation of values” after “the death of God” is “nihilism.” But here again the surface meaning of these claims about what necessitates a transvaluation has suggested many different sorts of provocations and so raises questions about how Nietzsche wants us to understand at the most general level the conditions possible now (without “God,” in all senses of the term) for the success of that activity

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he seemed to treat as identical to a distinctly human living: esteeming (sch¨ tzen), valuing. (“Man,” Zarathustra says, means “esteemer.”9 ) a On the one hand, the problem of nihilism can look like a problem of knowledge, or at least reasonable belief. What had once seemed known, or worthy of belief, now seems a “lie,” “unworthy of belief.” A typical version of this view of nihilism as a crisis of knowledge or reasonable belief is the following from the Nachlass:
What has happened, at bottom? The feeling of valuelessness was reached with the realization that the overall character of existence may not be interpreted by means of the concept of “aim,” the concept of “unity,” or the concept of “truth.” Existence has no goal or end; any comprehensive unity in the plurality of events is lacking; the character of existence is not true, is false. One simply lacks any reason for convincing oneself that there is a true world.10

Such calmly cognitivist terms suggest an anthropologist watching the disenchanting enlightenment of a primitive tribe, and so appeal to such double-edged enlightenment as the best explanation for how we have come to be the first civilization that must live self-consciously without any confidence that we “know” what civilized life is for, without “the truth.”11 On the other hand, especially when Nietzsche is trying to draw a distinction between what he calls a passive and an active nihilism, what we have come to claim to know or to believe, while important, is not the whole or the chief issue. “Active” nihilism is interpreted as a “sign of increased power of the spirit”; “passive” nihilism as “decline and recession of the power of spirit.”12 In passages like these, Nietzsche is more likely to say that nihilism results when we are threatened with the impossibility of willing at all, of fulfilling the conditions necessary for decision and commitment – “value.” We choose instead to try to regard ourselves as willing “nothing,” as bravely insisting on such an absence, and so are able to construe the realization as a result of our “active” self-enlightenment, righteousness, and honesty, and not a passive, merely endured fate. Indeed, many of the passages that seem to appeal to worthiness of belief alone as the source of the crisis conclude by suggesting instead that nihilism is at bottom a matter of strength or weakness of will. The “feeling of valuelessness” passage just quoted above concludes by saying that the categories “which we used to project some value into the world, we pull out again; so the world looks valueless.”13 The force of these passages suggests a familiar skeptical attitude about the practical implications of any such putative intellectual enlightenment. For one thing, the emerging modern consensus in European high culture about the disenchantment of nature, skepticism about teleology, and a spreading

and things of that sort – and then suppose that they have criticized the morality itself. Even if a morality has grown out of an error. The justifiability of a belief is. They dogmatically believe that the absence of . It has seemed to many modern philosophers that such an addition must be a kind of subjective reaction – an outpouring of sympathy. the strength or weakness of the theoretical claim about “what there is” is not itself an independent factor in such commitments. the stirring of a passion – and therewith an imposition or projection of a “value” as an embrace or rejection of some situation. claims about value do not. the superstition of free will. motivationally or practically inert. it is extremely unlikely that belief in any such first principle of value or objective moral order originally or subsequently played any decisive role in commitment to a value or in keeping faith with it. according to Nietzsche. as assertions about the facts. in special circumstances it may become so). and partially realize a commitment. on their own. it is experienced as something-that-must-be-overcome. Acting is negating what there is.12 ro b e rt p i p p i n atheism are all. for Nietzsche. “thou shalt” is still fundamentally different from and independent of such opinions about it and the weeds of error that may have overgrown it – just as certainly as the value of a medication for a sick person is completely independent of whether he thinks about medicine scientifically or the way old women do. This is not Nietzsche’s position. the realization of this fact would not as much as touch the problem of its value. He is quite explicit about this in The Gay Science: The mistake made by the more refined among them [among the modern historians of morality] is that they uncover and criticize the perhaps foolish opinions of a people about morality. or some objective ideal or divine legislator. or of humanity about all human morality – opinions about its origin. not one of the practically necessary conditions of value (although. enact. (This is partly the problem with our pale atheists. not merely noted.14 For another thing. as we shall see. common human nature. but express. Accounting for – giving a genealogy of – such commitments (and the various conditions necessary for these to serve as ways of life) can never be completed by an inventory of theoretical beliefs. something else must always be added. religious sanction. in itself. But the value of a command. in such acts of valuing. Acting in the light of this unacceptability is “acting for a value. contra the cognitivist formulations. and so presumes some sort of experience where some state of affairs becomes unacceptable. natural law. This is so because.” and what we are in effect looking for is the source and meaning of such unacceptability in the absence of any notion of a natural completion or telos. a recoil in pain. report the discovery of moral facts. but for now we need only note that while we can base reasons to act or to undertake commitments on such beliefs.

what sustains it and the sacrifices it calls for. civilizations should be understood as collectively projected and sustained fantasies of value and importance. and courage. According to this latter Nietzsche. they involve this problem of value. the flickering out of some erotic flame. decay. resolve. fantasies that have an essentially psychological origin16 and a kind of organic “life” and “death” in unceasing repetitions. power. fiercely resistant to all doctrine. and perhaps the most intuitive metonymy of failed desire – boredom. the philosopher of will and rhetoric looks like a doctrinalist malgr´ lui. and so forth. some such value-legislator. St. Noting how often and with what significance Nietzsche refers to life and the “perspective of life” as the issue of an erotic striving. Socrates. the tension between those who focus on a doctrinal Nietzsche. Goethe.)15 This duality (treating nihilism as a problem either of belief or of will power) is of a piece with a more familiar. what makes possible the origination of such a wanting. illness. is found. not able to keep from asserting a doctrine about rhetoric e and rhetoricality. they focus on the problem of strong and weak will. as a matter of luck. much more literary Nietzsche. and those who insist on a wholly rhetorical. And so too the familiar dialectic in understanding Nietzsche: the doctrinalists or naturalists or metaphysicians of the will to power look too close to the dogmatists Nietzsche clearly sweepingly rejects (they still evince a na¨ve confidence in ı the value of truth). that a “faith” of sorts can be made of this denial.) Since whatever else nihilism and the death of God involve. What I want to suggest at this point is that we treat the phenomenon of nihilism in a way closer to Nietzsche’s images and figures and tropes. but a failure of desire. or Nietzsche. what does “touch the problem” of value? The passages we have been citing suggest strength of will.Love and death in Nietzsche 13 God in itself matters. is a reflection of some other lack or need or fear unthought by the atheists. casts a completely different light on the nature of . many of which were cited at the outset here: images of death. their being atheists. the absence of tension. periodically requiring some new master rhetorician and fantasy maker. These images suggest that the problem of nihilism does not consist in a failure of knowledge or a failure of will. It mattering to them. a Sophocles. Paul. a “sleep” of the spirit (he sometimes claims that what is needed now is an ability to dream without having to sleep). Every so often. and have long been part of the canon of quotations cited in “existentialist” readings of Nietzsche (of a Kierkegaardian “leap” or Sartrean “condemned to freedom” variety. with radically new answers to traditional problems. then. very general tension in interpretations of Nietzsche: that is.

whatever counts as “maximizing power”) than there is to assume that one by nature cares about avoiding a violent death. Plato.” and as oriented everywhere by the unavoidability and severity of human conflict. for the sake of some end. But even the surface of these claims is suspiciously simplistic. hypocritically ignore. will make men milder. and that whatever mildness ensues will just be the result of such sheeplike submission to the power of the herd itself. Modern liberalism and socialism assume that the growth of technological power over nature and the spread of intellectual enlightenment. and so forth. less visible oppression than consensus (a herd society). This is not an easy case to make because Nietzsche is famous as a philosopher of “the will. negation. and so forth. or subjecting them to one’s will. especially enlightenment about the death of God and the futility and eventually unbearable expense of sectarian war. enhance the possibility of overlapping consensus and compromise. in some other sense. The famous will to power is always applied purposively. Nietzsche is taken to hold that this is a fatuous delusion. to assume that one by nature cares about “maximizing power” (whatever that is supposed to mean. like liberalism. like the Christian religion and morality. grow and which they express (Christianity being essentially a slave revolt against Roman power). It frames all the issues differently. or about having as commodious a life as possible. This is supposed to be the ur-phenomenon out of which various reactive institutions. . and these ends reflect a striving. and simple desire not at all reflected in the official Nietzsche (the philosopher of the will). By contrast. and they make clear how much closer he stands to his great opponent. especially since the failure of desire can be baffling. and so the eternal unavoidability of an exclusive disjunction: either being subject to the will of others. we ever “want” to happen. that it is far more likely that there will be massive and voluntary subordination and more subtle. victory in a conflict is struggle and victory for the sake of something one cares about. or about being recognized as an equal. in Nietzsche’s philosophical universe. as mysterious as the issue of how one might address such a failure. not something that. and which modern institutions. and there is no more a priori entitlement. One seeks power to effect an end one cares about. quite mysterious. But these erotic images are well known in the textual or actual Nietzsche. The primary phenomenon for a Nietzschean is supposed to be such basic conflict and struggle for power.14 ro b e rt p i p p i n the “death of God” or nihilism crisis and on what Nietzsche regards as a possible way out of it.

whose main claim to knowledge was of erotics. why we now strive for it. the Gay Science as a book is so important because it represents the first concentrated presentation of some affirmative post-philosophical activity.20 (All such that Nietzsche is also inherently claiming as his subject the one thing Socrates ever claimed to know something about – eros. is a new way of thinking about value. “Truth is a woman.17 Zarathustra “goes under” because “he loves man”. troubadours. he goes on. after Nietzsche had abandoned the so-called “romantic” fantasy of a Wagnerian revival.” and philosophers are clumsy lovers. with its evocao tion of the gai saber.”21 In the preface to Beyond Good and Evil. Indeed. and why that goal has become important. but at the heart of that question is the erotic issue. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra. and often opposition to and dissatisfaction with. “Alas the time is coming when man will no longer shoot the arrow of his longing beyond man. the question at issue in such engagement is always the question of value. There is now to be some new form of reflective engagement with the world and others.’”22 This latter formulation coincides with a wonderfully lapidary expression in The Gay Science. A gay science. but one intelligible only if we understand its unique goal. for deeds. there will your heart be also. In discussing “those millions of young Europeans who cannot endure their boredom and themselves. Zarathustra announces the advent of nihilism as an erotic problem. the “democratic enlightenment” also sought to “unbend” such a bow. he notes that our long struggle with. gaya scienza. and all of this somehow is what the gai saber knows. and the string of his bow will have forgotten how to whir. at the beginnings of all three of Nietzsche’s bestknown books.” But.Love and death in Nietzsche 15 than to Hobbes or Machiavelli (who both accept a modern and so naturalistic account of the pulls and pushes of the passions). Some of the erotic images repeat. has created a “magnificent tension of the spirit the like of which had never yet existed on earth: with so tense a bow we can now shoot for the most distant goals. our own moral tradition.”19 And there are the rich associations of The Gay Science. or warrior-poets who produce essentially lyrics or love poems. to “bring it about that the spirit would no longer experience itself so easily as a ‘need. Die fr¨hliche Wissenschaft itself. these images occur quite prominently.” he notes that they would even welcome “a craving to suffer” and so “to find in their suffering a probable reason for action.”23 ) (One of his most striking formulations of the o .) In fact. a new kind of thinking activity and therewith valuing. become like motifs in Nietzsche’s work.” In sum: “neediness is needed!” (“Not ist n¨ tig. in other words. European Christianity.18 “where your treasure is.

Rendering a possible state of character or society actually valuable would be being able somehow to render it desirable. It would be to be able to create a longing for such an object. been wholly ignored. all such considerations of what Nietzsche is after start much too far downstream. since no subject. they are often folded into a general discussion of Nietzsche’s views on the body. as judge of the world who in the end places existence itself upon his scales and finds it wanting – the monstrous insipidity of this pose has finally come home to us and we are sick of it. revealed law. despair that we. the image of a world discovered to be intrinsically valueless. thereby calling for the spontaneous creation and injection of value by creative subjects.”26 Passages about eros and about the worldliness of eros have not. etc. without God.) But from the “erotic” point of view. and thereby provoking a kind of crisis of conscience (nihilism). We laugh as soon as we encounter the juxtaposition of “man and world.” of man as a “world-negating” principle. but. could do that without the traditional props (nature. neo-Humean readings of Nietzsche on value): The whole pose of “man against the world.16 ro b e rt p i p p i n death of desire occurs in Ecce Homo. Truth. (This is the most frequent combination of the cognitive and volitional elements noted above. or to find others in whom a possible spark of such longing could be found and fanned. finite creatures that we are.). a world where already some intense dissatisfaction can be balanced by an aspiration at home in that very world. And there is no particular reason not to see this emphasis on constant. of course. lovable enough to inspire as well as frustrate. Any such desire can only be found and inspired and sustained in a certain sort of world. as alluded to above. in other words.”24 ) Attending to this erotic problem in Nietzsche should also help free us from the grip of the image that has probably the greatest hold on the imagination of Nietzsche’s modern readers. powerfully motivating. and what he often refers to as the problem of instincts. the frail. human longing (or the enervating experience of its failure) as an aspect of what Nietzsche talks about elsewhere as instinctual forces . could simply inject such erotic value “into” the world from a position “outside it” like this. of man as the measure of the value of things. a world. when he notes what is happening to us as “one error after another is coolly placed on ice. however strong-willed. his supposed naturalism. Such a possibility is hard to imagine.” separated by the sublime presumption of the little word “and.25 Consider this summation of the issue (a passage that also renders pretty irrelevant most of Heidegger’s Auseinandersetzung with Nietzsche as well as the subjectivist/projection. the ideal is not refuted – it freezes to death.

long. those hopes for resolution and completion and redemption: . On the other hand. not only a clear. but it is forever impossible to formulate what would ultimately satisfy such a polymorphic longing. but also the desire to look beyond itself and to seek with all its might for a higher self as yet still concealed from it. and clarity. or power. too many possibilities). and self-contemptuous view of itself. instinctual striving to render suffering meaningful. what Nietzsche is getting at is all phenomenologically quite familiar. the basic response a matter of Bildung or culture. The very multiplicity and range of the different possible drives appealed to. without knowing or ever finding what would satisfy that longing. such that we could have new longings and become animals capable of keeping promises. relieve the distress caused by such a burden. Dionysian indeterminacy. for it is love alone that can bestow on the soul. or a longing for determinacy. a difficulty that suggests a tragic pathos to this position. not causality. Nietzsche notes in The Gay Science. Love too has to be learned. a question about meaning. any question about some presumed Nietzschean ultimate explainer. “Even those who love themselves will have learned it in this way. strive (suffer from some burden of “excess. discriminating. like Macht. must always leave room for the prior and decisive question of what counts as having power or exercising it. form.” (He does not mention here what he stresses in Schopenhauer as Educator. he describes an unavoidable. (So. We “learn” in some sense to want and feel in some way.Love and death in Nietzsche 17 (or their absence). indicate already that the basic question for him has remained interpretive. But a wholly naturalistic account would be much too hasty here. without the experience of a determinate or natural lack or gap that cries out for satisfaction.” of too much meaning. and so forth. He began his career in The Birth of Tragedy apparently positing elemental longings or drives.) For example. and for a self-less. not to mention that apparently elemental drive – the will to power.27 The thought itself beginning to emerge throughout these passages is paradoxical – that we can desire. section 334 that all love has to be learned. and the fact that Nietzsche’s accounts of prevolitional drives and instincts are often as much historical as organic (tied essentially to a specific historical self-understanding). for there is no other way.) It is hard to create in anyone this condition of intrepid self-knowledge because it is impossible to teach love. as familiar as the essential ambiguity of the great “quest” objects of modern literature and the irony of those quests. He notes also a longing for an “animal” forgetfulness that required millennia of pain and training to overcome. either for the destruction of form and individuation.

”28 And especially in Human. not because of our nature or transactions with the world. the White Whale. They are. in other words. Such a desire “for more” is nothing but our determinate expression of a dissatisfaction. and so a longing that is not just such a response to a lack. from The Gay Science. and yet that determinacy can never be fixed with certainty and can no longer be tied to transcendent aspirations. somatic event that we can isolate. and religious demands . clear that there are fixed human drives. is not at all a reflective activity directed at some brute. at this level.) So. But this multiply realizable interpretive activity. even though without this self-induced dissatisfaction. whose simple causes we can investigate. for that (that absence of such dissatisfaction or the self-contempt he had said springs from “love”) is precisely their state. and Nietzsche seems more interested in the question of “under what conditions” his interlocutors would find such a life shameful rather than successful. but we open up that possibility and hold it open by means of these expressions of dissatisfaction. the Ring of the Nibelung. K’s trial. There is no argument in Nietzsche that we should not so live. aesthetic. Emma Bovary’s desperate romance. generally does this work without rising to our consciousness. such dissatisfactions cannot be said to have simple causes or determinate objects. clear that the world in its cold and heat and weather and scarcity provokes a very determinate dissatisfaction with and so a desire to overcome these natural limitations. stop doing so. even though we obviously do not do so in some individual. There isn’t. intentional. to be sure. I should hasten to add. (In the familiar words of parents everywhere: we “make ourselves miserable. the world has gradually become so remarkably variegated. There is . “when a strong stimulus is experienced as pleasure or displeasure. While there are clearly desires provoked exogenously by natural objects. an experience of not-being something or other. it has acquired color – but we have been the colorists. Thus. categorically different dissatisfaction. Godot.18 ro b e rt p i p p i n Quixote’s adventure and windmills. terrible. happy. But that would be to live like last men. a legitimate authority or distributive justice problem waiting to be found by philosophers. there is another level. meaningful. the one Nietzsche is interested in. we would be last men. Such dissatisfaction exists. in a very mediated sense. and so forth. . Rather we continue to try to express a dissatisfaction we also cannot pin down and so cannot satisfy. . then. on which human existence is plagued by a deeper. volitional sense. say. only “because of us.” because of what we will not settle for.”29 There is a gap. soulful. Pynchon’s V. in a sense.” and could. this depends on the interpretation of the intellect which. All Too Human: “Since we have for millennia looked upon the world with moral. Tennyson’s Holy Grail.

is. too. is at its core. The odd and somewhat mawkish image Nietzsche often uses to make this point is that of a bee or hive overloaded with honey. In the language of the classical German philosophical tradition. not responsive to a missing fulfillment or need. but a surplus outside any calculability. we would call this dissatisfaction and longing a “self-negation. The image suggests desires well beyond any need. Consider from Schiller’s letters: Not content with what simply satisfies Nature and meets his need. rather than a reaction to a natural lack. it could fairly be said that one source for this image of desire in excess.” Is art a consequence of dissatisfaction with reality? Or an expression of gratitude for happiness enjoyed ? In the former case. even though not a determinate lack that must be filled. we subject ourselves to its constraint. the first manifestation of a desire that exceeds any logic of calculation. or a surfeit or abundance of desires (one might even say.31 In the Nachlass. etc. but only because. romanticism.) Human experience. at a level deeper than everyday dissatisfactions and desires. becomes an object of striving. merely a superfluity of material. aureole and dithyramb (in short. beautifying. but soon a superfluity in the material.) The generosity and even potential frivolity in decorating. in order to extend his enjoyment beyond every need. I think Nietzsche is trying to suggest with his somatic and erotic images. in the latter. (Even righteous subjection to the moral law in Kant. in order to conceal from his desires their boundaries.Love and death in Nietzsche 19 such a problem only if philosophers find a way of picturing “life” in such a way that life is lacking without addressing such problems. properly speaking. although Nietzsche would often poke fun at Kant’s account of aesthetic pleasure. even at the expense of prudence and sober self-interest. he demands superfluity.” for “excess” meaning) that can be communicated and shared.” that is. Nietzsche tries frequently to distinguish his position from what he considers the neediness and non-aesthetic status of “romanticism. because there isn’t. a life to lead without such a yearning. as Kant says. a refusal on our part ever to rest content. but not “interested” desire satisfaction. belongs here. to begin with.. He was grateful for existence where it was not specifically Christian. Schiller maintained. an aesthetic supplement. a dissatisfaction due to us. in order to assure his enjoyment beyond the existing need. in order to be able to satisfy his formal impulse also. is the post-Kantian understanding of aesthetic experience as preconceptual and sensual. a great longing. he merely had the falsity to deify what looked like the Christian interpretation of the world.30 (In this sense. for example. desires for ever “more. They don’t impose such a view onto life. certainly. a matter of possible perfectibility.32 . art of apotheosis): Raphael. we are the “authors” of such a law.

human beings have evolved to be beyond a natural niche or function. rather than merely exist or suffer our existence).”34 (He makes the same distinction in The Gay Science. in Hegel’s account of the non-natural (or “excessive”) claim of the other for recognition. threatened achievement. and in Marx’s famous account of the social (not natural) significance of organized labor. and to live a human life is (and essentially is only) to resist this. to make oneself anything other than this. That human nature is such as to deny itself satisfaction (in an evolutionary metaphor.”35 ) As noted above. because we “need” it “in order to be” human. but one which we can also “heal” ourselves. unstable.33 “The full and bestowing” is what he affirms.36 ) The somewhat mythic picture here is straightforward: the natural world is a world without genuine individuality (just mere particularity. part of Nietzsche’s “experiment” is to suggest that such an “excess” erotic insistence can come to seem as ennobling as the equally “useless” impulse for aesthetic production. and indifferent. distinguishing between two kinds of sufferers: those who suffer from “over-fullness of life. paradoxically (the same paradox we have been encountering all along). (Individuality is always a kind of fragile. not an original state of being. without knowing in effect where to go. but which.” and romantics. all because we will not accept it and have found a way to provoke such dissatisfaction in others and for posterity. indispensable in a life being human. in Hegel’s language). chaotic. Wagner) and what he favors. “art of apotheosis.” not hunger. it is formless. it all also means that .37 ) We know in other words where we don’t want to be. waste) is a theme that resonates with many philosophers whom Nietzsche would disown. “who suffer from the impoverishment of life. everything about them that is distinctly human is evolutionary excess. desiring. Schopenhauer. (And again.20 ro b e rt p i p p i n And this distinction between romanticism (and romantic pessimism.” “I ask in each individual case ‘has hunger or superabundance become creative here?’” and he affirms an art he says is based on “gratitude and love.” is said to be based on a “fundamental distinction. what would be a kind of spiritual death. but who form an exclusive club. It shows up for different reasons in Freud’s account of the harshness of the repression of natural (essentially Oedipal) desire and so our self-division (the self-division that makes us human allows it to be said that we lead lives. not “the seeking. cannot be undertaken for that reason. (Hegel also says in his Aesthetics Lectures that human existence itself is a self-inflicted wound. It is the founding thought of a decisive strand of modern philosophy – Rousseau’s thought – and thanks to Rousseau it shows up in Kant’s account of our “unsocial sociability” (ungesellige Geselligkeit). brutal.

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we can cease to resist, become “last men” because barely human at all once this tension is lost.) The best example of what I have been talking about occurs in section 300 of The Gay Science. Nietzsche first claims that necessary preconditions for modern science were the “magicians, alchemists, astrologers and witches,” because their “promises and pretensions” “had to create (schaffen mussten) a thirst, a hunger, a taste for hidden and forbidden powers,” and that much more had to be promised than could be delivered so that this frustration would sustain the scientific enterprise until much later the promise could be fulfilled in the “realm of knowledge.” Then, in comments on religion he goes on, or goes so far, as to say that man had to learn even to “experience a hunger and thirst for himself,” and so to learn to “find satisfaction and fullness in himself.” Religious ways of life, in other words, gave this surfeit of human desire a form and a goal; it did not respond to, but opened up, the experience of a gap between me and myself, made it possible for me to experience myself as somehow dissatisfying so that I had to become a self, become who I am. And all this just as astronomy does not do better what astrologers attempted; it realizes a desire to know about the stars that had to be originated and sustained, rather than responded to. His next remark is the most elliptical and, as is usual with Nietzschean imagery like this, it creates the very thing it describes; an aspiration to more meaning:
Did Prometheus have to fancy (w¨ hnen), first that he had stolen the light and then a pay for that – before he finally discovered that he had created the light by coveting the light and that not only man but also the god was the work of his own hands and had been mere clay in his hands? All mere images of the maker – no less than fancy, the theft, the Caucasus, the vulture, and the whole tragic Prometheia of all seekers after knowledge. (GS §300)

Prometheus created the light by coveting it is the phrase that says it all; the incapacity to rest content, the impulse to give away, is treated by Nietzsche as a kind of luxurious magnanimity and generosity of spirit. The dissatisfaction Prometheus felt was not the occasion of this generosity but its result, and the determinate meaning of what happened, the injustice of Zeus, the meaning of his suffering represent extensions and consequences of the kind of dissatisfaction that he opened up and held open; the excess meaning he creates by his act and that he promises to be able to explain. One can easily lose one’s hold on these suggestions; looking at things “from the point of view of life” can look as if it makes what we want, perhaps arbitrarily and accidentally want, a condition of what we accept

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as valuable, and that can seem like wishful thinking. And we seem to be sliding back to some version of the radical rhetorical reading, with meaning and value originally projected or imposed. Moreover, other philosophers, notably Hegel, also began with the assumption that “the religion of modern times is ‘God is dead.’”38 Hegel was happy enough to concede that modern bourgeois life, with its distributed subjectivity (or radically divided labor and mundane preoccupations), is prosaic (his most frequent characterization in the Aesthetics lectures), without any possible heroism, so devoid even of beauty, so “liberated” from natural sensibility as to render art itself marginal, no longer of world-historical significance, and religion a merely civic experience. But one can understand Hegel as having also wagered that the realization of freedom embodied in modern law and modern social institutions like the family and market economy was, one might say, consolation enough; that allegiance (or erotic attachment) to this ideal was psychologically and socially sufficient to sustain and reproduce a form of life. One way of summarizing what we have been discussing is to note simply that Nietzsche thought that a bad wager; that the evidence was everywhere that the ideal had become a self-serving venality, and illusions about it had helped produce widespread chronic social pathologies. So far, though, in the passages we have looked at, he seems simply to be painting an alternative anti-bourgeois picture (of nobility, hierarchy of rank, courage, and so forth) and assuming that we could “choose” it instead. But we need to remember that the theme in these passages is eros, not will or spontaneous creativity, and that such attempts to inspire a kind of longing, to break the hold of need and fear and inspire a kind of reckless generosity (e.g. like Prometheus), can fail, and that it is very hard to understand what kind of erotic promises will get a grip and why. It is also one of the reasons that there is little in the way of a programmatic response to nihilism in Nietzsche’s texts. The failure of desire and its experiential manifestations in everyday life – boredom, loneliness, and fatigue – are very hard to diagnose, and extremely hard to respond to. (The pathos of romantic failure, the ever-possible sudden disappearance of desire, the role of illusion in sustaining any such romantic desire, and the total impossibility of any rational translation of desire into a calculus of mutual satisfaction are major metaphorical variations on the theme of eros throughout Nietzsche’s writings.39 ) And again, sometimes, the extraordinarily enigmatic metaphors and images used by Nietzsche – the eternal return of the same, the spirit of gravity, the pale criminal, a Zoroastrian prophet, a gay science – all seemed mostly to provoke what he has said we need: “neediness” itself; the expectation of meaning, and therewith alone

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the sustenance of a “noble” human desire, a new kind of victory led by Nietzsche over our present “weariness with man.” But, in the small amount of space left in this chapter, it is possible to note several guideposts in any further reflection on Nietzsche and the problem of desire. There is, for example, a strict condition that he places on any such new engagement with the world, one that right away should dampen enthusiasm for a radically aesthetic or rhetorical reading. The second paragraph of The Gay Science contains a great contempt for “the majority” who do not have an “intellectual conscience,” who
[do] not consider it contemptible to believe this or that and to live accordingly, without first having given themselves an account of the final and most certain reasons pro and con, and without even troubling themselves about such reasons afterward.40

He is describing here a historical situation peculiar to “us,” an aspect of what we have inherited from the Socratic and modern Enlightenment, but without which we cannot now live, even though it might have been otherwise. An earlier formulation from Daybreak makes the historical point clear while returning directly to the erotic images. Nietzsche notes that “our passion,” “the drive to knowledge,”
has become too strong for us to be able to want happiness without knowledge [or to be able to want the happiness] of a strong, firmly rooted delusion; even to imagine such a state of things is painful to us! Restless discovering and divining has such an attraction for us, and has grown as indispensable to us as is to the lover his unrequited love, which he would at no price relinquish for a state of indifference – perhaps, indeed, we too are unrequited lovers.41

In fact, the possibility of such an unrequited love, especially the possibility of sustaining it, turns out to be one of the best images for the question Nietzsche wants to ask about nihilism and our response. It is as consummate and all-encompassing a summation of Nietzsche’s chief question as any other offered. It suggests exactly the position that Nietzsche’s last men would find baffling and contemptible – always wanting more, in excess of what can be achieved, for which no useful reason can be given – and that Nietzsche clearly affirms as noble, beautiful, or in the classical sense, kalos k’agathos. However, it also immediately suggests an escape from one archetypal modernist pathology into another, from Dostoevskian melancholy to Proustian hysteria, in which it is only the unsatisfiability of a desire that sustains desire and therewith life itself, a libidinal cathexis to life and life’s project’s.42 Just as one could quote Freud’s classic account of melancholy to explain the madman’s pathos, these remarks

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about endless erotic striving bring to mind a typical analytic definition of hysteria as in Juan-David Nasio’s book, Hysteria from Freud to Lacan: “the hysteric unconsciously invents a fantasy scenario designed to prove to himself and to the world that there is no pleasure except the kind that is unfulfilled.”43 In his own language, given this unavoidable intellectual conscience and the impossibility of living whatever lie seems most beautiful or pleasing, the question he wants to ask is: what is the alternative to “last man” contentment, itself quite a consistent turn to a “this-worldly” form of life? By “alternative,” we mean not only an engagement we can care about, but one which also looks like some form of this-worldly dissatisfaction, provoked by some not-being that we strive to cancel, to overcome, a form of self-overcoming without asceticism or transcendence. We want a picture of striving without the illusion of a determinate, natural lack that we can fill. To anyone with an intellectual conscience, it will have to feel as if there just can be no human whole, not as proposed by Plato or Aristotle or Christianity or Schiller or Hegel, and so forth, and yet it can’t just “not matter” that there can be no such harmony or completion, because all of the ways we have come to think about such desire start out from these assumptions about caused needs or an incompleteness that we strive to complete. The “last men” are atheists, scientific secularists, antimetaphysicians, and naturalists in ethics. (They look, that is, like many of the standard interpretations of Nietzsche.) But they provoke only contempt in Nietzsche. (Contrary to his remarks about the last men, there is always detectable a grudging admiration in Nietzsche for ascetics, priests, Platonists, and so forth. They “made life interesting,” made it life, inspired and sustained desire.) Is there an other way, then, of thinking about this activity?44 This is a hard question to answer, not only because it is so abstract, but because it is the sort of question addressed more regularly by modern, romantic, and confessional poetry than by philosophy. Sometimes, many times actually, Nietzsche suggests that a good deal of the answer depends on him, on whether he can portray the heroism and beauty of such futile attempts well enough, can inspire a sense of nobility not dependent on guarantees, payoffs, natural completions, benefits, and probabilities. Looked at broadly, though, the historical answer to Nietzsche’s question is clearly negative; the experiment with him at the center did not take; his “truth” could not be successfully incorporated. He did not become a new Socrates, and his cultural and historical impact has been much more as a kind of “dissolving fluid,” a value-debunker, an immoralist, than as any prophet for a new form of life.

cannot be originally and solely a matter of belief. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. convinced that all life is like Tantalus’ plight. This introductory section is a summary of some aspects of that paper. to use his earlier term of art. GS. Walter Kaufmann (New York: The Modern Library. if that is so. 9.” 6. (It is also a view of Nietzsche’s own insanity that has long fascinated French scholars. trans. while Nietzsche may have avoided the melancholy of someone interminably mourning the death of God. section 377.) 4. I rely there on many of the same quotations and analysis as here.” forthcoming in a volume of conference papers to be published by the University of Chicago Press. 8. Nietzsche. then I shall be one of those who makes things beautiful. p. 643. if the phenomenon is more like what the religious call “losing faith. I do not want to accuse.” Social Research. warranty and sweetness of my life henceforth.Love and death in Nietzsche 25 So. 2 [Summer. pp. and what was the first thought to run across my heart this year – what thought shall be for me the reason. GS. 66. and it can only be mentioned here. Nietzsche is obviously suggesting that this “death” is not rightly understood as the inability to believe a proposition. simply tragic. .” even post-philosophical. 1968).” then the original. Nietzsche. in which it is the unusual depth or profundity of the insight itself that drives one crazy. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking. or. I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. See “Nietzsche and the Melancholy of Modernity. the positive. p. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage. no.45 n ot e s 1. only to have retreated into a hysterical fantasy. and remains suggestive. I have discussed the relevance of this problem to the problem of philosophers as a “post-metaphysical. I discuss these aspects of the passage in “Nietzsche and the Melancholy of Modernity. 1999]. 2. Looking away shall be my only negation. vol. trans. in Basic Writings of Nietzsche. The Gay Science (GS). erotic side of the project he proposes is also on view. Thus Spoke Zarathustra (TSZ ). too. he writes: I. on such a romantic view. p. type in “The Erotic Nietzsche: Philosophers Without Philosophy. His absence apparently cannot be borne either. trans. a “romantic” sense of craziness. There is. translation modified. 7. 1974). being religious or having faith. 279. The Case of Wagner. shall say what it is that I wish from myself today. of course. 5. I acknowledge here a debt to Irad Kimhi for several valuable conversations about this problem in particular. I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things. a successor notion to the mythic belief that God may not be viewed by humans. 59. 340. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer. tantalizing in the way he probably intends. 495–520. p. (And. This is the last erotic “guidepost” I want to mention. At section 276 of The Gay Science. translation modified.) 3. 1966).

Hollingdale [Baltimore: Penguin. at least lays some meaning into them: that means that he has faith that they already obey a will” (Twilight of the Idols [TI ].. Trying to “refute” an ideal is called an “idealism” (a faith in the autonomy of ideals) and is rejected. not inferring it. in Nietzsche. and compare. 19. 14.” Nietzsche-Studien 29 (2000). p. Anyone who thinks that some sort of action would therewith be required or rendered impossible is himself willing that consequence. the merely apparent character. 13 (my italics). i. p. 20. On the Genealogy of Morals. 2001). Ibid. but because it was considered the interpretation it now seems as if there were no meaning at all in existence. p. pp. 1. Nietzsche. For a more detailed discussion of the category of “psychology” as employed by Nietzsche. BGE. Richard Schacht (Cambridge University Press. 11. R. p. 2. Nietzsche. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage. 18. trans. Nietzsche. p. and Clumsy Lovers. p. 285. 24. 13. p. p. TSZ . and hardly any nihilistic consequences. 22. 117. p. . Ecce Homo /On the Genealogy of Morals (OGM ). pp. Nietzsche. TSZ . Eros.” in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s Prelude to Philosophy’s Future. 136–52. trans. 1968). Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage. trans. 15. 13. section 585. section 345. the necessity of lies” (WP. 16. Psychology as Morality: Nietzsche. GS. to what extent one can endure to live in a meaningless world because one organizes a small portion of it oneself ” (WP. p. One reason why Nietzsche’s thought has become more and more relevant: the fact that “the West” now lives for the first time since the advent of political modernity without either the specter or the beacon (depending on one’s point of view) of any revolutionary aspiration. WP. without perishing. GS. 24). ch. 284. 15. p. that there are no practical consequences.26 ro b e rt p i p p i n 10. WP. from any intellectual disillusionment is itself an important claim that Nietzsche wants to make and defend directly. As he says frequently throughout his published and unpublished works: “One interpretation has collapsed. 1989). pp. see my “Morality as Psychology. OGM . p. 23. This is like a passage from The Twilight of the Idols: “Whoever does not know how to lay his will into things. p. section 12a. 17. 35). 10. 17. 1989). Moreover. 1968]. section 55. ed. section 15. creating it. J. 17. “That it is the measure of strength to what extent we can admit to ourselves. as if everything were in vain” (Nietzsche. 79–99. section 22. 12. trans. 11. 15) and “It is a measure of the degree of strength of will to what extent one can do without meaning in things. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage. Beyond Good and Evil (BGE). Nietzsche. p. 318). The Will to Power (WP). 21. See my “Gay Science and Corporeal Knowledge.

that is the way of human gratitude: it misunderstands its benefactors” (ch. See my “What is the Question for Which Hegel’s ‘Theory of Recognition’ is the Answer?’. After all. 328. Ibid. a fatherland: without exception. 36. Love and its Place in Nature (New York: Farrar. J. 30. Eros.” in Pathos und Distanz (Stuttgart: ¨ Reclam. p. Nietzsche. 1986). 20. Knox (Oxford University Press. pp. GS. he does not spare himself – and this is a calamitous. chapter 6 of Lear. Nietzsche. section 846. 163. pp. 39. I consider this position on individuality (as a social and psychological achievement) an essential theme in post-Kantian German philosophy. pp. pp. 29. especially p. and Clumsy Lovers. 1991). See my “Morality as Psychology. 1970). p. Hollingdale (Cambridge University Press. trans. 38. 32. G. p. vol. involuntary fatality. W. 184.. Nietzsche. a great cause. R. misunderstandings. ” European Journal of Philosophy 8 (2) (August. pp. 1965).Love and death in Nietzsche 27 25. Compare this passage from The Twilight of the Idols. no less than a river’s flooding the land. Untimely Meditations.” and “Deceit. WP. 28. 445. section 845. See also the Second Edition Preface to GS. People call this “self-sacrifice” and praise his “heroism. 27. Nietzsche. where Nietzsche distinguishes a philosophy based on need from one that understands itself as simply a “beautiful luxury. 40. On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters. GS. as it were. translation modified. Reginald Snell (New York: Unger. 155–72. Ibid. p. his devotion to an idea. 34. i x. 33. Desire. 8. p. ii (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp. 2000). p. 132. 35. p. Cf. p. Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. Cf. Psychology as Morality: Nietzsche. “Glauben und Wissen. and Democracy: Nietzsche on Modern Eros. especially the perceptive use made of Schiller by Volker Gerhardt in “Zu Nietzsches fr¨ hem Programm u einer aesthetischen Rechtfertigung der Welt. and Giroux.. Straus. 37. he uses himself up.” the “voluptuousness of a triumphant gratitude” (pp. Friedrich Schiller. 1983).” his indifference to his own well-being. 31. trans. 1988). trans. section 843. See on this topic the discussion by Jonathan Lear. the overpowering pressure of outpouring forces forbids him any such care and caution.” International Studies in Philosophy 32 (3) (March. he overflows. Yet because so much is owed to such explosives. 445. Love and its Place in Nature.” Werke. much has also been given them in return: for example a higher kind of morality. p. “The genius in work and deed is necessarily a squanderer [Verschwender]: that he squanders himself. that is his greatness. p. GS. The instinct of self-preservation is suspended. All Too Human. 98) (translation modified). 67. 432. GS. Nietzsche. F. section 370. M. 61–70. trans. . He flows out. 33–4). T. 76. 2000). 26. 445–6. Hegel. Nietzsche. p. R. Human. Nietzsche. J. 286. 132–55. Hollingdale (Cambridge University Press. 1990).

The “death of God. does not for Proust occasion a kind of melancholy or despair that the narrative structure without which a self. Nietzsche. J. I would want ultimately to be able to show that the situation Nietzsche describes is more fruitfully understood as much more like Schiller’s picture of “useless” and “excess” aesthetic experience (unsatisfiable because not a lack or a need) than Freud on hysterics.” let us say. but as not morally anything. trans. Hollingdale (Cambridge University Press. 44. I owe the reference to Nasio’s book to Santner: Hysteria from Freud to Lacan: The Splendid Child of Psychoanalysis (Northvale. R. p.: J. Nietzsche. 5. an identity. 1982). 43.” is a central question. in one of his favorite terms for it. (To see being itself as innocent is to see this surfeit and endlessness not as morally dispiriting. p. Daybreak.J. one of the reasons why Marcel has such a tough time starting to write.28 ro b e rt p i p p i n 41. possibly authoritative narratives. 223. inspiring. p. 42. . in such a way that to “blame” the world would feel like blaming an innocently destructive and disruptive child. pais paizon. or a great field of possibilities. The problem is rather an excess of meaning. 1997). simply tiring. Proust is relevant in another sense too. “innocent. 184. there are too many possible. It would be to be able to think of it as the mere play of an innocent child. N.) 45. but that must remain a promissory note. Heraclitus. This possibility was suggested to me in a commentary on an earlier version of this chapter by Eric Santner. GS. or. What determines whether this sense of our own eros is dispiriting and enervating and hopeless. Aronson. would not be possible has lost all authority.

while religions (in accordance with the Enlightenment and positivist view) were seen for decades as residual forms of experience. the nineteenth century seemed to end with the triumph of science and technology (think of the spirit of the belle ´poque. which already bore the signs of a spleen that burst into view in the Kulturkritik of the first decades of the twentieth century). atheistic rationalism has taken two forms that have often been blended: the belief that in the experimental sciences of nature lies an exlusive claim to the truth. and among them especially Christianity and Islam) are not being reborn today. political democracy. and faith in the progress of history toward a condition of full emancipation. Their new visibility has to do. If. with the weight of religious factors in the fall of communist regimes. The “end of modernity. These two kinds of rationalism have 29 . and Hegelian – later. though e overly mythologized. just to draw a superficial parallel. and the dramatic nature of many ecological problems (broadly defined. In other words. the old millennium. now they appear once again as possible guides for the future. at least in Europe. to dismiss religion. religions (I am thinking primarily of the great Abrahamic religions. so the twentieth century.” or in any case its crisis. The authority by which the Pope and other representatives of the world religions speak on the international stage cannot be explained by the new ability they have to talk to multitudes through the mass media. ranging from environmental pollution to genetic manipulation) that have risen from the application of the life sciences. has brought about the dissolution of the main philosophical theories that claimed to have done away with religion: positivist scientism. and so on). seemed to end with the renewal of religion. To be sure. Today there are no good philosophical reasons to be an atheist. In modernity. or in any case.chapter 3 After onto-theology: philosophy between science and religion Gianni Vattimo The twentieth century seemed to close with the end of the phenomenon that has been called secularization. destined to diminish with the imposition of “modern” forms of life (technical and scientific rationalization of social life. Marxist – historicism.

all of us are used to the fact that disenchantment with the world has generated a radical disenchantment with the very idea of disenchantment. or a moment to be overcome by reason’s self-unfolding toward fuller and truer forms of self-consciousness. analogous to the post-religious epoch that followed the triumph of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. this “logical” objection would have no value. Today. which was regarded as an error destined to be dismissed by scientific rationality. but even in classical . about angels. This picture is also partly informed by the new a permeability of contemporary philosophy to myth. as far as classical mythology is concerned. demythification has finally turned against itself. and various mythological figures. and to the substance of religious traditions. though in different terms. according to a linear course of development. or to the extraordinary authority recently acquired by the great religious leaders vis-`-vis political figures. thereby acknowledging that the ideal of the elimination of myth is a myth too. these signs acquire an extraordinary meaning. speaks explicitly of a new polytheism. In other words. for example.30 g i a n n i vat t i m o often been mixed. Today (continental) philosophers speak increasingly. However. we shall easily get rid of the myth of demythification too. having eliminated all myths. redemption.” to use an expression from the Gospels: once the social and political renewal of religion is associated with the crisis of the rationalist ideologies that in modernity were the basis of atheism. is clearly promoted by psychoanalysis.” then it means that they must be true. This is a practice that. By now. My point is not to embrace again a historicist faith in the rationality of the real. and now we shall overcome philosophy. by putting forth the argument that if religions “win. if we were not de facto placed before the visible renewal of religion as a social and cultural phenomenon. One could object to Rorty that his belief is still underlined by a subtle historicist faith in the linearity and irreversibility of progress: we overcame religion in the past. both belief in the objective truth of the experimental sciences and faith in the progress of reason toward full transparency appear to have been overcome. it is to be able to hear the “signs of the times. and without providing explicit justification. moving then toward new stages of rationality. Jungian psychoanalysis. Each perspective assigned only a provisional place to religion. This is how Richard Rorty seems to conceive of this process. Rather. This ensemble of phenomena is not limited to the ethnic-religious wars fought all over the world (and which cannot be explained exclusively in economic terms). when defining our epoch as a post-philosophical one. Yet it is not altogether clear whether this means that. in particular. in the positivist conception of progress.

Yet why is it that at a certain point in time the distinction is made between metaphors and “proper” terms? It is. the relation with mythological figures cannot be conceived merely as a recourse to metaphors that must be reduced finally to their “proper meaning. pervasive presence of mythical and religious themes and terminologies depends perhaps on the new legitimacy granted to metaphorical discourse by the end of metaphysics. in literate culture. the introduction of mystic and religious terms in philosophy. At the same time. though with them (at least insofar as the former is concerned) this recovery was explicitly justified on theoretical grounds. albeit implicitly. Nietzsche argues. “Uber Wahrheit und L¨ ge in aussermoralischen Sinn. a renewal that has its basis in the actual importance of religion in bringing down communism. that is. such as those linked to fundamental resources for life – genetic manipulation and so on. that is. At the very end. we see in our social and political life the renewed authority of the world religions. Instead in today’s culture these concepts. Thus the nation-state speaks a language. because an individual or group imposes its own metaphors upon all the others as the only legitimate.” . and metaphors are used widely.”1 u Recall that in this text Nietzsche conceives of all knowledge of the world in metaphorical terms:2 we meet a thing in the world and form an image of it in our mind – the first metaphor. then we invent a sound to point to that image – the second metaphor. by the new relationship that philosophy (especially after Heidegger) claims to establish with poetry. transposition. in philosophical and critical reflections (including literary criticism). and with aesthetic experience more generally. figures. I employ metaphor here in the ¨ sense intended by Nietzsche in his great youthful fragment. and implicitly justified by the fact that the relation of philosophy with poetry is no longer conceived in antagonistic terms. and so on.After onto-theology 31 Freudian theory. or by the destruction of the boundary between metaphor and its “proper meaning. while private languages – including the language of poetry. In stating universally valid propositions. acceptable.” Other sources for the philosophical recovery of mythical and religious terminology are thinkers such as Rosenzweig and Benjamin. myth. whereas dialects are “only” dialects. taken for granted. and true ones. the new. seems justified. and so on – are reduced to the status of “pure metaphors. reason speaks primarily the language of “proper” terms. without an explicit theoretical elaboration. In sum.” which seems to be the main consequence of the end of metaphysics announced by Heidegger. Thus all language is metaphorical. and in the emergence of broadly defined “apocalyptic” issues.

if you will) does not end because we have found a truer truth. the distinction between metaphor and proper meaning is less the effect of an authoritarian imposition of a certain language by a group than the imposition of a claim to objectivity which.32 g i a n n i vat t i m o This argument of Nietzsche’s. of a paradigm) within which scientific propositions are verified or falsified cannot lay claim to the authority of the “proper meaning”: it is a metaphor. In fact. to some extent. metaphysics is the forgetting of the ontological difference. but only within a preliminary opening (Offenheit. it is not as the result of a causal game of forces that the various metaphorical languages have imposed themselves as true and proper. But there is still. The opening (we might also speak. which could be changed by a human decision. and must be recognized as such. the identification of true being with the present. One may say that on the basis of his thought. for Heidegger. leading up to the theme of secularization. and so on ad infinitum). However. which disavows it and finally offers us the true meaning of being. nor can their relationship be arbitrarily modified. the truth may be thought in terms of correspondence between proposition and thing. according . can be found in Heidegger as well. the fact that the language of scientific objectivity and of the experimental method rules as the exclusive truth of modernity is not the effect of a pure game of forces. the coming to the domi¨ nation of the metaphorical systems) is a game of Ubereignen and Ent-eignen (transpropriation and disappropriation). through techno-science. However. which coincides with the history of being (though this genitive has not only a subjective sense. I leave aside the many objections that could be raised to Heidegger’s account. for Heidegger. According to Heidegger. which in turn is not guaranteed by any verifiable correspondence (which would require another opening. a sort of “property” or authenticity (Eigentlichkeit). manipulable material. The event of being (Ereignis) on which the multiple openings depend (that is. even the constructivist subject becomes pure. Weltoffenheit). fundamentally. In other words. in the difference between Nietzschean metaphors and Heideggerian events or “openings. In the end. actively constructs the world rather than letting it be. is today advanced by the language of experimental science. but also an inseparable objective one). for clarity’s sake. and verifiable objectivity. Metaphysics (or modernity. metaphysics ends when it reaches its highest peak in the universal mastery of technology and of the will to power. In late modernity. For Heidegger (I shall limit myself here to a few remarks). however. quantifiable. it is important to underscore that already here.” there are the premises for further developing the argument I want to make. this is analogous to the objectivation of the whole by a subject who.

in doing so. there is still a discourse which distributes the roles in the play. science. a privileged knowledge of the “proper” meaning which would reduce all other senses to the status of poetic or mythical metaphors. is not objective knowledge – that what we call reality is a game of interpretations. objectively true language? Let me make an observation that should give us food for thought. that is. unmask him as a lie that can no longer be maintained and is no longer necessary. and assigns to other discourses their proper roles: it is precisely the philosopher’s discourse (Nietzsche and Heidegger. that it corresponds all too well to the specialization and division of labor characteristic of modernity? Is it true that the liberal and pluralistic perspective forgoes the recognition of a privileged. But can we really be satisfied with this “liberalization. and the theories of the paradigms) that advances a theory . we all know by now – though this. for Heidegger. each of which has legitimacy. “the real world has become a fable. provided it respects the boundaries of its own rules. In Italy. Metaphysics confutes itself precisely insofar as it establishes itself universally. who dies when the faithful. in order to respect his command not to lie. Metaphysics. we have a proverb that says “with the saints in church. and religion. here. ends up with the “discovery” that objectivity is posited by the subject. in today’s culture. too. From this moment on. but also Foucault. reducing all being to objectivity. we can no longer think of being as an object that is given before the eyes of reason – at least because.” For us. Rorty. so different sciences have their specific methods for the verification and falsification of statements. who in turn becomes a manipulable object. we would deny that our very existence – made up of projects. This is the background against which. The effect of all this is that metaphysics disavows itself precisely when it fulfills itself. We know many philosophies that speak of myth. and decisions – is “being” (since it is never pure “objectivity”).” given.After onto-theology 33 to a dizzy circularity that belongs to the “total organization” of which Adorno spoke (which. many “language games. none of which may claim to be a pure and objective mirror of the world. having started with the idea that truth is objectivity. after all. hopes. the ensemble of stellen). with the knaves in the tavern. This process is correctly referred to as the history of nihilism. a kind of peace – or at least a truce – is established between philosophy. What I mean is that. this means that there are many languages. but not many myths that speak of philosophy. Goodman.”3 In o a other words.” for experiencing the world. Just as the rules of religious or ethical language differ. It somewhat resembles Nietzsche’s God. memories. is the Ge-stell. Putnam. As Nietzsche writes in the G¨tzend¨ mmerung. according to the liberal and pluralistic perspective.

Parmenides. the discovery by psychoanalysis of the “secondary” nature of consciousness (thus it becomes impossible to conceive of an ultimate evidence in the manner of the Cartesian Cogito). though not an arbitrary one. paradigm. is the thesis concerning truth as interpretation – that is. a response to a message which comes from the history of our culture as reconstructed by Nietzsche and Heidegger. where. The thesis concerning truth as interpretation is nothing but an interpretation – namely. at least in the sense I have suggested this ontology might be interpreted. If today the world is given to us as a game of interpretations. If we were to confine ourselves to this type of liberalism. this is not because we have understood – more acutely than Aristotle. Nihilism does not open the dialogue between philosophy and religion only in the sense that in the absence of the great atheist rationalist systems of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (the Enlightenment. historicism. consider Rorty’s great book. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature4 ). and Marxism) there are no longer good philosophical reasons to be atheists. and more or less explicitly by the other philosophers I have mentioned above (for example. it encounters once again the Western religious tradition. everything goes – within its own limits (but who sets these limits?). and which it seems reasonable to read as a history of weakening. namely. the multiplication of scientific languages which cannot be reduced to a unity (for example. positivism. we would really find ourselves in a general condition of irrationalism. By contrast. In turn. My thesis – or better. the Judeo-Christian tradition. the non-Euclidean geometries).34 g i a n n i vat t i m o of the interpretive character of every truth. and even the rise of the democratic state. Entrealisierung). the idea that every statement can only be verified or falsified within a horizon (opening. according to Feyerabend’s famous expression. we get to truth as interpretation by responding to the history that Heidegger calls the history of being. which removes any possibility of grounding politics and the law upon rigid rational schemes. . the increasing difficulty of linking together the entities of which physics speaks with the things of our daily experience (so that even physics seems to have become an agent of de-realization – Entwirklichung. Its good reasons include: the end of Eurocentrism (which saw history as a linear process in which Europe and its culture were the most advanced stage). hypothesis – is that if philosophical pluralism takes its status as an interpretation seriously. language) which in its turn cannot be verified – an objective description of a state of affairs? It seems to me that here we must complete Nietzsche’s nihilism with Heidegger’s ontology. insofar as it claims to be a reasonable way of placing oneself in the late-modern condition of existence. This reconstruction is already an interpretation.

only forces that impose themselves with more or less violence.” in terms that are themselves weak. To sum up the argument in a rather provocative fashion: the history of being is the history of nihilism. the loss of religiosity – as it is usually conceived – a path to be retraced in reverse by believers in order to recover the truth of the original biblical message. We have not completely lost reality in the fable. that is. the same history of salvation that we have come to know from the Bible.” superstitions. an essential aspect of the history of salvation. the core of the Judeo-Christian message. Paul calls kenosis). Here the risk of irrationalism of the liberal and pluralistic perspectives encounters a limit: nihilism is not just the unleashing of an interminable conflict where there are no good reasons. Joachim of Fiore. and this history is the history of creation (God creates a being other than himself. a being who is free even to deny God) and of salvation (God becomes man in abasement and humiliation. of the overpowering force that arbitrarily establishes what is truth and what is a lie. which is never a pure object placed before us. and to which we would have to succumb. accepting quietly the most varied dogmatic and moral disciplines imposed by the authority of churches. Secularization is. and of God as the one who abandons his own transcendence. gives itself in a less peremptory. Indeed. and the idea of the divine as a mysterious power which lies absolutely beyond our comprehension and therefore is irrational. and then by redeeming it through the Incarnation and the Cross – through kenosis – then the desacralizing phenomena characteristic of modernity are the authentic aspects of the history of salvation. of sovereign will. Rather. for reality is the history of the dissolution of the real as peremptory objectivity. first by creating the world. To quote another Italian saying: “Thank God I am an atheist. or to use a religious term.After onto-theology 35 and Descartes – that things are objectively so. more fundamentally. it is because being itself. In the game of interpretations.” Biblical revelation liberates us from “natural religion. it is possible to distinguish between valid and arbitrary interpretations. the subjects. the estrangement from the divine. If the Bible speaks of being as an event. This message speaks of an occurrence of being. and long before them too. secularization is not merely the dissolution of the sacred. and dissolves his own transcendence – the event that St. which has a history. of the peremptoriness of objectivity. the history of secularization. as other modern philosophers saw. Does such a thought have any sense? It seems to me that it is a way of “translating. weakened form. . and the criterion for doing so is precisely the weakening of strong structures.

. 4. are we to configure the relation between philosophy. then. rather. and the more specialized and fragmented fields of knowledge that cannot be reduced to a unitary image of the real – no longer appear as mere tools contrived by man to attain an ever more secure survival in the midst of nature. 20. n ot e s 1.36 g i a n n i vat t i m o How. Duncan Large (New York: Oxford University Press. Daniel Brazeale (Atlantic Highlands. and perhaps may be called a history of spirit. Twilight of the Idols.j. they too must be interpreted as moments of a history of emancipation that goes beyond the purely biological sphere. 2. p. trans. p. 79–97. Translated as “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense. and science alluded to in the title of this chapter? Philosophy is not reducible to religion. 1979).: Humanities Press. Ibid. 3. n. Philosophy finds in the common thread of reducing the peremptoriness of being the criterion for looking at the sciences and technologies that depend on it. pp. 82. These – the technologies that make existence easier. See Friedrich Nietzsche. religion. Rather.” in Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870’s. 1981). . trans. 1998). it has to rethink itself as the secularization in actu of the religious message of the West. (Princeton University Press.

intellectual historians may remark that the twentieth century was the one in which the philosophy professors began to stop asking bad questions – questions like “What really exists?” “What are the scope and limits of human knowledge?” and “How does language hook up with reality?” These questions assume that philosophy can be done ahistorically. “Structure” is just another word for “essence.chapter 4 Anti-clericalism and atheism Richard Rorty Some day.” and to abandon what Habermas calls “subject-centered reason” for what he calls “communicative reason.” has weakened the grip of the idea that scientific beliefs are formed rationally. the merely contingent from the truly necessary.” A growing tendency to accept what Terry Pinkard calls “Hegel’s doctrine of the sociality of reason.4 and Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.3 Dewey’s Reconstruction in Philosophy. One effect of the rise of anti-essentialism and of historicism is insouciance about what Lecky famously called “the warfare between science and theology. These movements have mocked the ambitions of their predecessors. They presuppose the bad idea that inspection of our present practices can give us an understanding of the “structure” of all possible human practices. and between the necessary and the contingent. Recent examples of this mockery are Jacques Derrida’s Margins of Philosophy1 and Bas van Fraassen’s The Empirical Stance. The anti-positivist tenor of post-Kuhnian philosophy of science has combined with the work of post-Heideggerian theologians to make intellectuals more sympathetic to William James’s claim that natural science and religion need not compete with one another.2 These books stand on the shoulders of Heidegger’s Being and Time. to do what Plato and Aristotle had hoped to do – sift out the changing appearances from the enduringly real.5 All these anti-essentialist books urge us to fight free of the old Greek distinctions between the apparent and the real. 37 . whereas religious beliefs are not.” The most important movements in twentieth-century philosophy have been anti-essentialist. positivism and phenomenology.

or of people who deny it with equal passion. But most are by now content to shrug off an inability to take philosophical issues seriously as no more important. This increased tolerance for people who simply brush aside questions that were once thought to be of the highest importance is sometimes described as the adoption of an “aestheticist” attitude. or practices.” But this description strikes anti-essentialist philosophers as just as bad as the Kantian idea that being rational is a matter of following rules. Nor do either of the latter have a right to be contemptuous of those to whom the dispute seems pointless. . But the term “aesthetic” in such contexts presupposes the standard Kantian cognitive–moral–aesthetic distinction. Some philosophers still think that this attitude toward the discipline to which they have devoted their lives is evidence of an intellectual. This description is especially popular among those who find such tolerance deplorable. the work of theologians like Bultmann and Tillich no longer looks like a reduction of the “cognitive” claims of religion to “merely” aesthetic claims. for what particular purposes. or to learn foreign languages. Kantians think that once you have given up hope of attaining universal agreement on an issue you have declared it “merely a matter of taste. They are more inclined to use such expressions as Max Weber’s “religiously unmusical. than an inability to read fiction. That distinction is itself one of the principal targets of antiessentialist. Philosophers who do not go to church are now less inclined to describe themselves as believing that there is no God.38 r i c h a rd ro rt y These developments have made the word “atheist” less popular than it used to be. Philosophers who do not believe that there are any such rules reject Kantian pigeonholing in favor of questions about what context certain beliefs. and who diagnose its spread as a symptom of a dangerous spiritual illness (“skepticism” or “relativism” or something equally appalling). historicist. Once the Kantian trichotomy is abandoned. People who find themselves quite unable to take an interest in the question of whether God exists have no right to be contemptuous of people who believe passionately in his existence. Philosophy resembles music and religion in this respect. or books can best be put in. Many students – those who walk out of the final examination in Philosophy 101 determined never to waste their time with another philosophy course. and unable to understand how people can take that sort of thing seriously – are philosophically unmusical. and perhaps even a moral. when evaluating a person’s intellect or character. philosophizing.” One can be tone-deaf when it comes to religion just as one can be oblivious to the charms of music. or to grasp mathematical relationships. flaw.

but that sort of fitting is inappropriate when thinking about the interface between art and morality.” But the same goes. They can do so simply by trotting out the same sorts of arguments about the irrelevance of any particular empirical state of affairs to the existence of an atemporal and non-spatial being as were used by Hume and Kant against the natural theologians of the eighteenth century. does not have much to do with the explanation of specific observable phenomena. For anti-clericalism is a political view.” I now wish that I had used the latter term on the occasions when I have used the former to characterize my own view. Neither those who affirm nor those who deny the existence of God can plausibly claim that they have evidence for their views. or between politics and jurisprudence. and that modern science has given better explanations of the phenomena God was once used to explain. All these spheres of culture continually interpenetrate and interact.Anti-clericalism and atheism 39 In this new climate of philosophical opinion. philosophy professors are no longer expected to provide answers to a question that exercised both Kant and Hegel: How can the worldview of natural science be fitted together with the complex of religious and moral ideas which were central to European civilization? We know what it is like to fit physics together with chemistry and chemistry together with biology. There is no need for an organizational chart that specifies. in the modern West. not an epistemological or metaphysical . Nor is there any need to attempt to reach an ahistorical. once and for all. The first sort are those who still think that belief in the divine is an empirical hypothesis. that “atheism is a faith” because it is “subject to neither confirmation nor refutation by means of argument or evidence. overview of the relations between all human practices. Being religious. in a speech designed to please Christian fundamentalists. President Bush made a good point when he said. We can settle for the more limited task Hegel called “holding our time in thought. These are the ones who use “atheism” as a rough synonym for “anti-clericalism. it is not surprising that only two sorts of philosophers are still tempted to use the word “atheist” to describe themselves. for they find it easy to debunk this claim. or between religion and natural science. Philosophers of this sort are delighted whenever an ingenuous natural scientist claims that some new scientific discovery provides evidence for the truth of theism. of course. I agree with Hume and Kant that the notion of “empirical evidence” is irrelevant to talk about God. But there is a second sort of philosopher who describes himself or herself as an atheist. God’s-eye.” Given all these changes.6 but this point bears equally against atheism and theism. for theism. when they are permitted to do so.

” So one should welcome Vattimo’s attempt to move religion out of the epistemic arena. everybody ought to share it. religion is unobjectionable as long as it is privatized – as long as ecclesiastical institutions do not attempt to rally the faithful behind political proposals. have used their philosophical learning and sophistication to argue for the reasonableness of a return to the religiosity of their youth. much less that they should all be Catholics. unlike theism. one will be inclined to say that religiosity is not happily characterized by the term “belief. This argument is laid out in Vattimo’s moving and original book Credere di credere. so I suppose I must believe in God. and so coming to have what many people would call a belief in God. not new. had no religious upbringing and have never developed any attachment to any religious tradition. We are the ones who call ourselves “religiously unmusical. but disagrees with the positivistic claim that the explanatory successes of modern science have rendered belief in God irrational.40 r i c h a rd ro rt y one. and Levinas . despite all the good they do – despite all the comfort they provide to those in need or in despair – are dangerous to the health of democratic societies. Kant’s suggestion that we view God as a postulate of pure practical reason rather than an explanation of empirical phenomena cleared the way for thinkers like Schleiermacher to develop what Nancy Frankenberry has called “a theology of symbolic forms. The point of such a reformulation would be to take account of our conviction that if a belief is true. Barth.” But others. Some of those who hold this view. Such attempts are. an arena in which it seems subject to challenge by natural science. It is the view that ecclesiastical institutions. but I am not sure that the term “belief ” is the right description of what I have.7 Whereas the philosophers who claim that atheism. of course. On our view. contemporary secularists like myself are content to say that it is politically dangerous. He follows William James in disassociating the question “Have I a right to be religious?” from the question “Should everybody believe in the existence of God?” Just insofar as one accepts the familiar Hume/Kant critique of natural theology. such as myself. is backed up by evidence would say that religious belief is irrational.8 His response to the question “Do you now once again believe in God?” amounts to saying: I find myself becoming more and more religious.” It also encouraged thinkers like Kierkegaard. But Vattimo does not think that all human beings ought to be theists. But I think that Vattimo might have done better to say: I am becoming more and more religious. such as the distinguished contemporary Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo. and as long as believers and unbelievers agree to follow a policy of live-and-let-live.

Vattimo thinks that if we take human history as seriously as Hegel did. and its slaughter-bench as the Cross. the act in which God turned everything over to human beings. as well as all his otherness. 21). [is] the constitutive trait of an authentic religious experience” (p. Hegel too saw human history as constituting the Incarnation of the Spirit. in my opinion) “existentialist theology” – the attempt to make religiosity a matter of being rescued from Sin by the inexplicable grace of a deity wholly other than man. not only of evidence and argument.”9 Vattimo wants to dissolve the problem of the coexistence of natural science with the legacy of Christianity by identifying Christ neither with truth nor with power. . and so has no use for notions like “symbolic” or “emotional” or “metaphorical” or “moral” truth. there is no great drama to be unfolded. For Vattimo.Anti-clericalism and atheism 41 to make God wholly other – beyond the reach. but only the hope that love may prevail. baptisms. we can stop the pendulum from swinging back and forth between militantly positivistic atheism and symbolist or existentialist defenses of theism. and reduces the Christian message to the passage in Paul that most other people like best: 1 Corinthians 13. but with love alone. Vattimo’s importance lies in his rejection of both of these unhappy postKantian initiatives. This enables Vattimo to make his most startling and most important claim: that “‘secularization’ . As he says. So Hegel turns human history into a dramatic narrative that reaches its climax in an epistemic state: absolute knowledge. Vattimo’s argument provides an illustration of how lines of thought drawn from Nietzsche and Heidegger can be intertwined with those drawn from James and Dewey.” the people whom St. to human history. but of discursive thought. His strategy is to treat the Incarnation as God’s sacrifice of all his power and authority. Paul called “lukewarm in the faith” – the sort of people who only go to church for weddings. He puts aside the attempt to connect religion with truth. 69). Vattimo turns away from the passages in the Epistle to the Romans that Karl Barth liked best. The Incarnation was an act of kenosis. But Hegel was unwilling to put aside truth in favor of love. “It is (only) because metaphysical meta-narratives have been dissolved that philosophy has rediscovered the plausibility of religion and can consequently approach the religious need of common consciousness independently of the framework of Enlightenment critique. His theology is explicitly designed for those whom he calls “half-believers. and funerals (p. For these two intellectual traditions have in . there is no internal dynamic. by contrast. no inherent teleology. Nor does he have any use for what he calls (somewhat misleadingly. while refusing to place it within either an epistemological or a metaphysical context. .

10 The realization that it should retreat from that sphere is not a recognition of the true essence of religion. He agrees with Heidegger that “the metaphysics of objectivity culminates in a thinking that identifies the truth of Being with the calculable. but simply one of the morals to be drawn from the history of Europe and America. An assertion has . and one that does not automatically trump all other needs.” They all provide reasons both for replacing the Kantian distinction between the cognitive and the non-cognitive with the distinction between the satisfaction of public needs and the satisfaction of private needs. 31). Vattimo says that “now that Cartesian (and Hegelian) reason has completed its parabola.42 r i c h a rd ro rt y common the thought that the quest for truth and knowledge is no more. and if you also claim that nothing should take precedence over that pursuit. If one stays within this horizon of thought. it no longer makes sense to oppose faith and reason so sharply” (p. and no less. and for insisting that there is nothing “mere” about satisfaction of the latter. By “Cartesian and Hegelian thought” Vattimo means pretty much what Heidegger meant by “onto-theology. This is a doctrine Nietzsche and Heidegger share with James and Dewey. For if you identify rationality with the pursuit of universal intersubjective agreement. To save religion from onto-theology you need to regard the desire for universal intersubjective agreement as just one human need among many others. than the quest for intersubjective agreement. trying to help us “quit a horizon of thought that is an enemy of freedom and of the historicity of existing” (p. one will be convinced that all one’s assertions should have cognitive content. a space from which religion can and should retreat. and so continues to think of epistemology and metaphysics as first philosophy. All four are. measurable and definitively manipulatable object of techno-science” (p. This is because you will have made natural science the paradigm of rationality and truth. 30). 87). and truth with the outcome of such a pursuit. Then religion will have to be thought of either as an unsuccessful competitor with empirical inquiry or as “merely” a vehicle of emotional satisfaction. in the words that Vattimo uses to describe Heidegger.” The term covers not only traditional theology and metaphysics but also positivism and (insofar as it is an attempt to put philosophy on the secure path of a science) phenomenology. The epistemic arena is a public space. All four of these anti-Cartesians have principled objections to the pejorative use of “merely” in expressions such as “merely private” or “merely literary” or “merely aesthetic” or “merely emotional. then you will squeeze religion not only out of public life but out of intellectual life.

but as friends. 66). “The essence of [Christian] revelation. the unmasking inaugurated by him . to opt out of this game.Anti-clericalism and atheism 43 such content insofar as it is caught up in what the contemporary American philosopher Robert Brandom calls “the game of giving and asking for reasons. and . the West becomes. I can summarize the line of thought Vattimo and I are pursuing as follows: The battle between religion and science conducted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a contest between institutions both of which claimed cultural supremacy. “is reduced to charity. They were followers of Christ in the sense that “Christ himself is the unmasker. These men were. . God’s turning everything over to us. for certain purposes. “reading the signs of the times with no other provision than the commandment of love” (p. The notion of “legitimacy” is not applicable to what Vattimo. . while all the rest is left to the non-finality of diverse historical experiences” (p. in his words. the better it carries out the Gospels’ promise that God will no longer see us as servants. or of Christianity. Nietzsche. .” Vattimo says. from Copernicus and Newton to Darwin. considered as kenosis. is the meaning of the history of salvation itself” (p. and Freud. For truth and knowledge are a matter of social cooperation. the less hierocratic. This account of the essence of Christianity – one in which God’s selfemptying and man’s attempt to think of love as the only law are two faces of the same coin – permits Vattimo to see all the great unmaskers of the West. To ask whether this is a “legitimate” or “valid” version of Catholicism. or any of the rest of us. 66). They are entitled to disconnect their assertions from the network of socially acceptable inferences that provide justifications for making these assertions and draw practical consequences from having made them. 77). does with our solitude. .”11 But to say that religion should be privatized is to say that religious people are entitled. or no right to call yourself a Jew unless you perform this ritual rather than that. Vattimo seems to me to be aiming at such a privatized religion when he describes the secularization of European culture as the fulfillment of the promise of the Incarnation. The more secular. as carrying out works of love. It was a good thing for both religion and science that science won that battle. would be to pose exactly the wrong question. To try to apply it is to imply that you have no right to go to church for the weddings and baptisms and funerals of your friends and relations unless you acknowledge the authority of ecclesiastical institutions to decide who counts as a Christian and who does not. and science gives us the means to carry out better .

my remote descendants will live in a global civilization in which love is pretty much the only law. The . and power would be entirely at the disposal of the free agreement of a literate and well-educated electorate. My sense of the holy. communication would be domination-free. It is. the conjunction of the science and the common sense of your day is all you need. People like Vattimo will cease to think that my lack of religious feeling is a sign of vulgarity. and people like me will cease to think that his possession of such feelings is a sign of cowardice. this is not surprising. It may be. Both of us can cite 1 Corinthians 13 in support of our refusal to engage in any such invidious explanations. My differences with Vattimo come down to his ability to regard a past event as holy and my sense that holiness resides only in an ideal future. I have no idea how such a society could come about. That mystery. then a religion that has been taken out of the epistemic arena. 1 Corinthians 13 is an equally useful text both for religious people like Vattimo. and allows that both are matters of cultural formation. concerns the coming into existence of a love that is kind. insofar as I have one. hierarchy would be a matter of temporary pragmatic convenience. one might say. There is still a big difference between people like myself and people like Vattimo. for whom this sense consists simply in hope for a better human future. and endures all things. is bound up with the hope that someday. His sense of the holy is bound up with recollection of that event. may be just what suits your solitude. Only if one thinks that religious yearnings are somehow pre-cultural and “basic to human nature” will one be reluctant to leave the matter at that – reluctant to privatize religion completely by letting it swing free of the demand for universality. patient. Considering that he was raised a Catholic and I was raised in no religion at all. Vattimo thinks of God’s decision to switch from being our master to being our friend as the decisive event upon which our present efforts are dependent. but it may not. like that of the Incarnation. any millennium now. and for non-religious people like myself.44 r i c h a rd ro rt y cooperative social projects than before. a religion which finds the question of theism versus atheism uninteresting. In such a society. and of the person who embodied it. But if one gives up the idea that either the quest for truth or the quest for God is hard-wired into all human organisms. But if you want something else. If social cooperation is what you want. a mystery. whose sense of what transcends our present condition is bound up with a feeling of dependence. class and caste would be unknown. then such privatization will seem natural and proper.

Calif. 1999). Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell. ed. Mass. p. 148–67. “Men have never fully used the powers they possess to advance the good in life. 6. 10. The question of whether this retreat is desirable is quite different from the Kantstyle question “Is religious belief cognitive or non-cognitive?” My distinction between the epistemic arena and what lies outside is not drawn on the basis of a distinction between human faculties. 2. 8. Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo (Stanford. It is a distinction between topics on which we are entitled to ask for universal agreement and other topics. 1925–1953. 31). Page numbers in parentheses refer to that volume. ed. E. Nancy Frankenberry (New York: Cambridge University Press. ix. 1948).” in Religion. Trans. pp.” in John Dewey: The Later Works. in Radical Interpretation in Religion.: Duke University Press. 1999). 1993]. 53–77. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row. M. (Boston. Trans. 1982). included in my collection Philosophy and Social Hope (New York: Penguin. we anti-clericalists who are also leftists in politics have a further reason for hoping that institutionalized religion will eventually disappear. 2002). p.Anti-clericalism and atheism 45 difference between these two sorts of people is that between unjustifiable gratitude and unjustifiable hope. We think other-worldliness dangerous because. pp. “The Trace of the Trace. 1998). See also my “Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism. ed. 1996). 4. Prior to what Jonathan Israel calls “the radical Enlightenment” it was assumed that religion was a topic of the former sort. 5. because they have waited upon some power external to themselves and to nature to do the work they are responsible for doing” (“A Common Faith. Thanks to three hundred and fifty years of culture-political activity. 21–36. Luka Disanto and David Webb (Stanford. Jo Ann Boydston [Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. 3. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ed. 1998). (Garzanti Editore. see my essay “Cultural Politics and the Question of the Existence of God”. Intellectual Responsibility and Romance”. Calif.: Stanford University Press. (New Haven: Yale University Press.” in The Revival of Pragmatism. Of course. 7. n. . pp. 1962).c. 9.: Beacon Press. This book has appeared in English as Belief . 84. This is not a matter of conflicting beliefs about what really exists and what does not. this is no longer the case. Trans. G. Which topics these are – what should be in the epistemic arena and what should not – is a matter of cultural politics.12 n ot e s 1. 1968). I have argued this point in some detail in an essay on William James’s “The Will to Believe”: “Religious Faith. vol. trans.: Stanford University Press. Morris Dickstein (Durham. 2002). For more on the relation between theology and cultural politics. or on the basis of a theory about the way in which the human mind is related to reality. as John Dewey put it.

” Journal of Religious Ethics 31 (2003). u .: Harvard University Press. See Robert Brandom. Making It Explicit (Cambridge. Robert Audi. 141–9. and many others.46 r i c h a rd ro rt y It is also a different question than the one about whether religious voices should be heard in the public square. 12. This paper is a revised and expanded version of a talk given on the occasion of the award of the Meister-Eckhart Sachbuchpreis in December. Nicholas Wolterstorff. The original version was published in German in S¨ ddeutsche Zeitung. Mass. 2001. where citizens deliberate on political questions. pp. 11. The latter question has been intensively discussed by Stephen Carter. 1994). I comment on this debate in my “Religion in the Public Square: A Reconsideration.

It is truer to say that in our world. as we see with the present American culture wars 47 . that belief is unthinkable. from the most militant atheism to the most orthodox traditional theisms. that is. which strikes us as soon as we take a certain distance. This will be a way of making sense of a remarkable historical fact. the reverse has become the case. or even unthinkable. but are puzzled. is represented and defended somewhere in our society. makes its sense of the thinkable/unthinkable uncertain and wavering. but what is ruled out will vary from context to context. The existence of an alternative makes each context fragile. The existence of these people raises sometimes even more acute doubts within the more assured milieux. of course.” but which in one way or another close these off. as often (in a rather different way) do believing Christians in certain reaches of the academy. a whole gamut of positions. But this already concedes the lack of symmetry. and that the option they can’t really credit is the default option elsewhere in the same society. or have constituted by bricolage a sort of median position. whether they regard this with hostility or just perplexity. Something like the unthinkability of some of these positions can be experienced in certain milieux. are cross-pressured.chapter 5 Closed world structures Charles Taylor I want to explore here the constitution in modernity of what I shall call “closed” or “horizontal” worlds. One might be tempted to say that in certain milieux. whereas today this is not at all the case. An atheist in the Bible belt has trouble being understood. say five hundred years ago in our Western civilization. non-belief in God was close to unthinkable for the vast majority. that. passing through every possible position on the way. The polar opposites can be written off as just mad or bad. I mean by this shapes of our “world” in Heidegger’s sense which leave no place for the “vertical” or “transcendent. people in each of these contexts are aware that the others exist. render them inaccessible. This making fragile is then increased by the fact that great numbers of people are not firmly embedded in any such context. But.

because their experience and thought are structured by two different pictures. higher beings and worldly beings. see.” as Wittgenstein put it. A “picture” can “hold us captive. All of these arise during the slow development in Latin Christendom and its sucessor civilization of a clear distinction between what came to be called the “natural” and the “supernatural. is very worth while. opine. these two kinds of reality were inextricably interwoven. acts. with the corresponding dangers: (a) What I shall really be describing is not worlds in their entirety. This kind of clear demarcation was foreign to any other civilization in history. What I want to try to lay out is world structures which are closed to transcendence. The sacred was concentrated in certain times.” as two separate levels of reality. I believe. this effort. for instance. The natural/ supernatural distinction implies a great sorting out. The “supernatural” can be denied only from a firm footing in the “natural” as an autonomous order. But this articulation involves some degree of abstraction – indeed. and (c) The articulation involves an intellectualization. . will almost surely not. And by the same token. we can gain insight into the way two people or groups can be arguing past each other. This is the precondition for going the further step and declaring this the only reality. etc. places.” aspects or features of the way experience and thought are shaped and cohere. three kinds of abstraction. and so forth. and very often ideas which are not consciously available to the people concerned. or persons. Nevertheless. It gives the shape of what they experience. but not the whole of which they are constituents. (b) I shall not be describing the world of any concrete human beings. which may not. feel. What I want to try is to articulate some of the worlds from within which the believing option seems strange and unjustifiable. but in the “enchanted” worlds that humans inhabited in earlier times. but the intermediate positions can sometimes not be as easily dismissed.48 c h a r l e s tay lo r between “liberals” and “fundamentalists”. because it enables us to see the way in which we can be held within certain world structures without being aware that there are alternatives. A world is something which people inhabit. But what I’m doing is trying to articulate certain world-types (“ideal types” in a quasiWeberian sense). unless they are forced to articulate them by themselves through challenge and argument. one has to get at the connections in lived experience through ideas. but “world structures. in which the “natural” becomes a level which can be described and understood on its own. the sacred and the profane. coincide with the totality of any real person’s world. There have always been distinctions between. The world of the cross-pressured is different from that of the assured.

the sacred.” of the natural order. be these conceived as mental pictures (in the earlier variants). The . but which controls the way people think. But we have to use some terms to discuss these issues. or as something like sentences held true in the more contemporary versions. which I am taking as more than a set of theories which have been widespread. argue. and also the cross-purposes. in more and more comprehensive theories. but also at the level of a structure in my sense – that is.. or it would have slid quickly into other concepts (e. Of course. I want to look ultimately at four. and they are bound to make sense in some epochs and not others. it is what “goes beyond” the natural.g. Knowledge of the self and its states comes before knowledge of external reality and of others. and also the least explored or understood. knowledge of the things of “this world. and which is couched in inner representations. but we are also often speaking past each other. and make sense of things. sometimes bitterly and strongly. It would have been hard to explain this concept to a medieval peasant. who build up their understanding of the world through combining and relating.Closed world structures 49 So I want to look at some Closed world structures (CWSs). the information which they take in. and try to draw from them some of the features of modern experience. I’m hoping that a study of some key CWSs will cast some light on the differences. as against that of the saints). this term “transcendent” makes sense most clearly within a world in which natural and supernatural are distinguished. precedes any theoretical invocation of forces and realities transcendent to it. We are opposed. the transcendent. And. an underlying picture which is only partly consciously entertained. Characteristic of this picture is a series of priority relations. or inability to experience the spiritual. So I use one that does make sense to us. infer. That’s because I think that it is in an important sense the most significant. combining as it does very often with some understanding of modern science. operates frequently as a CWS. I shall give most of my attention to the third in the series (in the order of their introduction. not the order of their arising). of course. but with very unequal treatment. The epistemological picture. At its most blatant. Here I want to introduce the structure of modern epistemology. this structure operates with a picture of knowing agents as individuals. the realm of God. The knowledge of reality as neutral fact comes before our attributing to it various “values” and relevances. Our time is full of struggle and cross-purposes on this issue of the transcendent.

not as an add-on but from their first appearance in our world. outside of the relevances of coping. But referring to Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty as paradigm cases of the refutation of epistemology. and the understanding which inhabits it. We are all aware of the contestation. structuring our whole way of life. it is clear that the . social. and (4) In the later Heidegger. and on the other maintain themselves. in the later stages of development. the way they are on the one hand contested. granted the lack of consensus surrounding this move. I must grasp the world as fact before I can posit values. and consider things objectively. but also what can be inferred on the basis of what.” there are four axes of our world in this more general sense: world and earth. these significances include some which have a higher status. it is obviously highly problematic. is not primarily that of each of us as individuals. Now I introduce the epistemological picture in order to bring out some features of the way CWSs operate in our time. some of which do indeed. human and divine. but what Heidegger calls “pragmata. I know the world through my representations.50 c h a r l e s tay lo r priority relations tell us not only what is learned before what. There are foundational relations. because it is obvious that the inference to the transcendent is at the extreme and most fragile end of a series of inferences. Although all those who follow something like this deconstruction of epistemology do not go along with this fourth stage. which are perhaps best understood in contemporary terms as sentences held true.g. it is the most epistemically questionable. we are each inducted into the practices of coping as social “games” or activities. if at all. as against earlier steps (e. by inference from the natural. I must accede to the transcendent. the ensemble of our significances. this coping activity. meaning. we can see that this view has been comprehensibly turned on its head: (1) Our grasp of the world does not consist simply of our holding inner representations of outer reality. And indeed. This can operate as a CWS. we learn to stand back. We do hold such representations. Later. rather. because most of the authors in this volume have taken part in contesting epistemology. and cultural beings. to “other minds”). but these only make the sense that they do for us because they are thrown up in the course of an ongoing activity of coping with the world by bodily. (3) In this coping.. the things which we deal with are not first and foremost objects. which therefore have relevance. This coping can never be accounted for in terms of representations.” things which are the focal points of our dealings. But primordially. we are part of social action. In the formulation of “das Geviert. but provides the background against which our representations have the sense that they do. call upon us to assume a stance as individuals. (2) As just implied. significance for us.

Locke. this is a most massive self-blindness. disengaged subject.” which is meant to emerge out of the careful. presuppositionless scrutiny. suffer attack.” virtues. the refusal of the easy comforts of conformity to authority.Closed world structures 51 general thrust of these arguments is to overturn utterly the priority relations of epistemology. since we are dealing with it. It comes across as an obvious discovery we make when we reflect on our perception and acquisition of knowledge. selfcontrol. the epistemological picture seems unproblematic. the CWS can no longer operate as such. There is no priority of the individual’s sense of self over the society. All the great foundational figures (Descartes. a stance which requires courage.” Once you shift to the deconstructing point of view. is now presented as having been there from the beginning. driving the whole process of “discovery. and defend themselves. What was driving this theory? Certain “values. We only have knowledge as agents coping with a world. Seen from the deconstruction. We can learn something general about the way CWSs operate. There is an ethic here.” in Husserl’s famous phrase. which it makes no sense to doubt. “self-responsibly. the intramental as the locus of certainty. From within itself. our most primordial identity is as a new player being inducted into an old game. self-responsibility. says Heidegger in Sein und Zeit. Hume) claimed to be just saying what was obvious once one examined experience itself reflectively. of the consolations of an enchanted world. It seemed to offer a neutral point of view from . There is no priority of the neutral grasp of things over their value. excellences: those of the independent. shot through with “values. but rather that this should be considered a problem. of independence. There is no getting behind them. The entire picture. of the surrender to the promptings of the senses. from this example. and it makes no sense to place them in context. the neutral. but it doesn’t offer itself as a CWS in the same direct and obvious way as the epistemological picture did. The “scandal of philosophy” is not the inability to attain to certainty of the external world. objective. of a disengagement which brings control. Rather what happened is that experience was carved into shape by a powerful theory which posited the primacy of the individual. reflexively controlling his own thought processes. The new outlook can be built into a new CWS. the whole sense that it comes as a remote and most fragile inference or addition in a long chain is totally undercut by this overturning of epistemology. Even if we don’t add the fourth stage. Things which are considered as late inferences or additions are seen to be part of our primordial predicament. and consider something like the divine as part of the inescapable context of human action.

g. except the return to earlier myth or illusion. and from the deconstructing point of view. fudging. The naturalizing emerges in a kind of narration they proffer of their genesis.. or mental reservation. and most important. this is what appears. rather this is the way things could be made to look from within a new historical formation of human identity. perhaps the most powerful CWS operating today. I can’t be faithful to all of them. that of the disengaged. which I want to call a “subtraction story. honestly. It isn’t just that one day people looked without blinkers and discovered epistemology. potentialities.52 c h a r l e s tay lo r which we could problematize certain values – e. “transcendent” ones – more than others. the deliverances of science. It is a feature of our contemporary CWSs that they are understood by those who inhabit them in this naturalizing way. But now it appears that it is itself driven by its own set of values. because they cannot envisage surrender except as regression. and then secondarily also. a re-creation. This is just the way things are. or heroism.” Of course. There is no simple stepping out of an earlier such identity into the pure light of bare nature. without preconceptions. or constellation of CWSs.1 if I say that one essential idea which this phrase captures is that conditions have arisen in the modern world in which it is no longer possible. you have to tell a quite different story of the rise of this outlook. and feeblest. the shape of contemporary moral experience. To take up the first. richer CWS. objectifying subject. For people who cling to this idea. they are of two orders: first. Its “neutrality” appears bogus. the CWS in a sense “naturalizes” a certain view on things. “Natural” is opposed here to something like “socially constructed”. along with great changes in society and social practices. of human identity. That’s what gives them their strength. To put this another way. the second . It is what people often gesture at with an expression like “the death of God. rationally. It also follows from this that those who inhabit them see no alternative. People within the redoubt fight as it were to the last. and once you look at experience. without confusions. the central idea seems to be that the whole thrust of modern science has been to establish materialism. What conditions? Essentially. argument. this expression is used in an uncountable range of ways. The process involves a reinvention. These conditions leave us nothing we can believe in beyond the human – human happiness.” But to develop this idea I should move to another. nor even will I be simply following the originator of the phrase (though I think that my version is not too far from his). to believe in God.

he has no reason to exclude anyone as a heretic. and to work for it. why they want to go on believing illusion. from the most sophisticated: “We exist as material beings in a material world. so that religion is the source of a terrible infliction of suffering. On the contrary. As children. is unnecessary or merely secondary. Unbelief has the opposite features. The real world is utterly indifferent to us. we have to learn to face the fact that this environment of concern can’t extend beyond the human sphere. but also an attack on religion as calling for terrible self-mutilation. actuated by pride. all of whose phenomena are the consequences of physical relations among material entities”. But this doesn’t cause him just to cave in. Science alone can explain why belief is no longer possible in the above sense. But in growing up. This doesn’t mean that moral issues don’t come into it. Now the traditional unbelieving attack on religion since the Enlightenment contains this accusation of childish pusillanimity. so his philanthropy is universal. He knows that human beings are on their own. and even to a certain degree dangerous. Unbelief goes together with modern (exclusive) humanism. and mostly doesn’t extend very far within it. and face reality.Closed world structures 53 order of conditions. This is a view held by people on all levels. The meanings of things are already given. Or at least.”3 At bottom it’s just a matter of facing the obvious truth. created by a benign God. So he is counter-mortification. we see the world as meaningful in terms of the ultimate human good. But this transition is hard. we have to see ourselves as surrounded by love and concern.” Religion or spirituality involves substituting wrong and mythical explanations. Not only is the providential world soothing. and face reality. We need to stand up like men. . on heretics and outsiders. explaining by “demons. So religion emanates from a childish lack of courage. Human desire has to be checked. The unbeliever has the courage to take up an adult stance. But they enter as accounts of why people run away from reality. the basic reason for resisting the truth is pusillanimity. So we project a world which is providential. living in a material world. he determines to affirm human worth. They do so because it’s comforting. the contemporary moral predicament. but it also takes the burden of evaluating things off our shoulders. This shows that the unbelieving critique of religion is more complex and many-tracked than I’m dealing with here.2 to the most direct and simple: Madonna’s “material girl. And then this mortification is often imposed on others. and the visiting of severe punishment. without false illusion or consolation. threatening. but on one very widespread version of this critique. Moreover. and the human good. mortified. or we shrivel up.

The crucial idea is that the scientific-epistemic part of it is completely self-supporting. etc. that the real power that the package has to attract and convince lies in it as a definition of our moral predicament. . This means that this ideal of the courageous acknowledger of unpalatable truths. etc. devotion. meaning. socio-biology. And/or it means that the counter-ideals of belief. and we value it. the answer can simply be that left to ourselves we do want to benefit our fellow humans. all this falls out rather differently. sits well with us. so we don’t pick too closely at the details. that’s the official story. From the believer’s perspective. Here the moral outlook just mentioned comes back in. ready to eschew all easy comfort and consolation. as it were. but rather that its moral attraction and seeming plausibility given the facts of the human moral condition draw you to it. The best example today might be evolution. but in a different role. piety can all too easily seem actuated by a still immature desire for consolation. Dennett. which figures here in the portrait of this humanism. and we can keep this going if we set ourselves to it. So the believer returns the compliment. But the supposition here is that the official story isn’t the real one. draws us. courageous being to face these facts. Not that failure to rise to this outlook makes you unable to face the facts of materialism. so that you readily grant the materialist argument from science its various leaps of faith. that we feel tempted to make it our own. That’s certainly the way the package of epistemic and moral views presents itself officially.54 c h a r l e s tay lo r So goes one story. That’s something the rational mind will believe independently of any moral convictions. The connection between materialist science and humanist affirmation comes because you have to be a mature. The whole package seems plausible. . But how can this be? Surely. or that we have developed this way culturally. As to why mature courage embraces benevolence. and who by the same token becomes capable of grasping and controlling the world. the whole package is meant to be plausible precisely because science has shown . it seems full of holes. The moral attributions to one side or the other come when you are trying to explain why some people accept and others resist these truths. and extra-human sustenance. He casts about for an explanation of why the materialist is so eager to believe very inconclusive arguments. We start with an epistemic response: the argument from modern science to allaround materialism seems quite unconvincing. . and the like – Dawkins. Whenever this is worked out in something closer to detail.

of spiritual self-possession (the “buffered self”). and the connected understanding of the biblical story. Seen in this light. another model of what was higher triumphed. Of course. with whatever degree of inner pain. and the conception of natural law by which we understand it. it hardly suggests to us that humans have any kind of special place in its story. even with anguish of soul. rising above the pain of loss. of untrammeled agency. because one could be deeply attached to this childhood faith. But all this still doesn’t amount to an endorsement of the official . What happened here was not that a moral outlook bowed to brute facts. the development of modern science has gone hand in hand with the rise of the ethic of austere. So I am less than fully convinced by the major thrust of the “death of God” account of the rise of secularity. and that in a number of ways. to relinquish it. to the facts. is not simply “science. one’s childhood faith had perhaps in many respects remained childish. And much was going for this model: images of power. these people in a sense preferred the Christian outlook morally.Closed world structures 55 What seems to accredit the view of the package as epistemically driven is all the famous conversion stories. But even this pain could work for the conversion. its temporal and spatial dimensions are mind-numbing. makes it refractory to the interventions of Providence as these were envisaged in the framework of the earlier cosmos. starting with post-Darwinian Victorians but continuing to our day. What makes belief problematical. “Darwin” has indeed “refuted the Bible.” For another thing. Rather it gave way to another moral outlook. philanthropic concern into the new secular key. For one thing.” Surely. in other words. it was all too easy to come to see it as essentially and constitutionally so. manly self-conquest. but had to bow. It has been noted how many of the crop of great Victorian agnostics came from Evangelical families. disengaged reason I invoked above. often difficult and full of doubts. its account. where people who had a strong faith early in life found that they had reluctantly. the change was painful. This. But that’s exactly what I’m resisting saying. the universe which this science reveals is very different from the centered hierarchic cosmos which our civilization grew up within.” This is not to deny that science (and even more “science”) has had an important place in the story. but also to what it promised. we want to say. not just as part of one’s past. of the modern conditions of belief. manly. They transposed the model of the strenuous. now told in favor of the apostasy. But the very core of that model. On the other side. because “Darwin has refuted the Bible.

there is a perfectly good sense in which we can say that this is their reason. that the weather. and lead me away from the inquiry I want to pursue. But I acknowledge that this is a loose end in my argument which I won’t be able to tie up. that I have no alternative access to this afternoon’s weather than the forecast. one might object. Just as we laypeople take the latest report about the micro-constitution of the atom from the Sunday paper.56 c h a r l e s tay lo r story. beyond the inconvenience of getting wet today. I may leave the house without an umbrella because I believe the radio forecast to be reliable. This is not necessarily so. But an explanation in terms of a bad reason calls for supplementation. as a layperson. Since lots of people believe that they are atheists and materialists because science has shown atheism and materialism to be irrefutable. and in a sense. Of course. . the official story is also true. in individual cases. To state just why would take me much too far afield. Individuals can just take some conclusion on authority from their milieu. however. I hope. and which sees the attraction of materialism arising not so much from the conclusions of science as from the ethic which is associated with it. I am not arguing that an account of someone’s action in terms of erroneous belief always needs supplementation. doesn’t matter to me in anything like the same way. that this untidiness in my case can be partly compensated for by the plausibility of the explanation I offer in place of the official account. why shouldn’t bad arguments have an important effect in history. a good reason for my lack of conviction here is that I don’t see the case for materialism as all that strong. We need an account of why the bad reason nevertheless works. of course. But the difference between this kind of case and the issue we’re dealing with here is first. get so easily sucked into invalid arguments? Why do we and they not more readily see the alternatives? My proffered account in terms of the attraction of an ethic vision is meant to answer this deeper question. so we may take it on authority from a Sagan or a Dawkins that Science has refuted God. as also the scientific luminaries. I have to take on authority the findings of paleontology. The latter is not simply true in the question of belief in God. and second. and it predicted fair weather. this objection is well taken. Of course. But. What makes it the case that we laypeople. But this leaves still unexplained how an authority of this kind gets constituted. as much as if not more than good arguments? In a sense. that the present climate of unbelief in many milieux in contemporary society is a response to the strong case for materialism which science has drawn up during the last three centuries. therefore.

which convinced him that there must be something more. This is because I can also have a religious life. That’s how it now looks ex post facto – and how it looked to Othello. because the brute facts of the universe contradicted it. Science seemed to show that we are nothing but a fleeting life form on a dying star.Closed world structures 57 But I am not similarly without resources on the issue whether what science has shown about the material world denies the existence of God. even perhaps in the most dramatic form. if he could only have opened his heart/mind to her love and devotion. once you accept unbelief. there are overwhelming reasons why one will be induced to buy into the official. on whose authority we buy the official story. The reason why I can’t accept the arguments that “science has refuted God. and not just a tale of misfortune. science-driven story. indeed. of the absolute finality of death. What makes Othello a tragedy. partly induced by his outsider’s status and sudden promotion. The fatal flaw in the tragic hero Othello is his inability to do this. then you will probably also accept the ideology which accords primacy to the external sources.” without any supplement. miracles or salvation. before a picture of the crucified Christ. once one has taken the step into unbelief. without seeing what we made of the internal ones. might easily have the opposite effect. Once you go this way. a sense of God and how he impinges on my existence. I want to draw the Desdemona analogy. that there is thus no place for spirit or God. which depreciates the internal ones as incompetent here. of dragging you down and forcing an abandonment of your faith. We can’t just explain what we do on the basis of the information we received from external sources. Thus. or that the universe is nothing but decaying matter. against which I can check the supposed claims to refutation. is that we hold its protagonist culpable in his too-ready belief in the evidence fabricated by Iago. And because we very often make these choices under the influence of others. as an explanation of the rise of unbelief is that we are on this issue like Othello. . as likely sources of childish illusion. rather than a person listening to the forecast as he hesitates before the umbrella stand. But we who have seen this happen need a further account of why Desdemona’s testimony wasn’t heard. All this doesn’t mean that a perfectly valid description of an individual’s experience might not be that he felt forced to give up a faith he cherished. He had an alternative mode of access to her innocence in Desdemona herself. it is not surprising that lots of people have thought of their conversion as science-driven. under ever-increasing entropy. Something like the vision which Dostoyevsky had.

or one believes. more recent. our public life. and then one cannot really believe in God.4 This adversarial picture of the relation of faith to modernity is not an invention of unbelievers. including human rights. But this convergence between fundamentalists and hard-line atheists doesn’t make their common interpretation of the relation of faith to modernity the only possible one. Now. equality. But this doesn’t bring me to the end of my search. The conclusion here is the same as with the argument from science. rather it blocks the way with a pseudo-solution. rather. And our age is certainly unique in human history in this respect.58 c h a r l e s tay lo r But the question remains: If the arguments in fact aren’t conclusive. examples. Some people see no place in this kind of world for belief in God. Thus one is either thoroughly in this world. why do they seem so convincing. living by its premises. in unrelenting combat with it. and are strongly committed to the modes of human well-being and . where at other times and places God’s existence just seems obvious? This is the question I’m trying to answer. A faith of this kind would have to make one an outsider. but the starting point is now the ethical outlook of the modern age. human rights. is exclusively concerned with human goods. We have only to think of Pius IX. Since we find ourselves more and more inducted into it. belief becomes harder and harder. It is matched and encouraged by a strand of Christian hostility to the humanist world.” or exclusive humanism. it is true that a great deal of our political and moral life is focused on human ends: human welfare. And it is clear that there are many people of faith who have helped to build and are now sustaining this modern humanist world. in societies which are secular in a familiar modern sense. among Christians as well as believers in other religions. and is in some sense living like a resident alien in modernity. human flourishing. And there are other. the one which starts from our contemporary moral predicament. and the “death of God” doesn’t help me here. an enemy of this world. the further question arises: how in turn to explain something like the power of this package? Here’s where we might invoke the second level of the “death of God” account. fulminating in his Syllabus of 1864 against all the errors of the modern world. and just about everything our contemporary liberal state embodies. Indeed. that we can no longer rationally believe in God.” but has rather to be explained in terms of the power of a certain package uniting materialism with a moral outlook. the horizon of faith steadily recedes. democracy. the package we could call “atheist humanism. equality between human beings. So my contention is that the power of materialism today does not come from the scientific “facts.

But all these theories concur in describing the process: old views and loyalties are eroded. Retreating. But the underlying image of eroded faith could serve just as well for an upbeat story of the progress of triumphant scientific reason. long. the change is seen as a loss of belief. and round earth’s shore Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.5 The tone here is one of regret and nostalgia. instrumental rationality.. From one point of view. Old horizons are washed away. But in either case. too. Or the loss may be supposed to arise from the increasing operation of modern scientific reason. of individualism. Once again. and scientific reason too narrow. down the vast edges drear And naked shingles of the world. But these come to the fore because they are what we humans “normally” value. The sea of faith recedes. at the full. just as it is possible to take science as having proved atheism. What emerges comes about through this loss. But now I only hear Its melancholy. humanity has shed a lot of false and harmful myths. the question arises why so many people come to it. But since the conclusion is in neither case warranted. This may be seen as resulting from institutional changes: E. The change may be positively valued – or it may be judged a disaster by those for whom the traditional reference points were valuable. And that brings me back to the central issue I’ve been raising. withdrawing roar. The upbeat story cherishes the dominance of an empirical-scientific approach to knowledge claims. This moral version of the “death of God” account seems plausible to many people. it has lost touch with crucial spiritual realities. From another. It is possible to see modern humanism as the enemy of religion. This stanza from his ‘Dover Beach’ captures this perspective: The Sea of Faith Was once. once we are no longer impeded or blinded by false or superstitious beliefs and the .g. the “death of God” account leaps to a conclusion which is far from being warranted. to follow Arnold. mobility and urbanization erode the beliefs and reference points of static rural society. in Nietzsche’s image. negative freedom. to the breath Of the night-wind. because they make an assumption about the rise of modernity which helps to screen from them how complex and difficult this quest is. The assumption is what I have called “the view from Dover Beach”: The transition to modernity comes about through the loss of traditional beliefs and allegiances.Closed world structures 59 flourishing that it has made central.

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stultifying modes of life which accompany them. Once myth and error are dissipated, these are the only games in town. The empirical approach is the only valid way of acquiring knowledge, and this becomes evident as soon as we free ourselves from the thraldom of a false metaphysics. Increasing recourse to instrumental rationality allows us to get more and more of what we want, and we were only ever deterred from this by unfounded injunctions to limit ourselves. Individualism is the normal fruit of human self-regard absent the illusory claims of God, the Chain of Being, or the sacred order of society. In other words, we moderns behave as we do because we have “come to see” that certain claims were false – or on the negative reading, because we have lost from view certain perennial truths. What this view reads out of the picture is the possibility that Western modernity might be powered by its own positive visions of the good, that is, by one constellation of such visions among available others, rather than by the only viable set left after the old myths and legends have been exploded. It screens out whatever there might be of a specific moral direction to Western modernity, beyond what is dictated by the general form of human life itself, once old error is shown up (or old truth forgotten) – e.g., people behave as individuals, because that’s what they “naturally” do when no longer held in by the old religions, metaphysics, and customs, though this may be seen as a glorious liberation, or a purblind enmiring in egoism, depending on our perspective. What it cannot be seen as is a novel form of moral self-understanding, not definable simply by the negation of what preceded it. In terms of my discussion a few pages ago, all these accounts “naturalize” the features of the modern, liberal identity. They cannot see it as one, historically constructed understanding of human agency among others. On this “subtraction” view of modernity, as what arises from the washing away of old horizons, modern humanism can only have arisen through the fading of earlier forms. It can only be conceived as coming to be through a “death of God.” It just follows that you can’t be fully into contemporary humanist concerns if you haven’t sloughed off the old beliefs. You can’t be fully with the modern age and still believe in God. Or alternatively, if you still believe, then you have reservations, you are at least partly, and perhaps covertly, some kind of adversary. But of course, as I have argued at length elsewhere,6 this is a quite inadequate account of modernity. What has got screened out is the possibility that Western modernity might be sustained by its own original spiritual vision, that is, not one generated simply and inescapably out of the transition. But this possibility is in fact the reality.

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The logic of the subtraction story is something like this: Once we slough off our concern with serving God, or attending to any other transcendent reality, what we’re left with is human good, and that is what modern societies are concerned with. But this radically under-describes what I’m calling modern humanism. That I am left with only human concerns doesn’t tell me to take universal human welfare as my goal; nor does it tell me that freedom is important, or fulfillment, or equality. Just being confined to human goods could just as well find expression in my concerning myself exclusively with my own material welfare, or that of my family or immediate milieu. The, in fact, very exigent demands of universal justice and benevolence which characterize modern humanism can’t be explained just by the subtraction of earlier goals and allegiances. The subtraction story, inadequate though it is, is deeply embedded in modern humanist consciousness. It is by no means propounded only by the more simplistic theorists. Even such a penetrating and sophisticated thinker as Paul B´nichou subscribed to a version of it in his Morales du e grand si`cle: “L’humanit´ s’estime d`s qu’elle se voit capable de faire reculer e e e sa mis`re; elle tend a oublier, en mˆme temps que sa d´tresse, l’humiliante e e e ` morale par laquelle, faisant de n´cessit´ vertu, elle condamnait la vie.”7 e e Modern humanism arises, in other words, because humans become capable of sloughing off the older, other-worldly ethics of asceticism. Moreover, this story is grounded in a certain view of human motivation in general, and of the wellsprings of religious belief in particular. The latter is seen as the fruit of misery, and the accompanying self-renunciation is “making a virtue of necessity.” Belief is a product of deprivation, humiliation, and a lack of hope. It is the obverse of the human desire for flourishing; where we are driven by our despair at the frustration of this desire. Thus human flourishing is taken as our perennial goal, even though it is in eclipse in periods of misery and humiliation, and its content is taken as fairly unproblematic, once one begins to affirm it. We see here the outlines of one version of an account of modern secularity, which in its general form is widely and deeply implanted in modern humanist culture. It tends to have four connected facets, of which the first three are (a) the “death of God” thesis that one can no longer honestly, lucidly, sincerely believe in God; (b) some “subtraction” story of the rise of modern humanism; and (c) a view on the original reasons for religious belief, and on their place in perennial human motivations, which grounds the subtraction story. These views vary all the way from nineteenth-century theories about primitives’ fears of the unknown, or desire to control the elements, to speculations like Freud’s, linking religion to neurosis. On many

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of these accounts, religion simply becomes unnecessary when technology gets to a certain level: we don’t need God any more, because we know how to get it ourselves.8 These theories are generally wildly and implausibly reductive. These three facets issue in (d) a take on modern secularization as mainly a recession of religion in the face of science, technology, and rationality. As against the nineteenth century, when thinkers like Comte confidently predicted the supersession of religion by science, as did Renan: “il viendra un jour o` l’humanit´ ne croira plus, mais o` elle saura; un jour o` elle u e u u saura le monde m´taphysique et moral, comme elle sait d´j` le monde e ea physique,”9 today everybody thinks that the illusion has some future; but on the vision I’m describing here it is in for some more shrinkage. These four facets together give an idea of what modern secularization often looks like from within the humanist camp. Against this, I want to offer a rather different picture. (If I can manage to tell this story properly, then we will see that there is some, phenomenal, truth to the “death of God” account. A humanism has come about which can be seen, and hence lived, as exclusive. And from within this, it can indeed seem plausible that science points us toward a materialist account of spirit. The “death of God” is not just an erroneous account of secularity on a theoretical level; it is also a way we may be tempted to interpret, and hence experience, the modern condition. It is not the explanans I am looking for, but it is a crucial part of the explanandum. In this role, I am very far from wanting to deny it.) In order to develop this alternative picture, I want to explore another domain of CWSs, which I think is more fundamental. This is the domain in which the moral self-understanding of moderns has been forged. I would want to tell a longish story here. But in its main lines, my account centers on the development of an ascending series of attempts to establish a Christian order, of which the Reformation is a key phase. These attempts show a progressive impatience with older modes of post-Axial religion in which certain collective, ritualistic forms of earlier religions coexisted uneasily with the demands of individual devotion and ethical reform which came from the “higher” revelations. In Latin Christendom, the attempt was to recover and impose on everyone a more individually committed and Christocentric religion of devotion and action, and to repress or even abolish older, supposedly “magical,” or “superstitious” forms of collective ritual practice. Allied with a neo-Stoic outlook, this became the charter for a series of attempts to establish new forms of social order, drawing on new disciplines (Foucault enters the story here) which helped to reduce violence and

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disorder, and create populations of relatively pacific and productive artisans and peasants, who were more and more induced/forced into the new forms of devotional practice and moral behaviour, be this in Protestant England, Holland, or later the American colonies, counter-Reformation France, or the Germany of the “Polizeistaat.” My hypothesis is that this new creation of a civilized, “polite” order succeeded beyond what its first originators could have hoped for, and that this in turn led to a new reading of what a Christian order might be, one which was seen more and more in “immanent” terms (the polite, civilized order is the Christian order). This version of Christianity was shorn of much of its “transcendent” content, and was thus open to a new departure, in which the understanding of good order (what I call the “modern moral order”) could be embraced outside of the original theological, providential framework, and in certain cases even against it (as with Voltaire, Gibbon, and in another way Hume). Disbelief in God arises in close symbiosis with this belief in a moral order of rights-bearing individuals, who are destined (by God or Nature) to act for mutual benefit; an order which thus rejects the earlier honor ethic which exalted the warrior, as it also tends to occlude any transcendent horizon. We see one good formulation of this notion of order in Locke’s Second Treatise.10 This ideal order was not thought to be a mere human invention. Rather it was designed by God, an order in which everything coheres according to God’s purposes. Later in the eighteenth century, the same model is projected onto the cosmos, in a vision of the universe as a set of perfectly interlocking parts, in which the purposes of each kind of creature mesh with those of all the others. This order sets the goal for our constructive activity, insofar as it lies within our power to upset it, or realize it. Of course, when we look at the whole, we see how much the order is already realized; but when we cast our eye on human affairs, we see how much we have deviated from it and upset it; it becomes the norm to which we should strive to return. This order was thought to be evident in the nature of things. Of course, if we consult Revelation, we shall also find the demand formulated there that we abide by it. But reason alone can tell us God’s purposes. Living things, including ourselves, strive to preserve themselves. This is God’s doing.
God having made Man, and planted in him, as in all other Animals, a strong desire of Self-preservation, and furnished the World with things fit for Food and Rayment and other Necessaries of Life, Subservient to his design, that Man should live and abide for some time upon the Face of the Earth, and not that so curious and wonderful a piece of Workmanship by its own Negligence, or want of Necessaries,

could not but teach him and assure him. . peaceful. [that is] directed him by his Senses and Reason . Indeed. This understanding of order has profoundly shaped the forms of social imagery which dominate in the modern West: the market economy.11 Being endowed with reason. So that “every one as he is bound to preserve himself. strong desire. The imposition of order by human will is itself called for by his scheme. the sovereign “people. . productive) activity has become the model for human behavior. We can see in Locke’s formulation how much he sees mutual service in terms of profitable exchange.”13 The ethic of discipline and improvement is itself a requirement of the natural order that God has designed. . For the desire.” This is the key entry point to modern secularity. Key terms of opprobrium were: “superstition. .” by which was meant continuing belief in an enchanted world. ordered. .64 c h a r l e s tay lo r should perish again . We see this in the critique offered by Gibbon and Hume. and ultimately even atheistic humanism. in the process of carrying them out according to God’s design. not to the extent that we transcend our ordinary goals and purposes. Within this somewhat stripped-down notion of Providence and divinely sanctioned order. God made us sociable beings. which were serviceable for his Subsistence. and given him as the means of his Preservation . that pursuing that natural Inclination he had to preserve his Being. so by the like reason when his own Preservation comes not in competition. as a Principle of Action by God himself. for instance. and the key for harmonious coexistence. . he followed the Will of his Maker. and not to quit his Station wilfully. It follows that we ought to be “Industrious and Rational. “fanaticism. religion could be portrayed as a threat to this order. And in addition. counterproductive behavior. the kind of thing which modern Reform Christianity had left behind it. Locke reasons that God gave us our powers of reason and discipline so that we could most effectively go about the business of preserving ourselves. one which made ordinary human flourishing so central. Reason. spoke to him. . of Preserving his Life and Being having been Planted in him.” by which was meant the invocation of religion to justify violations of the modern moral order. ought he as much as he can to preserve the rest of Mankind. it became more and more conceivable to slide toward forms of deism. but on the contrary. we meet in a zone of concord and mutual service. . “Economic” (that is. we see that not only our lives but those of all humans are to be preserved. be they persecutions or any other type of irrational.”12 Similarly. God . . the public sphere. to the use of those things. In contrast to the theories of hierarchical complementarity. which was the voice of God in him.

in a quite different way. and hence heroism.Closed world structures 65 “enthusiasm. the trail blazed by Nietzsche. or again. those he considers properly virtues. From within the acceptance of this order as the end of history. because this understanding of order was and is hotly contested. We find some of the latter kind of reaction in Tocqueville. because it ran against the natural order itself. and that from a host of directions.” But others again rejected it because it turned its back on violence. as with the Catholic Reaction after 1815. or some carefully controlled and parsimoniously dosed religion. The sense of the moral order as unliveable and reductive could either lead back to a more full-hearted religion (e. the “tragic” dimension could be invoked for a return to a real sense of human sin. even in some versions banned.. and “enthusiasm” of extreme Protestant sects. Wesley.” by which was meant the claim to some kind of special revelation. As the second name reminds us. nothing could seem more obvious and secure. or it could justify abandoning it. dissatisfactions with existing forms could lead to more radical and utopian versions of order. or it could justify a rejection of Christianity as the original historical source of modern morality. the Pietists) or lead beyond to modes of unbelieving romanticism. even if this could also accommodate milder positions which espoused deism. others as poisoned by forms of discipline which repress and crush the spontaneous or the emotional in us. others as rejecting true human sympathy and generosity in condemning “enthusiasm. The rooting of the Enlightened critique in this modern idea of moral order can be seen again if one looks at the two lists of virtues which Hume lists in the Enquiries. One might say that “superstition” was the speciality of Catholics. Some saw it as insufficiently inspiring and uplifting. So while the modern ideal of moral order can be the center of one of the most influential CWSs of modern society. and the “monkish” ones for which he has no use. later communism and Marx.g. with Nietzsche. But this was also the structure which inspired the most bitter controversies. for instance. and hence greatness. the attempts to criticize . the remarkable thing about this wave of protests. but most famously in Nietzsche. Religion was to be severely limited. as we see with Jacobinism.14 Here we have one of the most powerful CWSs in modern history. Again. is that each can be taken in more than one direction. Similarly. but “fanaticism” was a sin of which both were capable. because it leveled us all in a demeaning equality. which begins in the latter half of the eighteenth century. whereby one could once more challenge the norms of the modern order.

Many of them have already shown that they are grounded on a false and overhasty naturalization. the source whence the expression “death of God” flows into general circulation is The Gay Science. One can even hope to erect a novel CWS on this basis.” can also be a source of new and more profound CWSs.”17 I have been trying to explore the modern landscape of belief/unbelief. an essential feature of the modern moral order. which completely rejects the notion of a single.” following Nietzsche. This multiplicity further fragilizes any of the positions it contains. but not in any consistent fashion. ein Seiender. to denounce its “self-naturalization. Modern culture is characterized by what we could call the “nova effect. I said above that he is one of those who have contributed to undoing the CWS of epistemology. Heidegger deserves a mention.66 c h a r l e s tay lo r it. After all. but also that of scientism. Peter Gay has even described the Enlightenment as a kind of “modern paganism.The main intellectual struggle around belief and unbelief turns on the validity/invalidity of these CWSs. very unfanatical ruling class of Rome.”16 But we find more recently attempts to rehabilitate precisely what was suppressed by monotheism. puzzled by the rush to martyrdom of this obscure sect of Christians. The crucial question at stake in the debate is. This is where we find what we might call the “immanent Counter-Enlightenment. This is as old as the Enlightenment in one sense. The dimension in which interesting new positions have arisen is that which combines severe criticism of the order with a rejection of the transcendent. But a crucial reference point in this swirling multiplicity is the modern idea of order. There is no longer any clear. as much as our stance. in the main by laying out some of the principal world structures which occult or blank out the transcendent. are . in the sense that our stance to that is an important defining characteristic of our position. Gibbon clearly had some sympathy for what he saw as the skeptical. on transcendence. And yet there seems to be a rejection of the Christian God here. wenn er ist. Spinosa). There is a discourse of “polytheism” (Calosso.” the multiplication of more and more spiritual and anti-spiritual positions. Some of them can only define our horizon through our rejecting others. Among these new forms. Mill spoke of “pagan selfassertion”. dominant moral code.15 as well as new ways of invoking paganism against Christianity. He even has a place for “the gods” in some sense in his notion of das Geviert. or at least some unwillingness to allow that the Christian God can ever escape the dead end of onto-theology: “auch der Gott ist. unambiguous way of drawing the main issue. positive or negative. It is clear that modern society generates these. and the belief that “science has shown” that there is no God.

als L¨ gnerei. Schwachheit. Die Natur ansehn. 2. effeminacy. 1979).Closed world structures 67 they all similarly invalid? It may be beyond the reach of any single set of arguments to show this. n ot e s 1. die eignen Erlebnisse auslegen. into intellectual cleanliness at any price. “Billions and Billions of Demons. the concept of truthfulness that was taken ever more rigorously. die Beichtv¨terfeinheit des christlichen Gewissens. 5. 4. Kenneth Allott. Miriam Allott (New York: Longman. that has conscience against it. alles Wink. 28. the famous passage about the madman who announces the death of God. And even if it were determined. Nietzsche says: “Man sieht. weakness. whether there is transcendence. Richard C. 6. it wouldn’t by itself decide the question whether there is a God or not. It will be clear later on where my interpretation agrees with Nietzsche’s. Matthew Arnold. Nietzsche. quoting Carl Sagan. section 357. The Gay Science. trans. Later on. The “death of God” reference is from The Gay Science. lines 21–8. ed. as a continual testimony of a moral world order and ultimate moral purposes. cowardice. das gilt allen feineren Gewissen als unanst¨ndig. Feigheit” – “One can see u what it was that actually triumphed over the Christian god: Christian morality itself. also makes use of this horizon image. a unehrlich. 2001). als best¨ndiges Zeugnis einer sittlichen Weltordnung und sittlicher a Schlussabsichten. 256. 125. the father confessor’s refinement of the Christian conscience. as if everything were providential. p. wie als ob alles F¨ gung.” New York Review. every refined conscience considers it to be indecent. ed.. dishonest. a form of mendacity.: Harvard University Press. Lewontin. die Geschichte interpretieren zu Ehren einer g¨ ttlichen o Vernunft. 1997. para. . interpreting one’s own experiences as pious people have long interpreted theirs. translated and sublimated into a scientific conscience. Sources of the Self (Cambridge. alles dem u Heil der Seele zuliebe ausgedacht und geschickt sei: Das ist numehr vorbei. interpreting history in honour of some divine reason. was eigentlich uber den christlichen Gott gesiegt ¨ hat: die christliche Moralit¨t selbst. 3. der immer strenger genommene Begriff der a Wahrhaftigkeit.” in The Poems of Matthew Arnold . But it could open this issue for a more active and fruitful search. 2nd edn. para. zur intellektuellen Sauberkeit um jeden Preis. als ob sie ein Beweis f¨ r die G¨ te und u u Obhut eines Gottes sei. 1989). wie sie fromme Menschen lange genug ausgelegt haben.” The Gay Science. “Dover Beach. das hat das Gewissen gegen sich. designed and ordained for the sake of salvation of the soul – that is over now. Josefine Nauckhoff (Cambridge University Press. Looking at nature as if it were proof of the goodness and care of a god. Ibid. p. a hint. ubersetzt a ¨ und sublimiert zum wissenschaftlichen Gewissen. 125. January 9. Feminismus. Mass.

2000). Morales du grand si`cle (Paris: Gallimard. 1997). see also ii. Yolton (Oxford: Clarendon Press.”) 8. para. trans. ii. ed. Dieu sans l’ˆtre (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. “The Immanent Counter-Enlightenment. 397. 131–3. the humiliating ethics by which he condemned life. 116. 1998). 105. making a virtue of necessity. Ibid. 1948). 251 (“Man appreciates his own worth from the time he sees that he is able to make inroads against poverty.. See Charles Taylor. Volume I: The Rise of Modern Paganism (New York: Norton. when he is. Two Treatises of Government (London: Black Swan. Ronald Beiner and Wayne Norman (Oxford University Press. Translated as Man e and Ethics. (“The god also is. p. ed. Peter Gay.34. Ibid. 1698). 93–4. a being. p. I have found e Marion’s discussion of this issue extremely enlightening. Two Treatises of Government.6. along with his material distress.68 c h a r l e s tay lo r 7. Tom L. 10. pp. He tends to forget. . 1995).86. 226. Quoted in Sylvette Den`fle. Beauchamp (Oxford University Press. 2001). See David Hume. 1971).”) Quoted in Jean-Luc Marion. Sociologie de la s´cularisation (Paris–Montreal: e e L’Harmattan. 17.135. See John Locke. Elizabeth Hughes (New York: Anchor Books. 14. John W. ii. 9. The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. p. ed. and Some Thoughts Concerning Education. p. 11. 13.” in Canadian Political Philosophy. There is a more sophisticated version of this in Steve Bruce. 1977). 15. Religion in Modern Britain (Oxford University Press. and Jean S. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. 1991). 16. pp.. i. 12.

Such a multiplication. On Heidegger’s account. Taylor’s observations are valuable as a reminder that Heidegger’s diagnosis of our age is itself couched in terms that are not only contestable from a number of sides. technological age. dwelling consists in achieving a nearness to the earth. Viewed with the kind of historical detachment exemplified in Charles Taylor’s chapter in this volume. historiographical perspective – namely. 66 above). as I read the later Heidegger’s work on the divinities and the fourfold. This is because the disagreements between positions are disagreements at the most fundamental levels. why is it that a religious life should remain an appealing possibility. and divinities. mortals. then. As a consequence. Heidegger was preoccupied with the dangers of technology. and tried to articulate a non-technological form of “poetical dwelling” that could save us from those dangers. in any incarnation – new age or traditional – should seem a plausible way to redress the failings of our technological and secular age? 69 . that a religious life. but perhaps almost unintelligible to other splinter positions in the overall fragmentation of modern culture. Heidegger is offering us a way of pulling into focus a problem that is scarcely articulable from a detached. “there is no longer any clear. I would like to try making the case that it does. it can only do so by helping to bring this overall pattern of fragmentation into some kind of focus. Wrathall In the last decades of his life. the sky. If. unambiguous way of drawing the main issue” – the issue at hand being the nature and place of religion in a post-metaphysical.chapter 6 Between the earth and the sky: Heidegger on life after the death of God Mark A. “further fragilizes any of the positions it contains” in the sense that it undermines the claim of each position to legitimacy. in turn. In particular. Heidegger’s reaction against technology is just one ripple in the “wave of protests” that formed what Taylor calls the “nova effect” – that is. Taylor argues. “the multiplication of more and more spiritual and anti-spiritual positions” (see p. Heidegger’s view of religious life after the death of God is to have an importance to anyone beyond the initiates in Heideggerese.

The madman in Gay Science §125. it is just gone. or that Heidegger’s critique of Nietzsche found its mark.”1 In particular. w r at h a l l To answer this question. If a pocketknife is lost. properly understood. it is a terrible misreading of Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God to take it as a bald atheism. follows up the proclamation of God’s death with a series of questions – questions that culminate in the following: .70 m a rk a . the place to start is with Heidegger’s interpretation of the “death of God. one has to say something specific about the deficiencies of the technological age. Heidegger interprets the death of God in ontological terms – that is. Heidegger sees this as apparent already in the very passages in which Nietzsche proclaims the death of God. One needs to articulate what crucial element of a worthwhile life is lost with the death of God. I would like to present Heidegger’s reflections on the fourfold as responses to just these questions.” Although I will refer to a number of passages from Nietzsche. in terms of the “mode” in which “whatever is. Instead. the death of God is understood as the process by which everything is turned into resource. is an apocalyptic event – one that cannot be treated with the same equanimity that we might treat the loss of some mundane object. Heidegger claims. As Heidegger points out. To think that Nietzsche is a bald atheist. I am not concerned here either to argue that Heidegger interpreted Nietzsche correctly. an undisguised declaration of the end of everything that is divine. But to lose God means something other. according to Heidegger’s understanding of ontology.”2 Heidegger’s point is that the loss of a God. for instance. comes to appearance. I am interested in what Heidegger thought he learned from Nietzsche. they would have to “deal with and treat their God the same way they deal with a pocketknife. Thus. t h e d e at h o f g o d Because Heidegger’s account of the technological age grew out of his reading of Nietzsche. those who think that the proclamation could mean this must themselves be starting with an inadequate conception of God. To own up to the loss of God requires of us that we reach for a new kind of divinity – a divinity that can withstand the loss of the old God. this can stand or fall independently of questions about what Nietzsche really thought. These explicitly place the focus on discovering a sort of divinity which would render us able to endure a world from which the old God is gone. from Heidegger’s perspective. and why we should think that a religious life after the death of God can correct that loss. as such.

” when we “unchain this earth from its sun. source of gravity and value. commenting on Nietzsche. we deprive things of any fixed or stable essence (WN 107). we become responsible for the way the sensible world shows up – that is. what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?3 Heidegger does not pass over such questions lightly. is clearly. It is rather an attempt to really come to grips with the loss we suffer when religious practices become marginalized. rather than a fixed suprasensible God. Finally.” “the authority of reason. and what counts as unimportant or trivial. malleable and flexible in the paths it permits us to take. encompass the world. when we “drink up the sea.Between the earth and the sky 71 How shall we comfort ourselves. determining what is important to us. the sun is the God in whose light everything appears as what it is. we ourselves. God served as a land and horizon. means something other than a mere denial of the real existence of the Christian God. When we unchain the earth from the sun. setter of norms. then.” However. Heidegger. we destroy any fixed point of reference for valuing the world. Nietzsche’s madman declares. since he cries out after God.” “historical progress. the role of highest value has been played by “the authority of conscience. . each of which has filled the position of giver of meaning. When we wipe away the horizon. We kill God.” Heidegger reads the sea as Nietzsche’s metaphor for the sensible world – a world in flux. The history of Western culture prior to the advent of the technological age can be seen in terms of a transition through a long series of Gods. sentences of the passage. the one who seeks God. constantly changing. The Christian God was important because our practices for devotion to him provided us with a source of meaning and intelligibility. the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement. The horizon is thus Nietzsche’s metaphor for focal practices that gives us a place. He closes the “Word of Nietzsche” essay with a reflection on the fact that the madman seeks God: “the madman . giving the sensible world a fixed point of reference. The proclamation of the death of God. When we drink up the sea. for him who can hear. . all these are “variations on the Christian-ecclesiastical and theological .” “the earthly happiness of the greatest number. according to the first. Has a thinking man perhaps here really cried out de profundis?” (WN 112).” and finally “the business enterprise. and more clearly still according to the last.” when we “wipe away the entire horizon.” “the creating of a culture or the spreading of civilization. observed that since the Reformation.

Heidegger’s name for the way in which entities appear and are experienced in the technological world is “resource. This interpretation of the death of God ultimately underwrites Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche as the thinker of the technological epoch.”5 In such a world. not of filling in the position of God with yet another God in the same mold.” Such entities are removed from their natural conditions and contexts. the Heideggerian way of cashing out Nietzsche’s claim that the death of God results in a lack of gravity. The technological world.6 Nietzsche connects the death of the Christian God with the emptiness of a life in which “it will appear for a long time as if all weightiness were gone from things. nothing is encountered as really mattering. to serve as horizon and sun. whose destiny is still but little experienced with respect to its truth” (WN 54). and reorganized in such a way as to be completely available. horizon-wiping. Heidegger argues. What is unique about this moment in history is that there is no candidate to step into the position of shared source of meaning and value. As Heidegger notes.” Heidegger’s interest in Nietzsche. flexible. then. then. Heidegger’s ultimate aim. or purpose. Nietzsche included. is driven by a desire to gain insight into the most fundamental way in which our age understands what is: “The thinking through of Nietzsche’s metaphysics becomes a reflection on the situation and place of contemporary man. w r at h a l l interpretation of the world” (WN 64). This is. According to Heidegger. and ready to be employed in an indefinite variety of manners.” But by this he does not refer to the thinker’s explicit doctrine on metaphysical issues. interchangeable. by the way.72 m a rk a .4 In the technological age. rather he means that their work manifests a particular understanding about the nature “of what is as such in its entirety. earth-unchaining process is a process. even people are reduced from modern subjects with fixed desires and a deep immanent truth to “functionaries of enframing. is grounded in the fact that everything that is shows up as lacking in any inherent significance. Thus the Christian God has long since ceased.”7 . as having a worth that exceeds its purely instrumental value for satisfying transitory urges. the technologizing of everyday life. but of overturning the whole onto-theological interpretation of the world which sets things under some suprasensory value. at least for most in the West. use. The sea-drinking. was to use Nietzsche to get clear about the ontological structure of what is becoming the most prominent feature of the place of contemporary man – namely. Our form of life has changed in such a way that we are no longer able to submit ourselves to such a God. “has at any given time his fundamental philosophical position within metaphysics. that is. every thinker.

For example. whether we become master over ourselves. In particular. The search for a new source of divinity. In other words. is “whether we let every being weightlessly drive into nothingness or whether we want to give a weightiness to things again and especially to ourselves. By the same token. was a way of being attuned to objects as having a transcendental importance or weightiness. we were attuned to things as instantiations of the ideal forms created by God. were called by all of creation to a certain reverence for the handiwork of God. when God was the Judeo-Christian creator God of the theologians. as we get in tune with the mood of the technological age. we lose a sense that our understanding of things – including having a shared vision of the good. But now we as a culture find ourselves in the position of being unable to share a reverence for God – that is. for some such source of attunement. or an idea of justice. Heidegger believes that a living God attunes a whole culture to objects in a particular way. The problem of this chapter can now be posed in the following way: Why does Heidegger believe that an experience of the . in turn. in short. and consequently life will not be worth while. equally lacking in goodness and rightness and worth. that everything is equally value-less. All becomes equally trivial. which will allow things once more to show up as having weight or importance. things will begin to show up as lacking any set purpose. the inquiry into the death of God needs to be understood in affective terms – that is.”8 What the old God gave us. or a notion of the correct way to live a life. and we were provoked to the intellectual project of coming to understand the mind of God as manifest in the world. but also all the things with which we deal that will lose a weightiness or importance. a mode of attunement. becomes a question of finding a mood.” Nietzsche means that nothing really matters to us any more. in order to find ourselves in essence. then. Without God to attune us to objects as having weight or importance for us. things mattered. Heidegger worries. it is not just our lives. the danger is that nothing will matter. We.” With the death of the old God. and as having a transcendent meaning. etc. or whether we lose ourselves in and with the existing nothingness. Because things could show up as making demands on us. then. And without such a grounding. I will refer to weightiness as “mattering” or “importance.Between the earth and the sky 73 By a loss of “weightiness. – is grounded in something more than our willing it to be so. any determinate inherent value. The decisive question for our age. as oriented around the question of the mood appropriate to the death of God. God’s attunement required of us particular modes of comportment. but instead as ready and on call to be taken up in any way that we choose.

Although the world is meaningful or intelligible to me when I grasp the practical and equipmental contexts that embed all the things that populate the world. So a hammer has the meaning it has both because of the function it plays in human activities (like making houses) and because of the way it “refers” to things like nails and boards. But outside of her doctoring activity. no thing or person could matter to me. nothing in the world matters to me on the basis of this intelligibility alone. As a result. respond to them on pain of losing ourselves. but instead stand ready and available to be . and the other objects with which it is used. these devices and people need not make any claim on her. Such objects or persons or practices thus make a demand on us – require of us that we value them.” by which he refers to the way each object is defined by a network of practices in which it is employed. where I have no purposes and goals. would consist in some practice or object or person having an importance for our self-realization. That is. w r at h a l l divine is necessary in order to live a worthwhile life in the kind of world that shows up after the death of God? m e a n i n g a n d m at t e r i n g Before turning directly to this question. and come into relation with the people a doctor relates to in her doctoring activities. I want to develop a framework for the ensuing account. It is only when I am engaged in activities myself that any particular object comes to hold a special significance for me. Things have an instrumental importance anytime we take up some of the purposes made available by the intelligible structure of the world. These people and objects will matter to her. one can take up the objects that a doctor employs. the object or person or practice is something without which we would cease to be who we are.74 m a rk a . just as long as she continues to be a doctor. in a world where I am not active. Existential importance. on the basis of this. We can now. the result toward which it is directed. for instance. Things have meaning when they hold a place in what Heidegger calls a “referential context. respect them. by contrast. a defining trait of resources is precisely that they do not make any demands on us. I begin with a brief discussion of the idea of meaning. where I am drawn into no involvements. In a world where it makes sense to be a doctor. Everything would be spread out before me in an undifferentiated (albeit meaningful) irrelevance. As we noted. distinguish what I call an instrumental importance from an existential importance.

it by the same token undermines nearness and farness in our world. We can now get a clearer picture of one threat posed by the technological world: In the technological world. suppose that I am engaged in being a teacher. . thus threatening to undercut our belonging to a place and. Thanks to technological devices like the internet. which need to be placed on call for exploitation in the widest imaginable set of contexts. given our current aims. in addition to giving us instrumentally important objects. the “near” and “far” here are not primarily spatial – if something on the other side of the world were important to my work. (Of course. My activities give me a sense of place by ranging over particular objects – these students.Between the earth and the sky 75 ordered as we demand. etc. in turn. The subsequent extension of reach. this classroom. this campus. The result we are driving toward is that no particular thing or location will matter at all to our ability to live our lives. nothing is capable of existential importance.” To illustrate. in other words. in fact. Heidegger quotes approvingly the following passage from a letter by Rilke: . and activities require things with which to be active. sleeping in on Saturday) has its value as an activity in terms of how it contributes to or detracts from my realization of my vocation as a teacher. Or. because an indistinguishable alternative is readily available. A life organized (however temporarily) around an end or goal. The perfectly technological world will be one in which we can be completely indifferent to particular places. to show their own. the “formless formations of technological production” in which pre-technological natures “can no longer pierce through . and things. because everything presents itself as a mere resource. all that is left is resources. These are the things I relate to in realizing who I am. people. by the same token. A purposive life is a coherent pattern of activity. I could be closer to it even while sitting in my office in Utah than someone else might be who happened to be just next door to it.) But as technology begins to increase the range of our activities. . leads to a homogenization of objects. I. learning a new software program. the sense that anything genuinely matters. Then everything else I do (reading a book. and thus has at best instrumental importance. as Heidegger likes to point out. can act at the greatest possible distances. There is also another. Another way to say this is to say that my activities determine what is near to me and what is far from me. closely related danger posed by our becoming attuned to the world through technology – the danger that we will lose a sense of having a place in the world. also acquires at least a thin “sense of place. A thing is far from me if it plays no role in helping me be the person I am trying to be.”9 In justifying these claims.

w r at h a l l To our grandparents. because no particular object or action plays a unique role . sham things. The reason I think that Heidegger does not pursue this option is that in affirming technology.12 This possibility has recently been articulated by Dreyfus and Spinosa in the course of an exploration of the possibility of learning to affirm technology. we might recover at least one thing with more than merely instrumental importance – namely. have nothing in common with the house.” a familiar steeple. and instead find fulfillment in experiencing ourselves as disclosers of the technological world. .” Heidegger argues. instrumentally important objects could give us a sense of place (or at least an analogue of a genuine. I would like to focus the issue more clearly by exploring a non-religious solution to the problem. existential sense of place) in virtue of the fact that objects tended to be shaped by local and regional factors. their cloak still meant infinitely more. dummies of life . “Everything becomes equal and indifferent. rather than being constrained by the inherent nature of the objects in the situation that confronts us. Now there are intruding. One response to the loss of importance and place would be to overcome our addiction to a life of existential importance. Before the advent of technology. the fruit. In the process. given that a substitute was often not readily available. an American apple or a winestock from over there. But we disclose these multiple possibilities precisely to the extent that no particular possibility is inherently worth while. even merely instrumentally important objects had a veneer of existential importance. .76 m a rk a . But these thin forms of existential importance and place are undermined as the globalization and the technologization of the economy has made for easy interchangeability. and no particular action or involvement makes a demand on us.”11 For Heidegger. and has created pressure toward standardization. from America. A house. a “house. “in consequence of the uniformly calculated availability of the whole earth. we embrace a style of living that actively seeks to empty objects of the kind of worth that would allow them to make demands on us. empty indifferent things. even their own clothes. it matters that there are numerous different possible ways to respond to each situation.10 Before the advent of technology. were infinitely more intimate .” a “well. a worthwhile life in the technological age demands that we rediscover existentially important objects and a sense of place. . as the Americans understand it. The divinities play a crucial role in his account of this rediscovery. .13 Dreyfus and Spinosa suggest that we could have a fulfilling life in a technological age if we could learn to enjoy the excitement of being able to respond flexibly to a situation. But before turning directly to an account of Heidegger’s divinities. the grape into which the hope and thoughtfulness of our forefathers had entered.

and in which it is even possible to have one thing – the existential space of free possibilities – show up as more than simply instrumentally important. “Why be the teacher of these students? There’s nothing really special . But Heidegger takes the incessant appetite for amusement and entertainment. attests to a continued longing for home. It is only our belonging in a particular place (existentially understood) that makes some things really matter. such a life makes us “homesick” – that is. They show us how it is possible to have a life which is significant in the sense of making sense. as an effort to cover over the attunement of profound boredom which overtakes us in a world where nothing matters to us. For Heidegger. I note first that the thin sense of place discussed above – where my place is a function of the things I happen to be dealing with – seems inadequate to provide things with existential importance. then. This attempt at a cover up. and activities which themselves have existential as opposed to merely instrumental importance. to frame it as succinctly as I can. of perhaps genuinely relating to such things for the first time. Dreyfus and Spinosa offer us at best a contingency plan for addressing the dangers of our age. let me start by restating how Heidegger understands the way in which the technological age has destroyed the possibility of existentially important things. We can thus see that. The technological age has undermined our ability to feel rooted in a particular place. in such a life. In short. Therefore. To return to my teacher example. however. nothing and nobody can make a claim on us. To explain this. if it were possible to have more – to have objects and practices themselves show up as important – such a life would be preferable.Between the earth and the sky 77 in realizing who we are. Heidegger’s analysis. On Heidegger’s account. from Heidegger’s perspective. one could ask. To have this kind of life. I now want to say more carefully how a sense of place contributes to the existential importance of things. It does not necessarily make those objects ultimately worth while. makes us long for the fulfillment found in inhabiting a place populated with objects. as well as the excitement over open possibilities that Dreyfus and Spinosa focus on. the technological age has made it difficult to live a worthwhile life. for Heidegger.14 Thus. the appeal of a religious life after the death of God is rooted in the possibility of repopulating the world with things that have a deep importance – indeed. requires a role for the divinities that no life of attunement to technological things permits. people. is as follows: It is a relationship to things that have intrinsic importance that makes a life genuinely fulfilling. A sense of place in the thin sense only decides over which particular objects our activities will range. of being intelligible.

the divinities and our own mortality. it seems that a worthwhile life after the death of God requires some new endowment of divine grace. in turn. The only way to get it would be as a gift – a gift of place or a gift of a thing of intrinsic worth. as opposed to mere resources and technological devices. He tends to use each of the terms in an infuriatingly literal fashion – and does so frequently enough that the passages cannot simply be ignored. Once I have a sense of being the teacher of these particular students. and divinities condition each other.” If that is true. But there is nothing that ultimately grounds my being their teacher as opposed to somebody else’s. it seems that my life is only contingently worth while. But how can anything really come to matter in this thick sense in a world that is moving swiftly toward abolishing all sense of place? This sort of mattering or importance is not something we can bestow upon things by a free act of will. show up. The old God attuned us to the sacred in the sense that he made objects have a significance independent of their usefulness to our current projects. The divinities we strive to encounter in the fourfold will likewise attune us to the sacred. Heidegger’s claim that things and dwelling require the mutual “appropriation” of earth and sky. “mortals and divinities. mortals. So. we must have practices for dealing with the earth and the sky. Heidegger’s name for the interrelation of earth. however. my life gets the order that it has.” Initially. and so my life ultimately lacks real significance. to show up. An attunement that allows things to show up as having an intrinsic worth. will embody the way earth. and divinities is “the fourfold. We have already outlined the role that a relationship to the old God plays in allowing things and a world to “show up” (Heidegger calls it “unconcealment”). however. w r at h a l l about them. is precisely what we lost with the death of God.” is anything but clear. sky. mortals. b e t we e n t h e e a rt h a n d t h e s k y Heidegger’s discussion of the divinities is part of his attempt to uncover the way that real things. To finish this thought. a thing with existential importance. an endowment in which we can once again be attuned to the sacred and divine.78 m a rk a . they make demands on us that we cannot ignore. that is. I need to say something more about the role the divinities play for Heidegger in determining our place in the world. Real things themselves. sky. What we would really need is a deeply rooted belonging to a place – a kind of belonging in which the things we deal with really matter. . and there are students all over the world who need a teacher. Heidegger tells us that for a real thing.

the sun and the moon. the Black Forest peasant’s farmhouse gathers the earth. however. mortals. the technological understanding that orders our world]. everything is set up in the constant replaceability of the same through the same. by contrast. interchangeable entities – in other words. straightforward reading of the fourfold. that such approaches are mistaken. I need to be able to say how a discussion of the earth. in rivers and streams. And the divinities – the most elusive members of the fourfold in this age – are divine beings. sky. and divinities shows us how to dwell and thereby recover a sense of place.” To justify such a literal. resources. We can see this if we remember that what is at issue is the problem of discovering things with existential importance.”15 As a second example.Between the earth and the sky 79 To cite a couple of my favorite examples. because none of them is essential to being who we are. because it is placed on a “mountain slope . . so it is tempting either simply to ignore these passages or to impose a metaphorical reading which. quite literally. self-contained. can only be loosely connected to the actual text. but also prevent any of them from playing a unique role in our lives: “In enframing [i. cannot have existential importance for us. the shifting weather that brings the changing seasons.17 The unappealing alternative is to repeat lamely his semi-poetic musings about the sky in the dew on the grapes (and so on). he says. . The holding and pouring of the wine gathers the sky. among the meadows close to the spring. But it seems. because the grapes from which the wine is made “receive the rain and dew of the sky. in the process.”18 Real things. The four are meant.e. at the least. the metaphorical reading is certainly preferable to a mere repetition. Their flexibility and interchangeability make them efficient. I think. the earth that spreads out all around us as mountains and in trees. condition us. In terms of doing any philosophical work with Heidegger’s notion of the fourfold. Heidegger tells us that the sky contributes to the essence of a jug as a jug-thing because the jug holds and pours out wine and thus gathers the sky. We are the mortals – we and our companions – living our lives and dying our deaths. The earth is the earth beneath our feet. the “beckoning messengers of the Godhead. The sky is the sky above our heads. he explains. Such entities cannot matter to us. are of a nature to make demands on us and.. by Heidegger. and miss the whole point of Heidegger’s discussion of the fourfold. the stars and constellations. given the densely poetical nature of Heidegger’s musings. We can clarify this idea of conditioning by noting that even instrumental importance is a result of a certain degree of conditioning of one object by . Heidegger’s insight is this: We do not have things that matter to us if all there is is isolated. to do violence to the text.”16 Philosophers are not used to such talk.

the day and the night. not those enforced upon it. for example. there must be mutual conditioning. It is only because our activities are conditioned or constrained by the objects with which we act that any particular object has instrumental importance. one way to be conditioned by the earth would be to live in harmony with the desert. become what each can be when conditioned by the other.80 m a rk a . is to allow ourselves to be conditioned.” What does it mean to “dwell” – that is. where “saving the earth” consists in not exploiting it. It is only because I want to build a house. This is because the need to drive nails.e. and thus cannot matter to us.20 In Utah. divinities) into entities which cannot condition. rather than pushing it aside by planting grass and lawns to replicate the gardens of the East. Heidegger’s name for living in such a way that we are conditioned or appropriated by the fourfold is “dwelling. then. and not subjugating it. We push aside the sky when.” where this is heard not as saying that we take over as our own something that does not belong to us. If objects make no demands on us or each other. “Mortals dwell in that they save the earth.” Heidegger explains. and the nature of nails and boards. to be conditioned by the fourfold? We are conditioned by the earth when we incorporate into our practices the particular features of the environment around us. then no object can be of any more weight than any other.. for instance. Therefore. Heidegger’s name for the process of mutual condition is Ereignis. as a source of conditioning in our lives. to master it and subjugate it. Precisely here is where the fourfold becomes important – namely. The technology of modern irrigation and sprinkler systems allow us to push our own earth aside. conditions the kind of tools I can use successfully.”22 that is. our own mortality. that a hammer matters more than a fountain pen. the seasons and the weather. The way to counteract the technological age. sky. not mastering it. when we come to be at home with our land in its own characteristics. earth. rather than being conditioned by it (as Borgmann has beautifully demonstrated). We are conditioned by our sky when we incorporate into our practices the peculiar features of the temporal cycles of the heavens. for things to matter.21 Human beings “only experience the appropriation of the earth in the home-coming to their land. but rather as the mutual conditioning through which we and the things around us “come into our own” – i. w r at h a l l another. probably best translated as “appropriation. and thus do not condition us or each other. for .19 The danger of the technological age is that we are turning everything (things.

basking in the delicate spring light. after a refreshing rain. We are conditioned by the divinities when. Heidegger says that the fourfold mirror each other by ringing or wrestling with each other. and divinities do not just condition us. however. when we try to engineer biologically and pharmacologically an end to all infirmity. when I sat under the elms and willows on the side of the mountain. and play make no allowance for the times of day and year. so that I was suddenly alert and listening. rose with the age-old youths and the other heroes of the sky. for instance. and felt his answer so certainly and so blissfully in my heart. mortals. for instance. breathing the spirit of peace. yet did not know what was befalling me – “Do you love me. or feels a o reverence for holy days or the sanctity of human life. rest. Mirroring. and the peace of the world surrounded and rejoiced me. sky. Heidegger explains. Heidegger illustrates this through the example of the Black Forest peasant hut. I take this to mean. We are conditioned by our mortality when our practices acknowledge our temporal course on earth – both growth and suffering. including even death.” I whispered.25 As suggested by this quotation.24 H¨ lderlin’s Hyperion expresses such a sense for divinity in the world: And often. earth. out of season. or when our patterns of work. our eating habits demand food on call.”23 We push our mortality aside when we seek immediate gratification without discipline. consists in each member of the four becoming lighted. the weather the sky brings is only intelligible as inclement weather given the fruits the earth bears (or the activities of mortals). and I saw how the life in them moved on through the ether in eternal. or when the evening star. in the process of reflecting the others. it made room in its chamber for the hallowed places of childbed and the ‘tree of the dead’ – for that is what they call a coffin there: the Totenbaum – and in this way it designed for the different generations under one roof the character of their journey through time.Between the earth and the sky 81 example. they also condition each other. health and disease. effortless order. when we set aside our own local culture. and looked up into the serene blue that embraced the warm earth. that the sky is only intelligible as the sky it is in terms of the interaction it has with the earth striving to spring forth as the earth it is (or in terms of the mortal activities it blesses or restricts) – for example. and the earth first . or intelligible. or recognize no holy days or festivals. which was intimately conditioned by (and correspondingly conditioning of ) mortality: “It did not forget the altar corner behind the community table. when the branches were yet astir from the touch of the sky and golden clouds moved over the dripping woods. when I lay there among the flowers. we incorporate into our practices a recognition of holy times and holy precincts – perhaps manifested where one experiences the earth as God’s creation. dear Father in Heaven.

and mortals have a different configuration. and by such gathering disposes the world’s history and man’s sojourn in it. and particular mortal practices. Conversely. beneath the sky.82 m a rk a . then they will not solicit the practices we have developed for living on the earth. and divinities. The implication is that Heidegger’s divinities have to be beings who can condition and be conditioned by the earth. our mortality. As Heidegger explains. but rather by being shaped in light of the receptivity that we have developed for our local earth. earth. visibly and unequivocally. sky. If the objects with which our world is populated have not been conditioned in that way (and resources are not). w r at h a l l comes into its essence as the earth it is when “blossoming in the grace of the sky.”28 By the same token. if we are to live with things. the sky. we ourselves need to “bring the fourfold’s essence into things. our sky.”30 In other words. on the basis of our reawakened receptivity to the four. the divinities only are divinities to the extent that they mirror and. particular divinities. light up the other regions of the four. Thus. they cannot thing for us. mirroring. Heidegger’s name for the activity of constructing and cultivating things in such a way that they contain or gather the fourfold is “building. before the divinities. we need to learn to make things and nurture things into being more than mere resource. “nothing that stands today as an object in the distanceless can ever be simply switched over into a thing. because our sky. He notes that “things as things do not ever come about if we merely avoid [technological] objects and recollect former objects which perhaps were once on the way to becoming things and even to actually presencing as things. Heidegger cannot be advocating a nostalgic return to living in Black Forest peasant farmhouses. hence to let them embody the essence of our place or home – our earth. and mortals. in other words. It is important to emphasize that we cannot have such things through a mere change of attitude – through merely deciding to treat resources as things. but they cannot thing in our fourfold.”27 With this in mind.”26 More importantly for our purposes here. let’s turn now to the question how such conditioning can give us things that “near” – that have an importance which orients our whole life and not just the particular activities in which we are currently engaged.”29 To the extent that the former things gathered a receptivity to a particular sky.” The . They might once have been things. divinities. and our divinities. Things are not things in virtue of being represented or valued in some special way. a particular earth. the “default of the gods” that characterizes our age is understood in terms of the failure of any divine being to condition us and the things around us: “The default of God means that no god any longer gathers men and things unto himself. mortals.

and our mortality. it would take an experience of the divine to awaken us to the flaws in the technological age. We will thus finally be at home in our places. and mortal practices.. can be used to be who we are. we may be able to establish what Heidegger calls a “free relation” to technology – a relation in which we are able to use technological devices to support our dwelling with things. then he wrestles with each region of the four. The God. Heidegger says. “building takes its standard over from the fourfold. why a relation to divinities is important if things with existential importance are secured by a sense of place. our sky. because our practices are oriented to our places alone. If we. are receptive to God. in the way they draw us into action.32 . not generic resources. such things will have importance beyond their instrumental use in our current activities because they and only they are geared to our way of inhabiting the world.Between the earth and the sky 83 idea is that. we could have a receptivity to the world that could only be satisfied by particular things. our practices will embody a recognition that the technological reduction of objects to resources is an act of presumption. and only they. as Heidegger once asserted. Heidegger understands receptivity to the sacred as the experience of being beheld – of recognizing that there is a kind of intellegibility to the world that we do not ourselves produce. there is the tactical observation that given the seductiveness of resources and technological devices. which shines forth out of them.e. But because the draw of technology is so strong. As a result they. I think that there are two answers to this problem. Thus. sky. As Heidegger puts it.” because we will see certain things around us as invested with holiness – with an intelligibility inherent to them. have existential importance without any mention of divinities.”31 When our practices incorporate the fourfold. “deranges us” – in the sense that he calls us beyond the existing configuration of objects to see things that shine forth with a kind of holiness (i. they draw upon just the kind of responsiveness that we have acquired by dwelling before our local divinities. Those things would then. earth. So attuned. it is only a God who can save us. a dignity and worth that exceeds our will). If God is part of the fourfold. the divinities seem superfluous. and brings it into a sacred own-ness. We might now wonder. It seems that if we could foster practices for our earth. technology will no longer be able to seduce us into an endless and empty “switching about ever anew. Once attuned by the divinities. in turn. at least if the argument I have outlined is correct. for it proceeds on the assumption that we are free to employ anything we encounter in any way whatsoever. however. in building. things secure the fourfold because. First.

however. To be conditioned by the divinities is to discover God embodied – to find him present in our world. But unless he could somehow be present to us. The death of the theologian’s God offers us at least the possibility of a recovery of an immediate experience of the divine that has only rarely been achieved – that is. that God decided what things really were. and thus no guarantee that we would live in such a way that the objects as God knew them were existentially important to us. there is something substantive that being conditioned by a God adds to our sense of place – namely. But because he was beyond any being that we have experience of. it shows us our place as necessary for us. In fact. more fulfilling sense of the divine. so that we could become dependent on the intelligibility he helps light up. The onto-theological god gave things an importance that we were not free to change. the old theological interpretation of God and the world was never able to do the job of giving us existential importance (we only had it in spite of the theological interpretation). the death of the ontotheological god actually might allow for a richer. i. in short. for Heidegger. manifest himself in conditioning particular things in this world. makes it possible to experience things in the world as sacred. God would matter to us not just in the sense that our practices require his presence for their fulfillment. in front of whom we could fall to our knees in awe. His primary role was the establishment of meaning. As the source of all intelligibility. no way he could help give us a place in the whole cosmos that he had made intelligible. which in turn allows them to have existential importance for us. I can at this point start to redeem this claim. I alluded above to the idea that. to whom we could sacrifice. so to speak.84 m a rk a . Such a God would have an importance incommensurate with any object.e. As the source of our attunement. He would. be embodied. The death of the metaphysical God thus presents us with a great danger but also a unique opportunity to find a relationship to the divine that can endow our lives with deep importance. and as making demands on us. an experience of a living God with a presence in our world. there was no way he could attune us directly. w r at h a l l Second. God could do no more than guarantee the intelligibility of the world (and the thin instrumental mattering that comes with that intelligibility).34 . He would also matter as the being which calls us into the kind of engagement with the world that we would embody.33 An openness to divinities that themselves attune us.. The God of the philosophers was a God removed from time and us personally. be a God before whom we could pray.

Heidegger explains. “The Word of Nietzsche: ‘God is Dead’” (WN). Heidegger thinks. I take it. William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row. in thinking and poetizing.”37 n ot e s 1.’ but rather if we decline. through a gift of grace. Religion is succession . it is important to see that Heidegger is not a nostalgic and sentimental thinker. the experience of God fails to come. . in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. for the appearance of the God or for the absence of God in the case of decline. That alone – and neither the systems nor the doctrines and dogmas are important. The only means we have available to this end are the religious practices we have inherited. we can only be conditioned by the divine if we find our own authentic relationship to divinities. p. translation modified. They wait for intimations of their coming and do not mistake the signs of their absence. To the contrary. All we can do is try to keep alive the practices that will attune us in such a way that we can experience the divine in the world. trans. The problem is that. barring a new revelation. They do not make their gods for themselves and do not worship idols. Heidegger argued. is the point of the somewhat enigmatic comments Heidegger made about religion in the course of his “Conversations with a Buddhist Monk”: “I consider only one thing to be decisive: to follow the words of the founder. Without being touched by the divinities. “await the divinities as divinities. because God can only appear as a god in the dimension of the holy. All we can do.”36 But even remaining true to the practices we inherit from the founders of religion provides no guarantee of an advent of God. This. “I see the only possibility of a salvation in preparing a readiness. His claim here is not that lapse into an accustomed mode of religious life is an end in itself. 1977). must therefore be nurtured in order to preserve a sense for the holy. . ‘come to a wretched end. In hope they hold up to the divinities what is unhoped for. These. In the very depth of misfortune they wait for the weal that has been withdrawn. to put it coarsely. we can receive our own revelation. we decline in the face of the absent God. 101. Those who are conditioned by the divine. is prepare ourselves for the advent in the hope that. Without the sacred we remain out of contact with the divinities. . that we not.Between the earth and the sky 85 It should be obvious that the hope of finding this sort of divinity is something we cannot bring about ourselves.”35 Despite the obviously Christian overtones of this and other such passages. the only practices we have left for getting in tune with the divine are the remnants of past religious practices.

and in which no object has a real gravity or weight – is a sea with infinite horizons: “At long last the horizon appears free to us again. lies open again. trans. pp. S¨ mtliche Werke: Kritische Studienausgabe. 424. 172. 578ff. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row. sky. he wrote in an unpublished note. vol. 30. our sea.” in On the Way to Language. p. venture out to face any danger. Gesamtausgabe. 1971). Dreyfus and Charles Spinosa. Edwards. 95. Trans. the sea. vol. 9. sec. Language.” in Poetry. 13. Gesamtausgabe. Thought. 160. p.” The former course – that of abolishing our reverences – is the course which will open us up to enjoying the thrill of responding freely to the world as technology offers it. 15. at long last our ships may venture out again. “Letter to Muzot. 192–3. The Plain Sense of Things: The Fate of Religion in an Age of Normal Nihilism (University Park. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage. p. 343). 3. even if it should not be bright. all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again. 39: H¨lderlins Hymnen “Germanien” und “Der Rhein” o (Frankfurt-on-Main: Klostermann. Language. and divinities without a single quotation from. vol. Nietzsche’s primary metaphor for the world after the death of God – a world in which there are no fixed points of reference.” in Poetry. Gesamtausgabe. p. Dreyfus and Spinosa. “700 Jahre Messkirch. perhaps there has never yet been such an ‘open sea’” (Gay Science. w r at h a l l 2. . 1994). 44: Nietzsches metaphysische Grundstellung im abendl¨ ndischen Denken: Die ewige Wiederkehr des Gleichen (GA 44) a (Frankfurt-on-Main: Klostermann. p. 4. in Poetry. “The Nature of Language. Language. Dwelling. 6. 1974). 193–4. 16. After the death of God. trans. Hertz (NewYork: Harper & Row. 8. p. 7. The latter is nihilism. “What are Poets For?. Thought. 1971). vol. Thinking” (BDT). all that is left is the issue “whether to abolish our reverences or us ourselves. 1999). ed. For interpretations which approach the literalness with which I think Heidegger should be read. Heidegger’s discussion of the fourfold. Peter D. mortals. 17. 1986). 79: Bremer und Freiburger Vortr¨ ge (GA 79) (Frankfurta on-Main: Klostermann. 16: Reden und andere Zeugnisse eines Lebensweges 1910–1976 (GA 16) (Frankfurt-on-Main: Klostermann. pp. 2000). “The Thing.86 m a rk a . p. Thought. 1980). see James C.” Man and World 30 (1997). “Highway Bridges and Feasts: Heidegger and Borgmann on how to Affirm Technology. 5. for instance. 11: Nachgelassene Fragmente a 1884–1885. 12. pp. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter. See “The Question Concerning Technology. 14. Nietzsche seems to think that this is the kind of experience that will properly attune us to the world as it appears after the death of God. “Building. explain earth. or citation of. 10. Hubert L. GA 44. vol.” quoted ibid. 105. 113. 11.” in Gesamtausgabe.” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays.

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18. 19. 20. 21. 22. 23. 24. 25. 26. 27. 28.

29. 30. 31. 32. 33.

34. 35. 36. 37.

Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997); Julian Young, Heidegger’s Later Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 2002); and Charles Taylor, “Heidegger, Language, and Ecology,” in Heidegger: A Critical Reader, ed. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Harrison Hall (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), pp. 247–69. GA 79, p. 44. See, for example, “Seminar in Le Thor,” in Gesamtausgabe, vol. 15: Seminare (Frankfurt-on-Main: Klostermann, 1986), p. 363: “es ist das Ereignis des Seins als Bedingung der Ankunft des Seienden: das Sein l¨ßt das Seiende anwesen.” a BDT, p. 150. Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (University of Chicago Press, 1987). Besinnung auf unser Wesen (Messkirch: Martin-Heidegger-Gesellschaft, 1994). BDT, p. 160. See “Origin of the Work of Art,” in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper & Row, 1993), p. 167. Friedrich H¨ lderlin, “Hyperion,” in Hyperion and Selected Poems, ed. Eric L. o Santner (New York: Continuum, 1990), pp. 5–6. Besinnung auf unser Wesen (“die Erde als Erde wesen l¨ßt; das ist: Erbl¨ hen in a u der Huld des Himmels”). “What are Poets For?,” p. 91. “The Thing,” p. 182. This passage, by the way, shows that the earlier reference to highway bridges gathering must have been sloppiness on Heidegger’s part. If gathering is a term of art for what things do – as Heidegger sometimes indeed uses it – then highway bridges cannot thing because they do not gather the divinities; they push them aside. Cf. Dreyfus and Spinosa, “Highway Bridges and Feasts.” “The Thing,” p. 182, translation modified, my italics. BDT, p. 151, translation modified. “Bauen Wohnen Denken,” in GA 7, p. 161. “‘Only a God Can Save Us’: Der Spiegel’s Interview with Martin Heidegger,” in The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader, ed. Richard Wolin (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992), pp. 91–116. Kierkegaard makes just this point in Fear and Trembling, when he notes that if God “is understood in an altogether abstract sense . . . God becomes an invisible, vanishing point, an impotent thought.” Fear and Trembling, trans. Alastair Hannay (London: Penguin Books, 1985), p. 96. See “The Onto-Theo-Logical Constitution of Metaphysics,” in Identity and Difference, trans. Joan Stambaugh (University of Chicago Press, 1969), p. 72. BDT, p. 150. GA 16, p. 590. Ibid., p. 671.

chapter 7

Christianity without onto-theology: Kierkegaard’s account of the self’s movement from despair to bliss
Hubert L. Dreyfus

Kierkegaard belongs right after Mark Wrathall’s eloquent explanation and defense of the later Heidegger’s account of the fourfold: the local earth, the seasons, our mortality, and the remnants of the pagan gods. Wrathall presented the fourfold as an attempt to answer the question: Why do we need the divine and the sacred in our lives and how should we preserve and promote them? If he had read Martin Heidegger, Kierkegaard would have answered that any attempt to preserve the local is doomed; that technicity, the drive toward optimization and efficiency, will sooner or later wipe out traditional practices, just as it has already wiped out the last stage of onto-theology, the metaphysics of the subject, and is turning us all into resources. Heidegger was all too aware of this possibility, which he expresses in his lament that “the wasteland grows,” that what is so dangerous about technology is that it is a drive toward the total efficient ordering of everything. The wilderness is turning into a resource – the Alaskan resource, human beings are no longer personnel, but rather material for the Human Resources Departments, and a recent advertisement proclaimed that children “are our most precious resource.” What Robert Pippin called “farmer metaphysics” is on the way out. Heidegger sadly notes the television antennas on the peasants’ huts and feels that we are already failing to dwell, and that our culture is rushing into the “longest night.” For Heidegger, all we can do is carry out a holding action trying to preserve the endangered species of practices while awaiting a new God. What Heidegger does not consider is that losing our appreciation of the jug of local wine, the seasons, our mortal vulnerability, and our local religious traditions might be a good thing; that these pagan practices might be standing in the way of a more intensely rewarding religious life. This is where Kierkegaard comes in. He had a similar despairing analysis of the present age as nihilistic, and saw all meaningful differences being leveled by what he called “reflection.” That was his name for the fact that
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more and more people in his time were becoming spectators and critics and fewer and fewer were willing to take the risk of making a serious commitment. He claimed that thanks to the media, this spectator attitude and the leveling it produces would get worse and worse, until, like a bonfire, it would “consume everything.”1 That is, it would level all meaningful differences between the trivial and the important. But Kierkegaard, the radical Christian, has an entirely different response than Heidegger, the conservative pagan. Kierkegaard thinks that clearing away the local rootedness and the local gods is a good thing; when the bonfire has consumed everything local, we shall be left only with the choice between the meaningless distractions of the present age and what Kierkegaard calls the “decision in existence.” If we heed the call, he says, we shall be able to leap over “the sharp scythe of the leveler . . . into the arms of God.”2 That would be to discover a new and better way of finding meaning, and mattering in our lives. As he puts it in the culminating exhortation of The Present Age:
There is no more action or decision in our day than there is perilous delight in swimming in shallow waters. But just as a grown-up, struggling delightedly in the waves, calls to those younger than himself: “Come on, jump in quickly” – the decision in existence . . . calls out . . . Come on, leap cheerfully, even if it means a lighthearted leap, so long as it is decisive. If you are capable of being a man, then danger and the harsh judgment of existence on your thoughtlessness will help you become one.3

The leap into the deep water refers to a series of total commitments, first to the enjoyment of possibility (the aesthetic), then to the universal ethical, and then to the mystical life of self-annihilation before God. Each opens what Kierkegaard calls a sphere of existence. But Kierkegaard also claims that if one lives passionately in each sphere, each sphere will break down and land one back in the leveling of the present age. In Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard describes these breakdowns and presents the only sphere of existence that he claims will work. He does so by giving an account of the structure of the self that explains the breakdowns and also what is required for a meaningful life. He then shows how only Christianity, the religion of the God-man, meets this requirement. 1 w h at i s a s e l f ? According to Kierkegaard, a human being is a combination of two sets of factors:

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The human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self ? The self is a relation which relates to itself, or that in the relation which is its relating to itself. The self is not the relation but the relation’s relating to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the eternal and the temporal, of possibility and necessity . . . A synthesis is a relation between two factors. Looked at in this way a human being is not yet a self.4

How can Kierkegaard argue for such an essentialist view? How can he say more than what Charles Taylor and Richard Rorty agree on, that anyone can have any relation to God or to the sacred that he or she feels called upon to have, as long as he or she does not seek to impose it on others? How can Kierkegaard claim, in this fractured world, to know the essential structure of the self, and consequently that one kind of religion is what every human being is called to have, whether he or she knows it or not? We must try to understand what kind of claim this is. I used to think that it was a modest claim concerning how the self has come to be constituted in the Judeo-Christian tradition; that Christianity created the disease for which it is the cure. But, if that were so, I would have to agree with Rorty that it’s high time we chose a new vocabulary. But now I think it’s clear that Kierkegaard thinks that Christianity discovered the essential truth about the self – that it was sick unto death, not that Christianity produced this sick self. But how can Kierkegaard claim to know the essential nature of the self? He doesn’t claim a Husserlian Wesenschau, nor is he simply appealing to revelation. I think that his argument has the form introduced by Heidegger in Being and Time and worked out by Saul Kripke in Naming and Necessity.5 Heidegger calls it “formal indication”; Kripke calls it “rigid designation.” People also call it “black box essentialism.” The idea is that whether there are essences is an experimental question, and so cannot be decided a priori. The way natural science is practiced, we assume provisionally that there are natural kinds like water and gold with essential properties; we then designate such supposed kinds by some property and investigate, in the appropriate way, whether we have picked out a kind and found its essential property. So, to take a few Kripkean examples, we designate gold as that yellow stuff and then it finally turns out that yellowness is not essential but that gold has the atomic number 79. Or we designate heat as what feels warm to the touch and then discover that it is essentially molecular motion. We think that we’ve got it right, i.e., that we have found the essential property, when we can use it to explain all the other properties and account for all the anomalies that seem to contradict our essentialist account.

what a contradiction!”8 . what a chaos. all one has to do is realize its true nature. Christian thinkers realized that according to Christianity. find and satisfy its true needs rather than its superficial desires.e. and this confirmed his provisional designation. that the more you express one set of factors. he said in Being and Time that he would provisionally formally indicate6 human beings as Dasein. Kierkegaard thinks that this approach fails to explain the possibility of despair. finite. infinite.Christianity without onto-theology 91 Heidegger had a similar idea. indeed. i. indeed. an important aspect of human life. or vice versa – the conflict and instability are overcome. both sets of factors were essential and the self was. As Pascal put it: “What a chimera then is man! What a novelty! What a monster. He then did a lot of appropriate investigation. and that such a relation has a complex structure which he calls a “synthesis” of two sets of factors. and it turned out that this account of the self enabled him to understand a lot about human beings. and how he can account for anomalies that seem to contradict alternative accounts. eternal needs and capacities. temporal needs and capacities while at the same time fully expressing all its intellectual. the self begins with these factors in conflict. and one can experience peace and fulfillment. 92) the soul and the body respectively. if both sets of factors were equally essential the self would be in hopeless self-contradiction. Since the self is potentially whole and harmonious. The self was designated by Plato and many others as some sort of combination of body and soul. the less you are able to express the other set. in this case hermeneutic and phenomenological investigation. It seems.. in fact. Starting with Pascal. whether this self is a kind. According to the ancients. and whether this is its essential structure. So it would seem that the factors were merely combined. and not a temporal body. He is not the first to try. will have to be answered by a description of human experience. He provisionally suggests that the self’s essential property is that it is a relation that relates itself to itself. On the Greek account. whether there are any kinds with essences at all. as essentially beings that have to take a stand on their own being. a contradiction. It could not fully express all its bodily. however. and only one set of factors could be essential. Life is a voyage from confusion to clarity and from conflict to harmony. Of course.7 Kierkegaard wants to discover the essential structure of the self. Taking his clue from Kierkegaard. The appropriate test is how much of human experience Kierkegaard can order and understand. The Greeks called the two sets of factors you see in Figure 1 (p. but once one realizes that only one set of factors is essential – that one is an eternal soul. which of course could still run into problems later on and turn out to be wrong.

but in touching both extremes at once. He calls this a dialectical relation. d rey f u s R2 Spirit passion Finite temporal necessary (facticity) Body R1 Human being Spiritlessness Infinite eternal possibility (freedom) Soul R3 Unconditional commitment Figure 1 Kiergekaard’s definition of the self According to Pascal. One has a sense that the self is a contradiction that has to be faced. You can’t satisfy one set of factors without satisfying the other. where one . Let us now look at this claim in more detail. (See Figure 1. the self is a contradictory synthesis between two sets of factors and that each set is essential and requires the other. and filling all the intervening space. (No doubt he had Descartes in mind.) 2 ways o f at t e m p t i n g to b e a s e l f R1 – This is what Kierkegaard calls spiritlessness.) Kierkegaard thought that the most important distraction in his time was the public sphere. Pascal gives as examples of distraction playing tennis and sitting alone in one’s room solving hard philosophical problems. but one lives in what Pascal called distraction so that one never has to take a stand in thought or action as to how to get the factors together. “We do not display greatness by going to one extreme.92 h u b e rt l . a person’s highest achievement was not to deny or overcome this contradiction – by getting rid of half the self – but to live in such a way as to express the tension of the contradiction fully.”9 Kierkegaard agrees that. according to the Judeo-Christian tradition. That means that both sets of factors are aspects of one whole.

if one makes possibility absolute and lives for constant change. if one tries to make the infinite and the eternal absolute. One can. as Lucretius did. there are many other ways to avoid facing the contradictory nature of the self besides surfing the net. on the basis of principles. but. Positive R2 – Such selves try. how the world should be run. and in the relation to that relation. Kierkegaard tries to show that every possible attempt to combine the factors by essentializing one or the other of each pair of . and the two relate to the relation. 3 d e s pa i r : t h e s i c k n e s s u n to d e at h In Sickness unto Death. take the soul to be eternal at the expense of the body as Plato did. such mystical types can’t bring their God-relationship together with a decision whether or not to take a walk in the park. for example. For example. one is in the aesthetic sphere – Kierkegaard’s anticipation of Nietzsche and the post-moderns – but that gives no expression to the necessary and the eternal. but this turns out to be impossible. of course. to express fully both sets of factors in thought and action. This can take a negative and a positive form. Or. by themselves. Kierkegaard claims to have shown that “the self cannot by itself arrive at or remain in equilibrium and rest. constantly open to new possibilities. This form of distraction is now perfected in chat rooms and news groups on the internet. without running the risk of testing these principles in action. it does not have in itself the resources to live a stable and meaningful life. the relation must relate itself to itself. the relation relates to itself in the Greek way. It does not have the truth in it.”10 When the relation is a negative unity. that is.”11 His Christian view is that the self is unable to solve its own problem. It must manifest that something about the self is essential by making something in its life absolute. he or she is not yet a self. As Kierkegaard puts it. One could debate. or do the opposite. this is what it is from the point of view of soul for soul and body to be in relation. To be a self. Negative R2 – “In a relation between two things the relation is the third term in the form of a negative unity. R2 – If a human being acts only as a combination of factors.Christianity without onto-theology 93 could discuss events and people anonymously without ever having to take responsibility for one’s views. by taking a stand on both sets of factors through its actions. denying one of the sets of factors and acting as if only the other aspect of the self were the essential one. Once he has worked through all the first three spheres of existence in this way. one loses the finite and the temporal.

everyone who has not managed to perform the impossible task of getting his or her self together in a stable. even though you now feel that things are going well for you. Kierkegaard would say that you might think you are living a life worth living. that you are fulfilling your capacities and everything is working out fine. at least. You may feel that you are having a great time enjoying all your possibilities. You might well think that this is all ridiculous. unlike these downers. d rey f u s factors leads to despair. And. according to Kierkegaard. In general.12 Kierkegaard is pointing out that despair is not like sadness. In fact. but it is not despair. Not so with despair. you know that it is temporary. because it is a sickness of the spirit. that is certainly misery. given the kind of person you are. regret. it is immediately evident that he has been in despair his whole life. it’s never possible at any time to decide anything about a person who is not saved through having been in despair. meaningful life is in despair. and so forth. Once despair appears. Rather. Despair is the feeling that life isn’t working for you and.” If you are sad. properly understood. it is impossible for things to work for you. you realize that you have always been in despair and you always will be. and then later that person becomes ill. disappointment. but in fact you are in despair. what is apparent is that the person was in despair. And this dialectical aspect. then the physician may well be right about his having been well at the time but now being sick. all that person’s past joys must have been self-deceptions. For when whatever causes a person to despair occurs. or that your life is worth living because you are working to eliminate suffering. or living a fulfilling life taking care of your family. you must right now be in despair and not know it. If at any time a physician is convinced that so and so is in good health. in your case. since the self is a contradiction.e. since you. What right does he have to say this? His answer is in Sickness unto Death: Despair differs dialectically from what one usually calls sickness. So Kierkegaard concludes that. depression. That in turn means that.. That means that once a person experiences despair – “it will be evident that his [previous] success was an illusion”13 – i. are not in despair.94 h u b e rt l . brings further thousands under the category of despair. Only if you have faced your despair – the sickness unto death – and been cured can you be sure . etc. Even if something so terrible happens to you that you feel that you were happy once but that whatever has happened makes it impossible for you ever to be happy again. if you ever experience despair. literally impossible. despair exhibits what Kierkegaard calls “the dialectic of eternity. as does every way of trying to do justice to both. that a life worth living is.

. with the exception of those who have faced despair and been healed. but claims that this is merely a traditional. can it get the two sets .15 According to Kierkegaard.14 Consequently. given the contradictory nature of the self. This is not the distraction of the present age where one represses the call to be a self. all of us.Christianity without onto-theology 95 that you are not now in despair. to the end that we may be healed of it. been constituted as having two sets of essential but incompatible factors. Kierkegaard proposed to preface Sickness unto Death with a prayer to Jesus as Savior: O Lord Jesus Christ. to be aware of this sickness is the Christian’s advantage over natural man. Kierkegaard tries to show that the Christian claim that the self is a contradiction is confirmed by a purportedly exhaustive categorization of all the ways of being a self available to us and how each fails. must right now be in despair.”17 Kierkegaard contends. In Sickness unto Death. To begin with. is denying that one is in despair by denying the demand that we express the two sets of factors in our lives in a way that enables them to reinforce each other. Kierkegaard or the pragmatist? I think that this is a question we can only approach experimentally. The ultimate despair. we should simply give it up and adopt a vocabulary and practices that are healthier and more useful to us now. who didst come to earth to heal them that suffer from this sickness . Rather. Kierkegaard contends. So.”16 But how that enables him to cure us of despair is rather a long story. Kierkegaard tells us that the self can only succeed in relating itself to itself by relating to another. 4 how t h e fac to r s re i n f o rc e e ac h ot h e r i n a n u n co n d i t i o n a l co m m i t m e n t If Kierkegaard is right. How can we decide who is right here. essentialist view that we should opt out of. He says: The possibility of this sickness is man’s advantage over the beast. to be cured of this sickness is the Christian’s blessedness. help Thou us in this sickness to hold fast to Thee. Jesus is “God in time as [an] individual man. someone in this ultimate form of despair sees that in our religious tradition the self has. Only when the self “in relating to itself relates to something else. . Since the traditional Judeo-Christian understanding of the self leads people to despair. indeed. not being in despair must mean having been somehow cured of it for good.

This is the claim illustrated in Fear and Trembling. or vocation whereby a person gets an identity and a sense of reality would do to make the point Kierkegaard is trying to make. Steve Jobs identifies himself with Apple Computer. Any such unconditional commitment to some specific individual. But how is this possible? Whether you can get the factors together or whether they form a contradiction depends on how you define them.”21 According to Kierkegaard. That would not be an expression of freedom. Kierkegaard says that the knight is free to “forget the whole thing. if you define the factors from the point of view of detachment.” but in so doing the knight would “contradict himself. Kierkegaard’s model for such a commitment is the knight whose life gets its meaning by his devotion to his lady. [be] blessed in his kin. the Greeks found that.”18 Isaac was obviously essential to Abraham’s identity. while you were in despair. is the one who will bring justice to the American blacks. By responding to the call of such an unconditional commitment and thereby getting an identity. looked impossible. a person becomes what Kierkegaard. eternally remembered in Isaac. Only then is each factor defined in such a way as to support rather than be in conflict with the others. Kierkegaard draws on the chivalric romances. d rey f u s of factors into equilibrium.” since it is “a contradiction to forget the whole of one’s life’s content and still be the same. In such a case the person becomes an individual defined by his or her relation to the object of his or her unconditional commitment. an infatuation.96 h u b e rt l .”19 Kierkegaard adds in a footnote that “any other interest whatever in which an individual concentrates the whole of life’s reality”20 would do as well. . [so that] the content of his whole life lies in this love. following the Bible. Thanks to it. Kierkegaard tries to show that only if you define the factors in terms of a total involvement that gives you your identity do you get a positive synthesis. The example on which he says “everything turns” is the case of “A young lad [who] falls in love with a princess. to put it another way. etc. .e. or an obsession. so that the more you manifest one the more you manifest the other. i.. who “believed he would . The lad who loves the princess relates himself to himself by way of this relation. that the two sets of factors reinforce each other. . The story starts with Abraham the Father of the faith. This is not a compulsion. he knows who he is and what is relevant and important in his world. Or. cause. To illustrate what is at stake in having an identity. you can’t get them together. if and only if you let yourself be drawn into a defining commitment can you achieve that which. Martin Luther King Jr. The lad is the lover of the princess.

Christianity without onto-theology 97 calls “a new creation. Moreover. the significance of events in one’s life is subject to retroactive reinterpretation. “The existing individual in time . drawing on the biblical saying that we shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye. Jesus gave those who were saved from despair by being unconditionally committed to him new names. abstract eternity of Plato. Kierkegaard. in order to exist.23 but. The moment when one is reborn is obviously such a moment. . He is not cowardly. if you define eternity in an involved way as that which remains constant throughout your life. to let it twine itself in countless coils around every ligament of his consciousness – if the love becomes unhappy he will never be able to wrench himself out of it. but the passionately involved eternity that Kierkegaard calls “eternity in time. This is a kind of involved eternity that must. and his soul is too healthy and proud to squander the least thing on an infatuation. But just how does this work? The temporal and the eternal For one to live fully in time. he is not afraid to let his love steal in upon his most secret. after the transformation. other moments become significant since one’s unconditional commitment must be expressed in one’s day-to-day activity. not vice versa. be temporal. comes into relation with the eternal in time. The paradoxical fact is that “only in existing do I become eternal. most hidden thoughts.”22 Thus. and “the proposition inaccessible to thought is that one can become eternal although one was not such. Kierkegaard says: “A concrete eternity within the existing individual is the maximum degree of his passion”. The way a commitment can produce a privileged moment is not something disinterested thought can understand. . But the eternal is also absolutely important in one’s life. one’s identity is as eternal as a definition.” Normally. The lad will henceforth always be the lover of the princess: He first makes sure that this really is the content of his life. in an unconditional commitment that defines the self. and they called him their Savior. that will be your identity forever (for every moment of your life). calls this moment the Augenblick.24 Further events will be interpreted in the light of the content given the self in the Augenblick. if you are unconditionally committed to a particular person or cause. then what is eternal is your identity. some moment must be absolutely important and make other moments significant relative to it.”25 In sum.”27 . That is. Not the disinterested.”26 But this does not make me any less temporal.

. to let yourself be more and more involved with something finite. But any such finite being is vulnerable. not repose in the pain of resignation. and it is necessary that you be it. But.”30 In sum. As we saw earlier. and yet the meaning of my life depends on it.”28 I can’t go into details here. when you have a defining commitment. the sword will fall. given the risk. d rey f u s The finite and the infinite Kierkegaard calls an unconditional commitment an infinite passion for something finite. and yet Abraham acts as if he will always have Isaac. when you have a defining commitment. The Knight of Faith can do this because he lives in the assurance that “God is the fact that everything is possible. This makes a defining commitment very risky.29 In the context of the Abraham story.e. it is the condition for anything showing up as meaningful. We are interested in the smallest particularities of our beloved. an infinite passion can legitimately be called infinite because it opens up a world. or that everything is possible is God. the object of your passion is both something particular and also world-defining. It thus opens up a horizontal transcendence. For Kierkegaard. anything that could possibly come into existence would get its meaning for me from my defining commitment. Of course. The one who does that. So it follows. the finite object of your commitment is infinitely important.98 h u b e rt l . but joy on the strength of the absurd – that is wonderful. the only great one. But just what makes an infinite passion count as infinite? It can’t be just a very strong feeling. The necessary and the possible We have seen that. you get an identity. rather. as Kierkegaard says. i. It would certainly be safer to define one’s life in some sort of theoretical quest or in terms of some abstract idea – say the eventual triumph of the proletariat – but that is not concrete enough to satisfy the need to make the finite absolutely significant. he is great. one’s commitment defines reality. That is what you are. Isaac will certainly be sacrificed. you need to live in a kind of absurdity: Every moment to see the sword hanging over the loved one’s head and yet find. Indeed. Not only what actually exists gets its meaning from its connection with my defining passion. the object of my infinite passion is something finite. that “without risk there is no faith. but suffice it to say that Kierkegaard holds that. according to Kierkegaard. it must in some sense transcend the finite. although .

it does not dictate an inflexible way of acting as if it were a compulsion. but this much is clear. Although Kierkegaard does not say so in so many words. One can’t be a Christian in Kierkegaard’s sense and agree with Nietzsche that “convictions are prisons. In anything less than total loss and subsequent worldcollapse.”33 Thus. Otherwise. Only if one relates steadfastly rather than flexibly to the world established by one’s defining commitment can one experience a gestalt switch in which one’s sense of reality is transformed. .Christianity without onto-theology 99 your identity is fixed.e. of course. one has to be able to adapt to even the most radical changes in the defining object. according to Kierkegaard. This is a topic too complicated to go into here.. The paradoxical edification [of Christianity] . even though the central concern in one’s life is fixed. Kierkegaard concludes from his examination of all types of despairing ways to try to relate the factors that the only sphere of existence that can give equal weight to both sets of factors is a religion based on an infinite passion for something finite. He is clear that “in Religiousness B the edifying is something outside the individual . Thus. All such adaptive changes will.”32 and that means that even the inconceivable is possible. one can only change worlds by being totally involved in one. For the truly impossible to be possible. and although some events are highly improbable. they are not inconceivable. Abraham has faith that if he sacrifices Isaac “God could give him a new Isaac. deepening one’s commitment. to change my identity. To be born again and again. Kierkegaard calls such a paradoxical religion Religiousness B. As in Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. and taking all the risks involved. one is free to adapt it to all sorts of possible situations in all sorts of ways. John Caputo’s understanding of religion as dealing with “the impossible” only makes sense if there are worlds. There is. until it breaks down and becomes impossible. however. i. the radically impossible only makes sense if one is unconditionally committed to the current world. but eternity can change in time. if there are what Rorty once called final vocabularies. Here we are touching on the paradox of mourning. we have such flexibility that everything is possible. an even more radical kind of freedom: The freedom to change my world. that is. On Kierkegaard’s view.”31 This can happen because God is “that everything is possible. be changes in the world but not changes of the world. In Kierkegaard’s terms. revolutions depend on prior unconditional commitment to a paradigm. we can see that. . not only can eternity begin at a moment of time (the Augenblick). Kierkegaard calls this freedom because. once we see that eternity can be in time. we must be able to open radically new worlds which we can’t even make sense of until we are in them.

” He is the paradoxical Paradigm who saves from despair all sinners – those who have tried to take a stand on themselves by themselves. reflection is directed to the question whether the individual is related to a something in such a manner that his relationship is in truth a God relationship. d rey f u s corresponds therefore to the determination of God in time as the individual man.”35 And even more clearly that “it is the passion of the infinite that is the decisive factor and not its content. in the Postscript Kierkegaard says. But Kierkegaard does say that one could not despair “unless the synthesis were originally in the right relationship from the hand of God. it follows that the object of defining relation does not have to be the God-man. “he who has seen me has seen the Father. “Subjectively.100 h u b e rt l . given the logic of Kierkegaard’s position.37 Grounded transparently means acting in such a way that what gives you your identity comes through in everything you do. . the self is grounded transparently in the power that established it.”34 But. Kierkegaard says rather obscurely: This then is the formula that describes the state of the self when despair is completely eradicated: in relating to itself and in wanting to be itself. is the power that established the whole relation? The power doesn’t seem to be an onto-theological God since it is lower case and Kierkegaard doesn’t say that the power created the relation. then. But that would only be the power that established your identity. especially if we remember that “God is that everything is possible” – not an entity at all? I think we have to say that “the fact that everything is possible” makes possible the contradictory God-man who then says. unless the self relates itself to something else with an unconditional commitment. the individual is related to something outside himself. not the power that established the three sets of contradictory factors to which your identity is the solution. that only if it has an unconditional commitment will the self be able to get the two sets of factors together in such a way that they reinforce each other. But what is the power (lower case) that established the self? I used to think that it was whatever finite and temporal object of infinite passion created you as a new being by giving you your identity. What. it is in despair. and so be in bliss. for its content is precisely itself. Indeed. for if such be the case.”36 5 co n c lu s i o n So now we can see why Kierkegaard claims that.”38 How are we to cash out this metaphor.

who is metaphysically infinite and eternal. Ibid. Whatever constituted the self as the individual self it is. Jesus revealed that the two sets of factors are equally essential and can (and must) be brought into equilibrium. making it a new being – that “something” would be its Savior. with the God-man who is finite and temporal.Christianity without onto-theology 101 either by relating only to themselves or by relating to an infinite. I think that the claim that God established the factors has to mean that by making it possible for people to have a defining commitment – in the first instance to him – and so be reborn. 3. Ibid. 56. on this reading. In this way he established the Christian understanding of the self in which we now live. n ot e s 1.” In other passages in The Sickness . The God-man saves them by calling them to make an unconditional commitment to him – “God in time as an individual man. pp. healing it of despair by giving it its identity and. the God-man.. “to be grounded transparently in the power that established it” would mean that saved Christians (1) relate themselves to themselves by manifesting in all aspects of their lives that both sets of factors are essential. 36–7. that is. 2. I have substituted Walter Lowrie’s term “factors” for Hannay’s “terms” in the definition of the self. trans. I have made several changes in the text in order to clarify what I believe to be its meaning. Søren Kierkegaard. absolute. p. Alexander Dru (London: Collins. In so doing. This is the truth about the essential nature of the self that went undiscovered until Jesus revealed it. First. The Present Age. by. and eternal God. relating to someone or something finite with an infinite passion and so becoming eternal in time. Søren Kierkegaard. Second. In this way Kierkegaard has succeeded in saving Christianity from ontotheology by replacing the creator God.. and (2) all such lives are grounded in Jesus. 1989). who first makes such radical transformation of the person and of the world possible. 4. Alastair Hannay (London: Penguin Books.” Therefore. 82. I have changed the word “freedom” to “possibility. trans. because it provides a convenient shorthand for describing the constituents of the synthesis. p. The Sickness unto Death. 43. So. thereby. 1962). yet who is the source of the infinity and eternity required by finite beings like us if we are to be saved from despair. He is the call that demands “a decision in existence” which we cannot reject without despair. p. Kierkegaard has also shown how leveling and technicity can be positive forces in forcing us to leave behind both metaphysics and paganism’s sense of the sacred for a more intense and rewarding form of religion.

Ibid. As Rorty points out. p. pp. Concluding Unscientific Postscript.g. p. See Martin Heidegger. 498. namely. and other epochs in our culture. Hannay.. Mass.. So it seems that rigid designation might allow us to discover the essential structure of the self. 43. 1971). but not where it was mined or that it shines with divine radiance. p.. the distinction between the two concepts is clear. Kierkegaard uses the word “freedom” to refer to the self-defining nature of human beings. as an important cross-cultural characteristic of the self. 7. 13. p. and in The Concept of Anxiety. That the atomic number of gold is 79 is.: Harvard University Press. 274. e Ibid. Thus. 1958). and argues that only his account of the self can explain this fact. Such judgments depend on one’s culture. p.. Ibid. 1972). number 353. Saul A. 44. since Kierkegaard discusses them in this order in the remainder of The Sickness unto Death. trans. 134. even if it does not justify modern science’s claim to be able to determine the unique essence of each natural kind.. Kripke. Ibid. Being and Time.. 5. F. 12. 14. Thus. 152. number 434. trans. But. W. p. e. Ibid. 45. The Sickness unto Death. as we shall see. p. the determination of an essence involves a judgment as to which properties are important. 16. that anyone in any culture might someday feel despair. Sickness unto Death. true everywhere and for all times. Finally. 8. 15. I have changed the terminology in order to preserve the clear distinction between the two concepts. Sickness unto Death. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: HarperCollins. Trotter (New York: Dutton. Swenson and Walter Lowrie (Princeton University Press. d rey f u s unto Death. 11. 43. 17. p. indeed. and I have changed the order temporal/eternal to eternal/temporal to make it symmetrical with Kierkegaard’s presentation of the other sets of factors. Though Kierkegaard is inconsistent in his use of terminology. the essence that explains the important properties of a natural kind is relative to a background understanding of being. . trans. 51. 1941). that the color and ductility of gold are important and need to be explained. 9. Surprisingly. Naming and Necessity (Cambridge. Søren Kierkegaard. trans. it seems that black box essentialism works for human beings but not for natural kinds such as gold. trans.102 h u b e rt l . I have reversed the order of the possibility/necessity and eternal/temporal factors. 10. 6. Kierkegaard points to all human beings’ susceptibility to despair. 54. 2nd edn. Walter Lowrie (Princeton University Press. 1962). David F. but in other cultures. Pascal’s Pens´es. He uses the word “possibility” to refer to one factor of the synthesis that a human being defines. that might not be understood to be the essential property.

important to note that all these thinkers share the view that. 37. Hollingdale (New York: Penguin Books. p. p. p. 181.. 71. trans. and leaves the monastery to become a businessman. p. 44. Ibid. and repents. 70. 71. 79. p. he feels that it was a religious calling after all. but it is. Sartre gives the example of a person who has an emotional crisis as an adolescent. Søren Kierkegaard. he comes to interpret the experience as just a psychological upset during adolescence.. Then later. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. 34. 31. Friedrich Nietzsche. Ibid. 1990). there must be total involvement in one’s current world. 178. 38.. nonetheless. Ibid. Fear and Trembling. 188.. in Twilight of the Idols/The Anti-Christ. 29. 277. J. Sickness unto Death... Sartre’s point is that our past is constantly up for reinterpretation. p. The Anti-Christ. and also from Kuhn’s scientific revolutions. translation modified.. trans. 19. 54. 71. 21. Alastair Hannay (London: Penguin Books. Ibid. p. 65. 20. 70. 30. But on his deathbed. Ibid. . Fear and Trembling. he interprets it as a religious calling and acts on it by becoming a monk. Fear and Trembling. p. 26. p. 36. 508. individual world-change needs to be distinguished from cultural or what Heidegger calls epochal change. Ibid. 498. 32.Christianity without onto-theology 103 18. 46. pp. 1985). p. Of course. 22. p. 35. 23. 33. p. Ibid. p. Ibid. 71. p. Ibid. number 54. Ibid. R. 28. 27. 25. p. Sickness unto Death. Sickness unto Death.. 24. p. p. Fear and Trembling. and the final interpretation is an accidental result of what we happen to think as we die. 508.. 72. for there to be genuine world disclosure. Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

As elements of the everyday language. while religion still (or again) has enough meaning to be considered in philosophy.chapter 8 Religion after onto-theology? Adriaan Peperzak “Religion after onto-theology” was the title of a conference held in July 2001. Most of them have at least two meanings according to the context in which they are used.e. they are perfectly understandable by anyone who is familiar with idiomatic English.” “subject” (“after the subject”). That similar fences are inevitable in all learned discussions might be true (although some philosophers are widely understandable. but if we want to discuss it. we should first try to agree on the meaning of “onto-theo-logy. they restrict their meaning to a particular interpretation of their use in characteristic contexts of a particular philosophy. or as a heritage that is still alive and for which there might still be a future? It is the polysemic word “after” that bothers me most. It summarizes the conviction found among “continental” philosophers that onto-theology is outdated. those who do not agree with the basic tenets proclaimed by the recognized stars. in “presence. 104 . even to non-professional philosophers).. but as elements of the regional language in which “onto-theo-logy” is used to characterize the past. Such double meanings are found.” Perhaps I am na¨ve in asking. “What should we mean by onto-theology?” ı Anyone who has followed the American development of “continental philosophy” should know the group language of its adherents. but should we not be alerted when the fence is made of a whole range of key words which by themselves are not clear enough to convey an insight into the news they summarize? All of us know examples of such words. either in the sense of a definitively closed period. one has puzzled me more than others: To what extent can we declare that ontotheology (or onto-theology or onto-theo-logy)1 belongs to our past. for example. Of the questions such a title triggers. and not doubt their basic conquests. I am afraid that “onto-theology” has become one of those code words that characterize a regional language through which one version of continental philosophy fences off the ignorant – i. If this is the right answer to my question.

If certain concepts.” we might have already lost one of the most promising promises. philosophy has become a scholastic enterprise. o n to . what exactly then lies behind us? It cannot be the logical element in ontotheology that irritates us if we want to continue using some sort of logic in our meditations. Scholasticism not only blocks originality. and trivialization then imprison thought.” “transgression.” “grounding.” and “impossible.Religion after onto-theology? 105 “foundation. for example. “post-modern”). or Hegel.t h e o . Appeals to hermeneutic authorities.” while examples of philosophical words whose meanings have become different from their historical meanings are “cause.” “ground. simplification and hardening. When such interpretations are accepted by those who skip a personal fight with the classics.” “metaphysics” and “metaphysics of presence. insofar as this lives on the capital of its heritage. their access to the past is blocked – but then also their access to the present.” and “Neoplatonism.” are used to summarize and outdo entire œuvres.” and “founding.” “Platonism.” we waste a heritage that could have been promising.” “metaphysics. “modern” (cf. Aquinas. 2.” The difference between the peculiar meanings that many words have within the language of a certain school and their meaning in “ordinary” or historical use has struck me most when studying such classical authors as Plato.lo g y If the word “onto-theo-logy” is used to characterize a certain past as closed and no longer inspiring. arrogance. it also blocks the possibility of transforming the past into a future.” “ethics” (cf. Often I did not recognize their work in interpretations whose orthodoxy is not contested by most members of that school.” or “after ontotheology. repetition. By thinking of ourselves as “after metaphysics. however.” “idea. the godly. but do they facilitate our discovery of the latter’s meaning? This question becomes even more critical when certain “post-modernists” try to justify their anti-onto-(theo)logical position by biased or false interpretations of the best metaphysical texts. they prevent or distort direct study. “against ethics”).600 years of “metaphysics” and “ontotheology. such as “presence. Does the theos or the theion bother us? But why then is there still “religion” after all? Or does religion not imply some reference to the divine.2 Their “reading” might be interesting in itself and point at hidden promises of the interpreted texts. “the God or the gods”?3 . if we had not been insensitive to its wealth. “Plato.” “violence. By condemning. Plotinus. and if a new orthodoxy wins over personal confrontation with those œuvres.

71).106 a d r i a a n pe pe r z a k We will come back to the latter question.” and “make music and dance for this God” (ID. he refers here to a name of God that is found in modern. Heidegger concludes that those religious activities are not possible with regard to the God of philosophy. 70).”4 Since there is no room for a close reading of this intricate text here. Applying it to the philosophical tradition.5 (4) Heidegger comes to this result of his survey of Western onto-theology by insisting on the “grounding” (gr¨ nden). because the next sentence firmly declares: “This means here only: It [scil. p. aitia. sacrifices. I will limit myself to a succinct summary of the passages that are immediately relevant for our purpose. according to him. u u and “finding out” or “fathoming” (ergr¨ nden) that. the god-less thinking] is freer for the godly God than onto-theo-logic likes to acknowledge” (ID. ousia. dancing. 71). I interpret this to mean that the latter does not invite or inspire music making. has u obsessed the tradition. telos. but let’s focus first on the “on” (beings) in “onto-theo-logy. whom some of ¯ them called the first or ultimate “cause” (arche . especially the Greek one (think. forma. which has always been an onto-theo-logical tradition. I take the word “perhaps” in the quoted phrase as a rhetorical formula of politeness.” “in awe fall on their knees. pp. the God as causa sui” (ID. texts. 54–7). from which I will then draw a few conclusions. This criterion fits many religions. p. He apparently thinks that the philosophers could not stop their quest for grounds once they arrived at God. for instance. and prayers as appropriate answers to his emergence from the philosophical tradition. mainly Cartesian and Spinozistic.” By way of preparation it may be necessary to consider the particular interpretation of the word “onto-theo-logy” that has become a shibboleth for those who use it to distinguish their own thought from an allegedly obsolete past: the interpretation given by Heidegger in “The Onto-theological Constitution of Metaphysics. (3) Heidegger declares that the quintessence of the ontotheological God lies in his being a “cause of himself ” (causa sui). “founding” (begr¨ nden). . morphe . (1) Heidegger criticizes the entire onto-theo-logical tradition as irreligious insofar as it is “perhaps” (vielleicht) further removed from the godly God than “the god-less thinking that must give up the God of philosophy. Without paying attention to the historical polysemy of the word “cause” ¯ ¯ (including the meanings of eidos. Without analysis or presentation of the relevant texts. p. hyl e . (2) The phenomenological criterion Heidegger offers for the recognition of a godly God is that humans can “pray and sacrifice to him. idea. causa) (ID. of Homer’s description of the funeral rites for Patroclus).

From my perspective. Heidegger’s circumvention of the entire period of what the Enlightenment’s ignorance called the “dark ages” is particularly ominous. most Christian thinkers from Justin and Clement ( ± ad 200) to Cusanus ( ± ad 1500). in conjunction with the other names they use (“the infinite. is the appropriate or pertinent (sachgerechte) name of God within philosophy (insofar as it has been a founding discipline). Spinoza. that the philosophical tradition has been blind to the question of a groundless beginning or origin. concerning God as causa sui. a full retrieval of all the great classics would be necessary. Heidegger declares that “the most originary Sache” itself has been thought to be not only the ground of the being of all beings. shouldn’t we learn from those who were highly skilled professionals not only in philosophy.Religion after onto-theology? 107 materia. and essentia). and some other geniuses such as Spinoza. but also in religion? (b) Such rehabilitation would also demand the recognition that the classics have not submitted God to the question: What is the ground of God? On the contrary. I can only summarize. Freud. he writes. and Hegel call God causa sui shows that this name. and Bergson. That would demand (a) a full rehabilitation of those thinkers who are excluded from Heidegger’s history of philosophy. existere. Heidegger ignores or hides the stubborn resistance of most thinkers from Antiquity to the end of the Middle Ages to the theological use of the expression “causa sui. esse. all English and American thinkers. all French thinkers except Descartes. This. Blondel. but also the ground or cause of itself . With regard to the third point. but without proof.” substantia. in the form of counterpoints. all thinkers from 300 bc to ad 600). and even Spinoza and . from God as the One who cannot be caught by any categorical or conceptual grasp. and especially of his view that the ontological framework of Western philosophy is permeated by the logic of a grounding thought. as integral parts of the universe or the Nous (spirit). For a fair assessment of (4) Heidegger’s diagnosis. all Jewish and Muslim thinkers.e.. Marx. He thus states. Geist) does not justify Heidegger’s interpretation. I claim that a close reading of the passages in which Descartes. all of them – and most clearly the Neoplatonists – have insisted on the abyss that separates all caused causes and connections. If we want to know how philosophy of religion might be possible.6 In response to Heidegger’s text.” No great philosopher has ever maintained that God is the cause or ground of his own being. namely all post-Aristotelian “Greeks” (i. what I see as theses guaranteed by the best historical scholarship. most of which I have checked within the limits of my own struggle with classical texts of the philosophical tradition. Jacobi.

some or even many .8 As for (1) Heidegger’s suggestion that a godless thinker or a godless time might be closer to the authentic God than “the philosophers” (and thus very close to authentic mystics). though I am not sure whether we understand it in the same way. we must ask whether that long tradition can still be retrieved in a way that allows for the recognition of a godly God.400 years of the 2. infinite (and therefore utterly obscure.7 As for (2) Heidegger’s appeal to his own criterion for a godly God. this question cannot be decided by a general statement or an individual testimony. I gladly agree that certain atheists can be more religious than certain Christians or Jews. is onto-logy not a correct translation into Greek of Heidegger’s own Denken des Seins? And if we take Heidegger’s H¨ lderlinian o religion seriously. it is remarkable that. if indeed we take religion on its deepest level. True. for example. during 2. and if no pre. it is lived religion itself that decides about this.108 a d r i a a n pe pe r z a k Descartes did not and could not think that. however. In the fifth chapter of his Journey of the Mind to God . Whether it is the best way for a thinker to reflect about religion as a communitarian and individual dimension of life remains to be seen. while integrating both traditions in his theological version of God as revealed in the life of a crucified man. What religion is and how it can be lived in authentic and inauthentic ways cannot be stipulated by philosophers independently.. The question itself implies that we know what “godly” means. Just as art cannot be constructed by philosophy. because it is unthinkable. and that certain experiences and expressions of the practical and theoretical atheism of our time might have mystical aspects. but supremely meaningful) sense.600 philosophy has lived) is not destroyed by Heidegger’s critique. Bonaventura refers to God as esse ipsum in a specific. I choose only one word from Heidegger’s description of authentic religion: prayer.e. whose profound involvement with religion cannot be doubted. religion has its own criteria for authenticity. may we not characterize his meditation on the gods of that religion as an onto-theo-logy (or perhaps rather an onto-theio-logy)? If the onto-theo-logical project that has fascinated the great minds from Parmenides to Hegel (i. but I do not see why the ontological program as such would be an obstacle to approaching God. but is that not precisely what we want to discover? As a criterion that might guide our search. did not have any problem with an ontological approach to God. Bonaventura. a pure contradiction.or postHeideggerian thinker has given a more convincing refutation. but he subordinates this rather Aristotelian onto-theo-logy to a more Platonic and Dionysian evocation. Besides. and I am sure that Heidegger has not proved that it would be.

Whether philosophers can recognize their own philosophical faith (for philosophers. though. because religion. What we can do. and its attitude differs from the philosophical attitude. the God of the philosophers is not interested in human history or nature. after having lived and experienced a particular religion. corporeal. or imagined by philosophy. liturgies. however. and Jesus prayed seems to be forgotten or even contradicted by “the God of the philosophers. too. practices. deduced. My own experience of Christian life has led me to the conviction that religion in its full. . is to state clearly what. we can simplify our problem by asking how the onto-theo-logical project can be related to the possibility and actuality of prayer. All these words simultaneously veil and reveal one unique “relation. Jacob. charitable and contemplative) sense can be summarized as trust or faith in God. and beliefs shows many apparently irreconcilable differences.. as the most originary and all-permeating responsivity of an existence in devotion to the creative. just like art. we must ask ourselves why the God to whom Abraham. and no one represents all of them in an authentic way. but religion has its own origin and orientation. The unfolding of that core and its self-critical evaluation might need or invite philosophical skills. can be recognized as a summary of religion by the faithful adherents of all religions.Religion after onto-theology? 109 requirements of philosophy coincide with the requirements of religion. if we include in this expression gratitude and hope. have a faith) in “prayer” depends on many factors. Isaac. this question is fundamentally a question about the relation between two basically different attitudes. If my statement may be accepted not only as a “subjective” impression but as a (hypo)thesis that deserves to be considered. As I hope to show. but no religion would recognize itself – and certainly not its most authentic version – in a “religion” that is independently construed.e.” According to an answer this question has often received. Moses. but that at least some form of prayer is central to all religions can hardly be denied. But before we come to that. It is obvious that nobody is able to talk in the name of religion as such. historical. grace and peace. though each religion has its own version of that core. exists only in concrete varieties. laws. individual. David. and healing God. all-permeating. of course.” which can also be expressed in the word “prayer. and spiritual (i. we believe has been discovered as a core without which no religion would be possible.” if this is understood in its deepest and simplest sense – scil. its unfolding into communal traditions.” of which I venture here a clumsy description. It seems to me that “prayer. communitarian. it might thus generate philosophical and/or theological discourses and texts.

since its beginning. The thinker was an engineer who not only analyzed the existing community as a complex system but also ventured to construct a better system. the world. caught in theses and antitheses.110 a d r i a a n pe pe r z a k he is not an inspiring.g. put in place. Can we. thematized. other parts of the world. but wholly connected with. set. I do agree that modern. Is he even a person? I allude here to the view of those who oppose the philosophical God to the God of their faith as an impersonal to a personal God. called utopia. or moments of a cosmos. However. creative and recreative. saving. onta) as such. If you permit me a sweeping generalization for the sake of clarity. entities that can be objectified. Their essentia was treated as a realitas different from. a panoramic whole. but thematizable. purify the concept of a person of its individual and finite constrictions? Can we think an infinite person? If we can. But let us reserve the latter thought for a later moment of our investigation. the thorough analyses of self-consciousness. the cosmos. Though I am not wholly convinced that the God of philosophy (e. has remained a reflection about things. . an overseeable totality. this will not be enough to approach God. and consoling presence. From Hobbes to Hegel. and so on. In this light. The clearest example of such treatment we find in social philosophy. and Plotinus’ or Bonaventura’s One) is necessarily cold and impersonal. human beings were thought of as moments of a system. parts. nature. I would like to say that Western philosophy. physis. compassionate. the birth and growth of psychology in all its varieties. he/she/it is also that in which “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). concrete attempts at ontology and ontotheology have (at least partially) failed because they were not capable of clarifying what and how persons are. treated as pieces. The paradigm in light of which philosophers have considered being was not beings (to on. while puzzled by the fact that the existing social systems did not work so well as the system of nature. protecting. res. because God is not only the infinite Other. beings. reality. can they explain what it means to conceive of God as a person? What we know about persons concerns a multitude of individual and finite human beings.. posited. parts and participants of a world whose structure could be reconstructed ordine and more geometrico. and in this sense objectifiable. Plato’s Good. However. by thinking. but God is neither finite nor an individual. human beings were treated as special sorts of things (res). and to a certain extent all. An obvious objection to the thesis that even modern philosophy did not develop a philosophy of the person is found in the overarching importance of the ego that thinks. realia.

A third response to my (hypo)thesis could be that Heidegger has given us something like or something better than a philosophy of the person in his phenomenology of Dasein as temporal and historical being-in-the-worldwith-others. a long discussion would be necessary to come to an agreement about this claim. Geworfenheit. Again. While maintaining that “being” is all-encompassing. Phenomenology has reminded us that material objects do not guarantee an appropriate perspective for their “formal” treatment. I recognize that the basis of his ethics shows a sense for the extraordinariness of human personality. the horizon of his enterprise remains within the orbit of the modern egology. however groundbreaking and splendid his descriptions are. I must refer to my studies on Hegel’s practical philosophy. But. and (2) its attitude and method do not allow us to encounter and fully perceive what is proper to persons. but an “object” or “end in itself”).”10 However. and Dasein – including its Existenzialia such as Jemeinigkeit. according to which all beings are there (or given) to and for a center whose awareness encompasses all of them within the total but finite horizon of its universe. this project emerges from the impossibility of thinking “being” in a univocal way. though fitting well in his framework. against those who reduce all being to Vorhandenes and Vorgestelltes. insofar as the basic fact to which he appeals (the “fact of reason”) includes a dignity that is irreducible to any impersonal value or economy and thus differs radically from all thinghood or res-like “reality. As I will argue further on.9 but with regard to Kant. Other objections to my (hypo)thesis can be made through commentaries on Kant’s and Hegel’s theories of subjectivity and intersubjectivity. As for Hegel. This explains why Heidegger’s philosophy of intersubjectivity is reduced . Mitsein.Religion after onto-theology? 111 twentieth-century behaviorism shows how little humanity can be found in a discipline that focuses on human existence. worldliness. Heidegger ¯ has followed the injunction implicit in Aristotle’s legetai pollachos. Initiated by Aristotle. which cannot be conceived of as species of one genus. and Zeitlichkeit – are different or otherwise than the being of things and objects. insofar as. modern philosophy was not able to discover the quintessence of human personality for two reasons: (1) it has not developed a theory of intersubjectivity as distinct from sociality. his explication of this fact (humanity in myself and others is not a means. My strategy in such a discussion would be to stress the following points: (1) Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit can be read as a partial fulfillment of the ontological project. it recognizes various modes and dimensions of being. does little justice to the phenomenon that he tries to describe. he shows that Zuhandenheit.

nor an essence. the lessons of Emmanuel Levinas interrupt the Heideggerian phenomenology of Dasein’s “being-in” (Insein). The Good.112 a d r i a a n pe pe r z a k to a very general indication of Mitsein and a few wise. with regard to religion. And why should we use the same word for two “realities” that are infinitely different? The only alternative seems to lie in finding another word for God. Levinas’s wavering between an ontological and a meontological language is remarkable. he or she can leave the scene as soon as the massive importance of such collective phenomena as das Man. the phenomenology deployed in Totality and Infinity12 can also be interpreted as a partial fulfillment of the ontological project. In doing so. which makes that word ambivalent. The word “infinite” could be tried out to name God. we can provisionally focus on the latter aspect. or God. To a certain extent. I will use the . or the schicksalhafte Gemeinschaft is discovered. but for the sake of clarity. (2) At this point. while continuing to use “being” for all finite beings. God is not a being and therefore not a highest being. das Volk. remarks about F¨ rsorge. but unsystematic. nor being (ousia or einai) as such. Already in Totality and Infinity Levinas appeals to Plato’s difference between ousia (being or essence/essance) and to agathon (the Good) as names for the world of beings and God. Levinas’s main thesis holds that the relation to God (which I have named “prayer”) coincides with the relation to the other human person. is neither a being. we must therefore pass through his phenomenology of the human other. respectively. but it is obvious that “being” then cannot be understood as generically encompassing both. (3) Presupposing your acquaintance with Totality and Infinity. one could express the abyss between the totality and God as the difference between the universe of finite beings and the only one infinite being.11 The other is one of the beings that belong to the u wider world in which Dasein is involved. either. However. as Scotus and other thinkers have done. I here resume some of its main points insofar as they are relevant for a possible retrieval of the onto-theo-logical project. In order to retrieve Levinas’s thinking about religion. but in its realization something dramatic happens that makes a rethinking of that project necessary. His approach to God and his philosophy of prayer cannot be separated from his analysis of interhuman proximity. In his first opus magnum. In an ontological language. The difference between the finite and the infinite is itself infinite.13 The reason for this wavering lies in a certain indecisiveness with regard to the question of whether “being” should be accepted as the absolutely all-embracing word or rather reserved for all beings except God. but Levinas uses this word (for reasons we will see) also for the description of the human other.

The scission between is and ought is not pertinent in this “case. Mitsein resumes our sharing one world within which we. are exchangeable. In comparison to all the interchangeable elements of “the world. The appearance of a human other disrupts this horizon. an exception and contestation of the economic universe ruled by laws of interest and exchange. and thinking. In a face-to-face relation.15 Levinas affirms that the Other has “height” (hauteur). he or she is “a hole” in the world’s being. the Other who speaks to me or looks at me urges and obliges me to respect and esteem her existence – not by what she says or does. Levinas recognizes and stresses its importance for our hedonic.” “being. The first reason lies in the fact that the Other’s existence before me is experienced as simultaneously and indivisibly being a command: the Other’s existence.” this height is absolute and “infinite. not u a value (Wert). working. in both Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being 14 he gives his own phenomenology of our worldly or “economic” mode of being – but he denies that this worldly involvement. is the absolute or ultimate horizon of life and thought. who am settled in the world.” “manifestation. interested. The Other’s face or speech or gesture cannot be treated or conceived of as one of the exchangeable things or events that populate and compose the “world”. as Kant already firmly stated. violently separated by Descartes and his followers. you do not belong to me. Another human neither is nor has a value.Religion after onto-theology? 113 language of phenomenology. but by the fact of her meeting me. as still dominated by the centrality of me. as much as everything else. as present before me (or rather turned toward me).16 are bound together in the Other’s face and my appropriate perception of its demanding factuality. ego. civil and political dwelling. While Kant states that a person has dignity (W¨ rde). although Levinas has progressively replaced this language with another language that tries to avoid such expressions as “phenomenon.” Someone who looks at me or speaks to me cannot be seen or understood as a part or moment of the world.” and even “consciousness.” Theory and practice. obligates me. Levinas does not claim that Heidegger is wrong in showing that we are involved and always already engaged in the world – on the contrary. The social context in which we are involved by birth and enculturation is basic for a hermeneutical perspective on our being-there. However. Presentation imposes obligation.” The reason why the word “height” is chosen by Levinas to describe what phenomenologically distinguishes the emergence of the Other “in” and “from” the world is twofold. That I experience the Other as .” “appearance.” “experience. they do not fit the economy of values and equivalences. As a code name for our being-with(-one-another).

produce. the moral perspective disrupts and pierces that horizon and shows its relativity. probably even of the entire philosophical tradition of the West. “the Most High. I would like to dwell a while on one of these implications. the world of our Mitsein. as facing and speaking to you – are rooted in another dimension than the worldly one. Religion is charity.”17 who cannot be seen or felt. on the one hand. social. on the other hand. is not the ultimate.18 while. The infinite refutes the pretensions of the totality to be the ultimate. The second reason for using the words “high” and “infinite” for a characterization of the Other lies in Levinas’s thesis about the coincidence of ethics and religion. or accept the infinite difference between the totality and the infinite. the subject whom the Other obligates. and pre-theoretical perspective into my being-inand-belonging-to-the-world. That . As a radical and “quasi-transcendental” (or. I. If Levinas recognizes that. such as those of master and valet or husband and wife. am steeped in the economy of a world that we share. The two main commandments are one.114 a d r i a a n pe pe r z a k commanding me does not have anything to do with a difference in social (or other worldly) roles. it is obvious that he must look for a synthesis of both perspectives by subordinating the world (or the totality) and our economic. Those who recognize here a long biblical tradition and accuse Levinas of translating his faith into philosophy seem to suggest that one cannot be a serious philosopher if one shows phenomenologically that certain convictions can also be understood – at least in part or approximately – from the standpoint of philosophy. we are in the world. and scholarly involvement in it to the moral dimension opened by the Other’s facing and speaking. But if the totality. and therewith the horizon and context of the universe of beings. The only possible contact with God. If Levinas is right. the Other disrupts my worldly life. but the face-to-face shows that you – but also I. The world and Mitsein do not form the ultimate and absolute horizon. pre-scientific. political. as Levinas says. “preoriginal” and “an-archic”) “fact. lies in a fully appropriate response to the presence of human Others.” the Other imports a pre-social and prepolitical. many implications can be made explicit that shock the foundations of modern and post-modern philosophy. is philosophy itself then not dethroned? Not if philosophy itself can recognize. A freer and more adequate description shows otherwise. Thus it becomes clear that Levinas responds to the modern question of how we can understand intersubjectivity: the presuppositions that the Other is primarily an alter ego and that ethics must be grounded on non-normative and value-free facts are false.

as disruption of the world and interruption of the economy. you not only surprise and amaze me. to the extent to which the first-person perspective of an involved speaker is a necessary component of many statements whose truth cannot be “seen” by outsiders. but this relation is preceded and triggered by your being-there. perceives A and B as instances of a universal genus “persons” or “the person” (or “the essence of a person”). and so forth. if I. however. however. including the basic perceptions to which it must appeal. Less attention has been paid. it seems foolish to say that B is not equal but higher and commanding in relation to A. and phenomenology has elaborated this insight in its descriptions of the intuitive elements of all acquaintance and understanding. Without entering into the difficult discussions .Religion after onto-theology? 115 is. and ignorance of it has caused many false and superfluous problems. Such statements can be justified only if the life of the speaker or writer himself is involved in the relation expressed by those statements. whom I meet as a phenomenon that surprises and confronts me. As part of my life’s involvement with you (“the Other”). and (c) the Saying (le Dire) and the Said (le Dit). In other words. as coming from on high. from the height of a panoramic overview. if the Platonic difference between the being of all (finite) beings and the Good can still be retrieved. the thinker. That all philosophy must ultimately be founded on the immediacy of surprising phenomena has been known since Aristotle’s epistemology. If. philosophy itself. The main speaker is here the outsider who. the speaker. your facing provokes me to a response. The question “Who and what are you?” is now an element of an existential involvement. I would like to make a metaphenomenological remark with regard to all Levinas’s statements about the human other as a hole in being.” (b) the Other and the third (le tiers. all others). appear and what you are. the perception of the Other is possible and true only if it is achieved in the first person – me. am the Cogito who reflects about the universal genus “persons”). becomes (again) an existential enterprise. When you face me. for example. Everything changes. My unavoidable response involves me in a specific relation with you. What I formulate here in terms of a first-person perspective plays a constitutive role in Levinas’s distinctions between (a) “the Other” and “the Same. This is the condition of all basic experiences in ethics and religion. which I cannot refuse (turning away or keeping silent is also an answer). ask myself how you. “the Other” is nothing else than person B who is seen by person A (while I. (4) At this point.

20 Only Spinoza and Hegel. The philosopher thus studies the natural and human universe from a distance. whose phases he designed in his metaphor of the tree. only Levinas. the following features are obvious. on the other. Since the task of this purely theoretical movement lies in a metaphysically and scientifically justified (and possibly rectified) reconstruction of the real world in which all of us (including the philosopher) live. In order to be complete. and scientifically permitted moves of pure theory. Most modern philosophers followed Descartes’s advice to adopt a purely theoretical – neutral. but almost all modern works show weakness in those passages where the original union of theory and praxis and their promised reunion become a problem. who was the hero of modern philosophy and early phenomenology. succeeded in fulfilling the great program. and the intuitions. and universalistic – perspective in order to justify the principles of the existing universe. especially in its utilitarian. If later phenomenologists have replaced Husserl’s transcendentalism with a hermeneutical involvement. and historical affairs. and religious aspects. and to some extent Leibniz. he himself is. This decision immediately assigns a particular position to the philosopher: It places him outside all involvement in corporeal. which he finds in the Cogito itself. ethics and religion continue to lead a marginal and unjustified subsistence. including the praxis in which he has always already been involved. principles. despite a few existentialistic revolts. the philosopher has a superior standpoint from which he must recreate the world. I will try to investigate in my own terms to what extent a phenomenological epistemology should be concerned about the difference between an involved speaking and the speaking of an “uninvolved onlooker” (Husserl’s unbeteiligter Zuschauer). We know how Descartes failed to accomplish the task. worldly. he must have a panoramic standpoint. (5) If we acknowledge Descartes’s Discours de la m´thode19 as paradigmatic e for the basic position or stance of the modern philosopher. For the question of you and . Since his only access to the Cogito lies in his self-consciousness. Thought has left life behind and. interhuman. has given the personal involvement of the speaker and listener (or of the face that looks and the face that responds) in discourse and the face-to-face of conversation its full significance. moral. the highest possible viewpoint from which the totality of all things (ta panta) becomes visible. One of the first decisions to be made consists of the separation between the practice of life. I think. reducing his thinking to the most uninvolved movement of intellectual elements. or participates in.116 a d r i a a n pe pe r z a k of the many complicated problems these distinctions carry with them. poetic. panoramic. on the one hand.

but with regard to the Cartesian position sketched above. but not quite identical with. Husserl’s. and egos from the ego’s mind. including its affective and practical determinations. A good illustration of this viewpoint and the attitude that is expressed in it is found not only in the literature about “other minds” but also in the basic postulates of Fichte’s. and Scheler’s attempts to deduce a multiplicity of (self-)consciousnesses. Sociology and social philosophy in the modern style take over. linguistic. continents. As for the stance of post-modern philosophy. my. nations. whereas interpersonality and individuality vanish from the scene.e. Then. the philosopher who studies it) or as hardly different varieties of human subjectivity. It did not seem necessary to focus on you in philosophy. “The Said” (le Dit) indicates the economy of this Ego’s world. persons who make up the various groups. In practice. while the possibility of universal validity – at least in theory – is given up. the view from the outside and above and the superiority of autonomous judgments are maintained. you and I can be perceived and treated only as instances of “the I” in general (well known by.Religion after onto-theology? 117 me this means that. combines peremptory judgments about impossibilities and necessities with numerous appeals to the opinions and authority of its own stars and traditions.” but you have disappeared from the scene. involvement in our conversation is only one of the many exchanges between the innumerable. several of its basic presuppositions notably differ from the axioms of modernity. since you. in this kind of philosophy.” However. subjects. The theoretical neutralization of life. if philosophy is nothing else than life’s own stylized and refined reflection upon the surprising universe in which it has long been involved. cannot be more .” or “the I. Though it is conscious of the erotic. and unconscious forces and contexts that co-determine our thinking. The divorce between philosophy and real – i. however. The human subject has been studied by idealists and empiricists under the species of “the mind. and so on.” “consciousness” and “self-consciousness. sketched above. social. peoples. The old dicta De individuo non est scientia and Individuum est ineffabile are then confirmed again. cultural. communities. the Cartesian approach cannot be justified. it wavers. the surveying philosopher’s. not only individual but unique – lives is then “justified. Everything that can be seen and said from the standpoint of the modern Ego Cogito becomes necessarily a part of the panoramic universe that the philosopher tries to systematize. From this perspective. essentially indifferent. as another I. were equal to me in all essential aspects.. Hegel’s. your provocative speaking and my response can no longer be heard differently than exchanges within the universal context of a world-constituting economy. post-modern scholasticism.

and all of them. a theme..118 a d r i a a n pe pe r z a k than an abstractive experiment in unbiased searching for elements that can be recognized by many. If reflection remains as close as possible to the experiences of life that can be shared by many. The secret of the stance that allows for Levinas’s language about the other as revealed in his or her speaking lies in the willingness of the philosopher not to separate his observations from his commitment to the other who appears. perhaps all. by extension. should be respected within philosophy. as you. or a problem is the beginning of murder. demands my esteem. a phenomenology of the Other is only a first step in the direction of a philosophy of the person. and so on.e. Responsivity. and devotion to you precede all that can be said about you. One of the most originary affections I have always undergone is the encounter with some “you’s. Levinas has attempted to renew the philosophy of the I in Otherwise than Being. Speaking is in the first place speaking to another – in response to the other’s appearance.” However. he.” each other. it cannot deny its dependence on the “first-person perspective” from which the most important adventures are perceived and digested. we. While and after discovering how other humans. accepting me as a colleague. for all others whom I should look at and listen to in light of such closeness as befits the other who. speaking “about” another can be done only afterwards. the “third. and engaged me. by existing. (6) Let us now return to the question of whether Levinas’s phenomenology of the Other might be accepted as a contribution to the project of a transformed onto-theo-logy. If we can finish this debate. listening to me. The last step we have sketched involves us in a debate on the essence of another human being in its twofold appearance: (1) the Other.” who have prevented my death by greeting me at birth and educating me. other people who remain engaged in life while thinking about it. but perhaps his . I have said that the onto-theo-logical project can perhaps be renewed if we are able finally to produce a complete analysis of the different but related and mutually referential dimensions of being. they have already provoked. affected. they. as facing and obligating me (you. the neighbor or proximus) and (2) the Other as sharing with me the world (i. Before I can oversee and analyze the phenomena that amaze me. we should also rethink the essence of me. involvement. and. commitment. To reduce you to an object. all people. we might come close to answering the question asked above of how a person or persons appear “in general. including myself ). befriending me. she. “The Other” in Levinas’s emphatic sense is a philosophical pseudonym for some neighbors with whom I have become personally acquainted.

the spirit to whom we owe our breath. Especially in the texts of mystics and very good theologians we find many expressions in both directions: God is not only the Face to whom we direct our prayers. but such an idea is neither adequate nor sufficient for an understanding of prayer.21 (7) Only a phenomenology of the person in its multiple versions as you. At stake here is the question of creation: If God can be approached through . God’s presence is also the horizon and the all (omnia – esse ipsum?) in which we move and participate. in this essay. but not sufficient for true religion. because of the infinite distance between the finite and the infinite. instead I shall briefly point to another aspect of our referring to God. a phase of negative theology is thus necessary to overcome the finitude of this concept. All my statements here are extremely sketchy. which presupposes God’s not-being-a-person. However. like Gregory of Nyssa. it also blocks the ascent by imposing an inherent finitude on any mind that tries to think of God as “a person. and God. We need at least two transitions: (1) one from the “reality” of things to the personality of persons – God as a person to whom one can look up and pray is already better than a cold Object. To approach God in philosophy we need more or better than a philosophy of personality. but they can be made more concrete by the religious and theological literature produced in the last three thousand years of civilization. religion. I shall leave the necessary negations implicit. all of you. and especially about the theological texts in which learned mystics. and they can give us an idea of personality. Bonaventura. and (2) a second transition from God’s being “like” a person or quasi-person to being that “in” which we live as in a “context” and “horizon” which contains in some infinite way all that is given in the finite totality of beings and their different dimensions. she. tried to approach conceptually the quintessence of the religion to which they were devoted. me.” We do not have a concept of nonfinite personality – the predicate “infinite” that Levinas uses to describe the extraordinary essence of the Other cannot mean that the Other does not have limits – and we cannot conquer such a concept by trying to extend the limits or take them away. he. we. After exploring the possibilities contained in the concept of a person to direct our mind to God. the fire of which we are sparks. Their unfolding demands difficult discussions about the intricacies of analogical and apophatic thinking about God.Religion after onto-theology? 119 emphasis on certain aspects of the relation between the other(s) and me has obscured other aspects that should not be forgotten in a retrieval of the tradition about the ego. and Nicholas of Cusa. Though it brings us closer to the “being” or “essence” of God.

The latter is tempted by exaggeration and reduction: deism sticks to God’s otherness and separation. while God’s infinity invites us to appeal to an analogically transformed “being-in” and “participation. If we read “ontotheology” as an “ontology” in which to theion or Deus inevitably emerges. on the one hand. practical. but it must also be defended against accusations of pantheism. Jewish. the identity of the infinite difference with the quasi-identity that separated them from and unified them with God – was experienced as quite appropriate to the only non-idolic God. while atheism prefers to stay within the walls of the finite totality. imaginative. whereas pantheism exaggerates the identity without being bothered by the abyss. das Sein) of all beings (to on).. What became obvious in lived devotion broke through the limits of their reflection. and even less to the causality of modern science. but not only is this expression obscure (like all predicates that are attributed to God). but neither of their causes fitted the relation between God and the universe either. it could be named “onto-theo-logy. because their devotion reached farther than reflection. Hegel and Heidegger included. . Their reflection was supported and animated by a religious experience for which the mystery that caused their (onto-theo-)logical problems did not appear as impossible. Medieval philosophers have always known that the full ¯ meaning of “grounding” cannot be reduced to poi esis. Both have a partial conception of presence. although a formulation of this contradictory unity on the level of logic remained clumsy and inadequate. the otherness of God and their unity with the embracing quasi-totality of God’s presence – i. the realization of such a project demands much thorough thinking. and if the sketch presented here makes some sense. (8) If onto-theo-logy still has a chance. and intellectual possibilities that their religion offered them wrote most of them.120 a d r i a a n pe pe r z a k the metaphorics around persons and personality.” An “onto-theology” seems to stress a theological perspective on the being (to einai.22 n ot e s 1. In their prayers. As a logia that studies the relations between beings and God. Authors who were committed and devoted to God through the affective. and Christian philosophies of the Middle Ages. The most extensive and subtle discussions about the questions I have briefly indicated can be found in the Muslim. we can use it to characterize the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle and most metaphysicians. perhaps too much. institutional.” the entire network of categories related to efficient causality crumbles. Some of them have tried to think of God as a “quasi-form” (causa quasi-formalis) of the created totality. liturgical.e.

has to be shown by further analysis. and whether its use excludes the possibility of an infinite God. 1957). 1969). 11. pp. Karlfried o Gr¨ nder. vol. pp. Moral. Cf. Enneads vi. and Gottfried Gabriel (Basle: Schwabe.g. trans. Totality and Infinity. Emmanuel Levinas. e e Charles Adam and Paul Tannery (Paris: L. pp. and Political Philosophy (Boston: Kluwer. 157–68. Hegels praktische Philosophie (Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: FrommannHolzboog. 14. 3. 10. Descartes’s responses to the first and fourth objections to his Meditationes de Prima Philosophia. See n. cols. trans.Religion after onto-theology? 121 2. Kants gesammelte Schriften: Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten. Some of them. for instance.. Troisi`me Partie. Cerf. Identit¨ t und Differenz (ID) (Pfullingen: Neske. u ¯ ¯ 6. 1964). translated as Meditations on First Philosophy. 12.22 (where Thomas rejects the expression). §26. follow the Platonic interpretations of Nietzsche and Heidegger. 57–111. ii: Sein und Zeit (Frankfurt-on-Main: Klostermann. i. Joachim Ritter. trans. chapters 5–7. Parkinson (Oxford: Oxford University Press. vol. translated as The Journey of the Mind to God. ed. Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence. pp. pp. Summa Contra Gentiles (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. 22–8. translated as Ethics. For an analysis of the transformation Plato’s Politeia undergoes in Heidegger’s interpretation. 1992). vi. See C Euvres de Descartes: discours de la m´thode. As Heidegger so often writes. vol. for example. Gesamtausgabe. but do not always display familiarity with the primary texts. 976–7. in Opera. vol. Alphonso Lingis (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff. 1975). rev. vi.. 16. vol. See my To the Other (Lafayette: Purdue University Press. 15. 1997).13. and my .8. 1993). iii. Aristotle’s anangke stenai.18. e. iv (Berlin: Georg Reimer. and Beyond: The Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas (Evanston: Northwestern University Press. See Historisches W¨rterbuch der Philosophie. 9. 13. 1977). 1991). trans. pp. 7. Itinerarium Mentis in Deum. R. Aquinas. 4. 202–8. 8. however. Careful reading of. 1981). and Spinoza’s Ethica (which Heidegger may have read although he never showed any acquaintance with it). 1987). and Selbsterkenntnis des Absoluten (Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Frommann-Holzboog. Modern Freedom: Hegel’s Legal. Philotheus Boehner (Indianapolis: Hackett. Plotinus.49 (where aition heautou is used metaphorically to point at the One’s originality and freedom). edn. 1997).55 and 8. 1996). Whether this expression by itself already includes the thought that the word “god” in “God” and “the gods” has the same or a radically different meaning. ed. 2001). i. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press. G. see my Platonic Transformations (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield. 35–73. pp. 1911). 10 above. 1902). a 5. H. 82–6. 2000) suffices to justify the conclusion that Heidegger’s claim rests on shaky ground. 1971). John Cottingham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ed. trans. Emmanuel Levinas. 429–37. Paul Henry and Hans-Rudolf Schwyzer (Oxford: Clarendon Press.

122 a d r i a a n pe pe r z a k commentary in “Life. . Totalit´ et infini. 4–5. ed. pp. e 1973). p. e. and (the scientifically e e proven) morale.” History of Philosophy Quarterly 12 (1995). 176–7 and 226–7. ed. pp. I am grateful for the assistance of Jason Barrett and Ryan Madison. 22. iii. vol. e Ibid. David Weissman (New Haven: Yale University Press. 1971). 20. m´canique. F. 21. 133–53.. Science and Wisdom According to Descartes. see Beyond. pp. 3. See the last pages of the Lettre-pr´face to the French edition of Descartes’s e Principia. while he hardly touched m´decine. 17. Alqui´ (Paris: Garnier. 4th edn (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff. in C Euvres philosophiques. For one of my reservations. 19. 18.g. 1996). Descartes achieved only his metaphysics and a part of his physics. See especially chapter 5 of Otherwise Than Being.. Translated as Discourse on the Method. 779–82. pp.

like landing on the moon or being abducted by aliens? Or would it rather be a much calmer. But by “the impossible. to put it slightly differently. in experience.”1 Although I will speak of a certain leap. I will keep close to the phenomenological ground. like (p and ∼p). that links “God” and “experience. for that matter. like trying to read extremely complex computer data from the Galileo telescope that only a few highly trained experts can understand? What would “experience” mean if one had an experience of God and.” The impossible will be the bridge. for phenomenology. This is all possible. then. pre-fitted notions that fit together hand in glove. I will hypothesize. what I offer here is a careful explication of what is going on here below. “God” and “experience” are intersecting. “the impossible. that we love God because we cannot help but love the impossible. with the result that the “experience of God” requires a “God of experience. which is nothing but the cartography of experience. which is a 123 .” I hasten to add. On that basis. the simple logical negation of the possible. then. who would want to risk it? Would this experience be some very extraordinary and death-defying event. what would “God” mean if God could be experienced? Rather than engage in any speculative adventure. only in virtue of the impossible. cooler. of what I call. Caputo Who would not want to have an experience of God? But if no one has seen God and lived. is what for me comes “after onto-theology.chapter 9 The experience of God and the axiology of the impossible John D. I do not mean a simple contradiction.” On this hypothesis.” I will pursue the hypothesis that the experience of the impossible makes the experience of God possible. after Derrida. the crucial middle term in my logic. or. and more calculated affair. let me pose a risky hypothesis: I will venture the idea that the very idea of “experience” drives us to the idea of God – which may sound at first a little bit like the dream of an “absolute empiricism” that Derrida discusses at the end of “Violence and Metaphysics” – and in a strictly parallel way that the very idea of “God” is of something that (or of someone who) sustains and sharpens what we mean by experience.

to the breaking point. For if every experience occurs within a horizon of possibility. adynaton) in a kind of phenomenological coincidentia oppositorum. What Climacus here calls the ultimate “potentiation” of a passion. although in one way or another. is to fail to extend thinking beyond itself or push it beyond its normal range. namely. to the point where it breaks open by colliding against what is beyond its power. that anything less will produce what the noted Danish phenomenologist Johannes Climacus calls a “mediocre fellow.3 On Climacus’s hypothesis. This then is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think. turning . the fullest passion. of that measured. To think something less. the collision must become its downfall. the experience of the impossible is the experience of the shattering of this horizon. means at the same time reaching a point of impotency and impossibility (which are at root the same word.” Climacus is speaking about the phenomenon of the paradox: But one must not think ill of the paradox. moderate middle ground that wants to minimize risk and maintain present boundaries. is attained only in extremis. Thinking within the horizon of the possible has all the makings of mediocrity. The full intensity of experience. that which shatters the horizon of expectation and foreseeability. the highest passion of thought is to think something that cannot be thought.2 but something phenomenological. c a p u to cornerstone of the old onto-theology. only when a power – which here is “thinking” – is pushed to its limits. indeed beyond its limits. and so it is also the ultimate passion of the understanding to will the collision.124 j o h n d . the impossible Let us assume as an axiom that only the impossible will do. for the paradox is the passion of thought. But the ultimate potentiation of every passion is to will its own downfall. I am resisting all a priori logical and onto-theological constraints about the possible and the impossible in order to work my way back into the texture of the phenomenological structure of experience. and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow. which means raising it to its highest pitch. Mediocrity confines itself to practicing the art of the possible. Clearly we can extend Climacus’s hypothesis to other passions and other powers and formulate a kind of general theory of impossibility. to confine oneself to thinking within the horizon of what it is possible to think.

Anything less than the impossible just will not do. for an experience must have passion to be worthy of the name. e x pe r i e n c e The axiom of impossibility. beyond its own proper potency. To have an experience is to have a taste for adventure. and will not push it beyond itself or force it to another register. experience that is really worth its salt – and salt is my criterion of experience – is not for . goes to the heart of what I mean by experience.4 So experience in the positive and maximal sense. which might represent a kind of Aristotelianism – a theory of potencies and powers – gone mad but with a divine madness. Thus a power is most intensely itself only when it is brought to a standstill. that it is forbidden or unattainable? Rather than extinguishing desire. of the realistically attainable. or is moved. which is the meaning of the root peira. Thus the ultimate potentiation of desire would be to discover something that exceeds desire. So to put our axiom very precisely we can say that for any x. When we confine our desire within the horizon of the possible. The highest potentiation of a passion and a power is reached when that power is brought face to face with its own impotency. Thus to be a real “empiricist” means not to sniff along the ground of experience like a hound dog but to search for opportunities. even perilous ones. it reaches its highest potentiation only when by a kind of discontinuous leap it moves. The impotency and the impossibility provide the condition of possibility of the potentiation. will that not always result in something less than we truly desire? What can arouse desire more than to be told that we cannot have the object of our desire. for venturing and risk. to desire something that it is impossible to desire because it is beyond desire’s reach. Desire is thus fully extended and reaches its apex only when desire wills or desires its own downfall. still standing within the horizon of the same. the law of the highest potentiation. in a desire beyond desire. does not the very impossibility fire and provoke the desire all the more? Desire is really desire when we desire beyond desire. anything less will leave the power intact. like piracy (all of which have the same etymology). brought to the point that it breaks up or breaks open and is forced beyond itself. to another sphere or register. where x is a power.The experience of God 125 on a certain axiom of impossibility. when the desire of desire is in collision with itself. x reaches its highest potentiation only when it is impossible for x to act. The very condition that blocks the expenditure is what intensifies it. that desire cannot desire. by the passion and intensity of experience. like thinking or desiring.

we have been instructed by the understanding about the limits of what is possible. (Since the condition of its possibility is its impossibility. or completely unconscious. or rather venturing. c a p u to mediocre fellows. When we go where we cannot go. Seen from a modernist and Kantian point of view. that is what Augustine calls doing the truth. Experience is really experience when we venture where we cannot or should not go. while the mark of experience in the highest sense. fast asleep. We take the Kierkegaardian leap into the rush of existence. or – to give this a sharper edge – we do it for just that reason. ease. with what violates or breaches the conditions of possibility that have been set forth by the understanding. that we have reached the limit: then we go. First we are frozen with fear and immobility. which defies and exceeds Kant’s conditions. for venturers and adventurers.) Having. over and above the routinized flow of tick-tock time that runs on automatic pilot. sensu eminentiore. then we are really moving and something is really happening. then movement. only if we have the nerve to step where angels fear to tread. perilous as it may be. and draws us out of the circle of sameness.126 j o h n d . although sometimes. precisely where taking another step farther is impossible. Seen from a . preferring the safety and security of their living rooms to the leap. The impossible is what gives experience its bite. safety. experience happens only if we take a chance. its kick. Thus the movement is carried out by a shift to the sphere of praxis and the pragmatic order (which is also related to peira). First. But then we go. The immobilization belongs more to the cognitive domain: we know that this can’t be done. to a certain non-cognitive leap which overcomes the hesitations of the understanding. The movement is mobilized by the immobilization. only if we risk going where we cannot go. whatever conforms to what Kant calls the “conditions of possibility of experience” is precisely not what I mean by experience. an experience involves a double operation: first we understand full well that it is impossible to go. We venture out and take the risk. immobilization. that we are blocked from moving ahead. the position I adopt is perverse and quite contrarian. facere veritatem. it seems. According to my axiom of impossibility. and familiarity. come what may. while mediocre fellows would rather stay home and let the clock run out on life. then we leap. The easy hum-drum drift of everydayness is experience only in the minimal and negative sense that we are not stone dead. We know better but we do it anyway against our knowledge. is the impossible. we might just as well be. Experience has to do precisely with what is not possible. Experience is for leapers and risk takers. that we cannot take another step. dead drunk.

and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. Nothing is impossible for God. 17:20–1). is a sign of God.” I mean the possibility of the impossible. “For human beings it is impossible. when they have been driven to that point. they see that there is no way to take a single step forward. the limits of the possible.”6 Wherever the impossible happens. the disciples are thrown into despair.” god By “God. but for God all things are possible” (Matt. you will say to this mountain. transgressing and trespassing the limits laid down by the understanding. where the road swings off.5 When the angel Gabriel visits the Virgin Mary and gives her the startling news. or for those who being faced squarely with the impossible put their faith in God and let God do the heavy lifting. a Dieu. of the safe and sane and the “same. it ventures forth and crosses the borders. the disciples wonder why they could not do the same. The impossible (adynaton). occasioning a shift from our powers and our possibilities . That is why Nicholas of Cusa says. ‘Move from here to there.The experience of God 127 Lyotardian point of view. Mary first remarks upon the great unlikelihood that the angel is right. “For truly I tell you. ` like a marker in the road that points us toward God. to which Gabriel replies with angelic imperturbability not to fear “for nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). if you have faith the size of a mustard seed.’ and it will move. rather. I am not speculating about this name in the manner of an onto-theology. What is impossible for us (para anthropois) is God’s business. a sense that is both Scriptural and phenomenological. Jesus says. 19:26) – including the impossible. but consulting one of its oldest and most venerable uses in the biblical tradition. there is God. abiding within prescribed conditions of possibility. Then. An experience does not move about safely within fixed limits. then. experience does not mean merely to make a new move in an old game. for who then can be saved? They have reached the point of the impossible. and Jesus tells them that it is because they have too little faith. but to invent a new game altogether. we should look for Him (in whom impossibility is necessity) in those things which are impossible in this world. and then adds that it will be harder for a rich man to gain entrance to the kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. for with God (para theo) nothing is impossible. “since nothing is impossible for God. When Jesus tells the rich man to sell everything he has and give it to the poor. playing the game by the existing rules. When Jesus heals the epileptic boy. and this is another axiom to add to our axiology of the impossible.

courage. not some transcendental. “Experience” is the sort of thing that calls for God. as the image goes. justice. transhistorical “essence” in the manner of classical Husserlian phenomenology.128 j o h n d . if we have a door hinge in mind.” for what we mean by experience.7 So I am trying to get a sense of what we westerners mean. as Matthew has Jesus say. To which I should hasten to add. It follows that the “experience of God” is closely tied to the “God of experience” and that the love of God is tied to our love of the impossible. what we mean by God and what we mean by experience. the “hinges” (cardines) upon which a hale and whole human life swings. a God who lends himself to experience. t h e e x pe rts o f t h e p o s s i b l e We can put a sharper point on what we mean by this experience of the impossible by contrasting it with what I will call here the experts of the possible.” into another sphere. But since there are in fact four cardinal virtues – practical wisdom. which is what the Scriptures call the kingdom of God (basileia tou theou). The cardinal virtues are. phenomenology is ineluctably hermeneutical. In the experience of God. those virtues that remain within the horizon of the powers of human beings. where there is a taste for time and history. which is the rule of God. The experts of the possible practice what was called by the medieval theologians the “cardinal” virtues. The impossible draws us out of the sphere of the sane and the same. we who have a specific Scriptural and historical tradition behind us. anything that eludes or has nothing to do with charging experience to the utmost will not be God. c a p u to to the powers and possibilities of God. Anything that falls short of God will not have the bite of experience. where we pass from the sphere of human rule to the sphere where God rules. the master practitioners of the art of the possible. By the same token. adynaton becomes dynaton. “experience” and “God” are keyed to each other in such an intimate way that experience enters into what we mean by God. probing the structure of a historical experience. in a word. of the “human. where a divine madness rules. The mark of God’s kingdom is that there impossibile becomes possibile. and moderation – the metaphor seems to suggest the hinges by . and our experience is of a God of experience. which would be precisely those virtues that are possible “for humans” (para anthropois). for by tracking experience phenomenologists are always tracking someone’s experience. namely. in that sense. The experience of God always comes down to our experience. and the name of “God” is the sort of thing that raises experience to its highest pitch. for “experience. for freedom and decision.

neither too high nor too low. failing to speak up when a word is required of us. which go back to Plato and Aristotle. have to do with the life of arete. it did not occur to him that women (or slaves) could hit the mark of arete just as regularly as men do (which was not true of Austen and Trollope). which tended to keep a metaphysical lid on experience in a way that I am resisting. the cardinal virtues. Either way. This moderation does not produce mediocrity but excellence (arete). The mark is the median point of moderation. Now this can be very hard to determine and sometimes requires exquisite judgment. Aristotle was the master of those who know what is what about the possible and the actual. a stratum of virtuous conduct layered over his basic human nature so thickly that doing the right thing comes almost as naturally as breathing. the natural possession. the noble. in putting one’s body in front of a six-axle truck that is roaring down a street out of control in order to stop it from plowing into a crowd. For example. All this practice sharpens his eye so that he can easily sight the mark and hit it. and the practice breeds the “habit.The experience of God 129 which the four legs of a table are attached to the table top. The phronimos is a well-bred. the master theoretician of potencies and possibilities. the phronimos knows that “courage” does not consist in being stupid. He also knows that courage does not mean being cowardly under the cover of caution. and he thought that you could explain anything in those terms. right in the center. We need not strain to use gender-neutral language here because Aristotle was only talking about men. the well-measured middle mark. The exact mark is the middle of the target. and hence the hinges upon which our moral life is stabilized and firmly planted on the floor.” the hexis. so long as you saw that the actual moved about within the horizon fixed by the potential and stayed as far away as possible from the impossible. which is where mediocrity would lie for Aristotle. of human excellence. the man of “practical wisdom. That is the central thesis of onto-theo-logy. like the skill acquired by an archer who practices every day for many hours. and in general well-hinged fellow who knows how to conduct the business of life amidst its shifting circumstances.” or “prudent” man (phronesis was translated as prudentia in the Middle Ages). because finding the right mark is rare and hard to do and most people miss it. neither too much nor too little. well-educated. They turn on the figure of what Aristotle called the phronimos. The phronimos does the good so regularly that it comes to be a kind of second nature for him. aristocratic sort of fellow who shows up all the time in the novels of Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope. well-trained. of hitting the mark. When Pius XII held his tongue . avoiding a situation we should confront. The facility in virtuous conduct comes to him by dint of practice. He is a man of good habits and insight.

But this is not a fixed but a moving target. He undertakes the risky business of the hitting the mark in unforeseen circumstances. He is not bowled over by the oddity of the situation but gets on top of it and reaches a judicious and equitable judgment about just what is demanded. he has the insight to make a good judgment. in a word. but he does not dare venture out into that abyss where he does not rule. and it takes a practiced eye to spot it. to adjudicate just what is demanded here and now by this particular situation. or courage. The oddity of the situation does not knock him off his hinges. that when he hits an irregular and incommensurable circumstance. but he stands firm like a table with all four feet firmly fixed on the ground. this well-hinged fellow hits full stride and comes into his own precisely as the prudent man that he is. with whom all things are possible. He regularly sees and does what is just right. an eye that so regularly sizes up what is to be done and what is not to be done in most situations. undershooting the mark. a floating mark that bobs up and down in the flux of changing circumstances. over which he rules with a seasoned eye and practiced self-control. . then far from falling apart. far from willing his own downfall. where the experts of the possible are forced to yield to the experience of the impossible. He wisely remains within the realm of things over which he retains the powers of disposition. the phronimos is a self-possessed fellow who does not lose it. which what defines the phronimos. The phronimos avoids excess (hyperbole). according to the Scriptures. fa i t h a n d t h e u n b e l i eva b l e The expert of the possible is a well-hinged fellow. his defenders said that he was being prudent and his critics said that he was being cowardly. in just these singular circumstances.130 j o h n d . whose highest potentiation is to maintain the calm possession of his powers. and who can fail to admire such excellence? He knows what is what and remains in control. about just what justice requires. where. including the impossible. c a p u to about Nazi atrocities during the Second World War. that is. an expert of the possible. He is smart enough to know not to tamper with what lies outside the domain of his own possibilities. Now when the phronimos runs into trouble. overshooting the mark. But the requirement of a genuine experience involves taking a greater risk than that. far from breaking up from the force of the collision. when he hits an idiosyncratic and anomalous situation. From our point of view. and defect (elleipsis). He is. God rules. For the phronimos has so sharp and practiced an eye. The latter is the place where there are no experts. which is why we admire his expertise. a master of his powers.

Let us take the case of an innocent man who has been unjustly accused of wrongdoing. for is not faith most required when things start to look a little unbelievable? Is not faith really faith just insofar as it tends to be impossible to believe? We need faith precisely when the odds are against us. of belief. he will abandon his belief and put his confidence elsewhere. when everyone else thinks it mad to go on. that it is eminently believable. So in contra-distinction to the four virtues of the well-hinged. faith is faith in the incredible. What he believes is credible. let us offer the three “virtues” of the unhinged – if that phallocentrism is a word we still want to use at this point (virtues suggest something virile).The experience of God 131 venturing into the domain where our powers of self-possession slip away and we are exposed to risk on every side. he always prefers the situation that requires the least faith and the most evidence possible. Faith is faith not in the reasonable and likely. He knows what his chances are and he carefully deliberates about when a risk is worth taking. not to believe too much too easily or to believe too little with too much resistance. So it is not faith that has won the heart of the phronimos but evidence. But that is to believe something just so far as he can see that it is likely to be so. That’s when we need faith to go on – just in order to keep on going. seeing. just where the evidence is the greatest and the amount of actual faith required is the least. The phronimos is a prudent man and he does not do foolish things. and his willingness to believe is warranted. Once the scale of probabilities tips against him. where faith is a kind of tentative supplement or prosthesis that he employs while waiting for all the evidence to arrive to support his primary thetic act. For he believes in things just insofar as they are warranted and reasonable. At first his friends believe in his innocence and rally around him in support. But as the tide of evidence shifts against the . which is less a matter of faith and more a calculus of probabilities. especially early on. So when he believes something we can be assured that he has good reasons for believing it. But clearly this is a fellow with only a moderate faith in faith. when it starts to look incredible. when they do not know the whole story and the facts are on his side. Inasmuch as his beliefs are organized around the principle of the possible. His idea is the moderation. which is here the probable or likely. not the ultimate potentiation. where the highest potentiation of one’s powers lies in willing their downfall. In the interest of coming up with something that comes after onto-theology. with only a moderate heart for the ultimate potentiation of belief. This is the sort of fellow one wants as an investment counselor. let us propose three cases of the frame of mind of those who will the ultimate potentiation of their powers right on up to the point of the impossible.

That is what Johannes Climacus would call the faith of a mediocre fellow who tries to stick to the golden middle where all the evidence is clustered. the walls of the possible must be razed and the experts of the possible must have fled the scene. right on up to the end. the more faint hearted among his friends fade away and the crowd of his supporters thins. I will believe the unbelievable. that is.” For us. and we put our faith in God – or something.132 j o h n d . Before that. For God makes the crooked straight and makes the lamb to lie down with the lion. and they shy away from the axiom of the impossible. “I believe you. the vacillating support of a hail fellow well met who heads for the door at the first sound of trouble. but it is possible for God. it is impossible. at that point when it seems unbelievable. we reach one of the edges of our experience. I will pray for you and ask God to watch over you. Only the impossible will do to fire the steel of faith. where we do not rule. a boundary or limit case where our own powers and potentialities reach a breaking point and we realize that we have entered a domain where we have no control. we believe. But this poor fellow under unjust accusation needs friends precisely at the extreme point. when we have run up against the impossibility of believing and going on. The rest is just happy-hour companionship. it was just a poker game and we were playing the odds. a faith tried and tested in the fire of the impossible. since it is out of our hands. God knows what. just then. where all the evidence is against him. To go on believing in this fellow then. even the impossible. For God is given in the experience of the impossible. in that darkest midnight hour in which he is condemned as a guilty man by all the world. but believing in what has become unbelievable. I believe in you. that is faith. c a p u to fellow. At that most extreme point. God watches over the little ones and sets his heart not on the ninety-nine who are in the fold but on the one who is . when it has become impossible to believe. For with God all things are possible. for our limited powers. alas. I will stand by you no matter what. are disciples of the principle of the possible. which is to believe something only insofar as it requires a minimum of belief. And I commend you to God. for the name of God to come into play. when we have reached our limits and conceded that we do not know what to do. which requires a maximum of belief. For they. At that point. That is one of the ways that the name of “God” enters out “experience. They believe things only insofar as they are believable. at that darkest hour. even if for all the world you are condemned as guilty. the ultimate potentiation of the faith one has in a friend. reasonable.” For God to gain admission. Faith does not come down to believing things just insofar as they are believable. when in all likelihood he is a guilty man.

what we might call its phenomenological content. For to have an experience is to take a risk. to take the course of experience as guided by God. what the name of God means. because faith is faith in the face of the impossible. h o p i n g ag a i n s t h o pe The experts of the possible have reasonable hopes. that God will have permitted a disaster. That is hope in a “future-present. I will come back to this complication about chance below. As Qoheleth points out. God also makes his sun to shine upon the wicked and the just so we none of us know how this will turn out. Of course. as Cusa says.The experience of God 133 lost. That is true. even if it is impossible. a bit of fortuitousness. not fortuitously but gratuitously. Their hope is well founded on the facts so that they can have every reasonable expectation that things will turn out well. But the gift is not a gift of chance. He has treated many such cases before and the outcome is almost always favorable. and it is this sort of limit-experience – a term that is in a certain sense redundant – that gives the name of God meaning. That is hope with a minimum of hope and a maximum of reasonable expectation. to brave the stormy seas of the impossible. but a gratuity that is marked by a divine graciousness. a future that is so strongly . a providential care where others see chance. according not to the logic of the possible but to the axiom of the impossible. The physician says that the disease has been caught in its earliest stages and he expects a full recovery. the course of events seems almost inevitable. we must concede that this will always include the possibility that the outcome will be a disaster. The disaster may strengthen the hand of those who say that our lives are not held in the palm of God’s hand but exposed to chance and the play of forces. The name of God is the name of one who can make this possible. which is in the truest sense of the word experiential. The experience of God is to “see” the hand of God in the course that things take. For the disaster also strengthens the hand of those who believe in God. to find a loving hand. That is what we mean by God. but only on the basis of the logic or onto-logic of the possible. where the impossible happens. to expose ourselves where the odds are against us. the odd one out. in the midnight hour where night is its element and it has become impossible to believe. The future has all the weight of the past behind it. We look for God. above all if they are impossible. God knows why. so that when things happen they happen as a gift. For God is the giver of all good gifts.” a future I can almost see and taste on the basis of the present. to venture out where common sense tells us to stick close to the land and keep the shoreline in sight.

We invoke the name of God in order to “keep hope alive. the father of us all. even to the point of what Paul calls “hoping against hope” (Rom.134 j o h n d . I know that and I am convinced of that. an exquisite formulation of the axiom of impossibility. Hope is hope only when one hopes against hope. We need hope when we see no way out. 4:21). The experts of the possible will have long since slipped out the back door. no way to go. 4:18). For the name of God is the name of the possibility of the impossible. Abraham continued to hope. Being fully convinced that it was impossible. only when the situation is hopeless. what having an experience means? That at least is the opinion not of the stockbrokers or of Aristotle but of the Apostle Paul. for Ghandi and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. c a p u to predictable that it has practically happened already. Abraham trusted in the promise of the Lord that he would be the father of many generations just when it was hopeless. even as faith is faith in the face of the incredible. the future event was already built into the price. There is no hope. which is. I have done everything that is possible. we recall. whose favorite example is not the phronimos but Abraham. and he was nearly a hundred years old. Only the impossible will do for the highest potentiation of faith and hope. nothing happens to the stocks. everything that is in my power.” as Jesse Jackson says – the name of God is the name of hope for Jackson and for Martin Luther King. for Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu – to keep the future open. when his body was as good as dead. But are not those bleak and hopeless times just when hope is required? Is not hope really hope only when things begin to look hopeless and it is mad to hope? Is that not when we need to brave the stormy waters of hope. undertake the risk of hope. it seems to me. Abraham is remembered not as the father of the stock market or of the phronimoi but as the father of faith and hope. all such reasonable calculation breaks down and things look hopeless: the disease has spread too far and has not been caught in time and there is no hope for the patient. Hope has the full force of hope only when we have first been led to the point where it is impossible to hope – and then we hope against hope. but still I hope. when we are blocked . Hope is hope when I all I can do is to try to keep hope alive even though there is no hope. which is. But why did Abraham continue to hope even when it was hopeless? Because “God was able to do what he had promised” (Rom. and Sarah’s body was barren. even when every door has been closed. But in the experience of the impossible. One is reminded of the “future” for stockbrokers who bid up the price of stocks on the basis of the expectation of good news – like the expectation that the Federal Reserve Board will lower interest rates – so that when the expected action by the Board in fact takes place. to make the future happen just as I planned.

is an important part of what we mean by God and hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see. or how things will turn around. we wait in patience” (Rom. interrupts the predictability of the future. If hope has to do precisely with the unseen. in its highest potentiation. I do not deny that this experience of God is our . more open-ended than that. given that it was impossible. The name of God opens closed horizons. making asymptotic progress toward the goal. the name of God is not the horizon but rather the hope that lies beyond the horizon when there is no hope in sight. of risk and exposure to the future. then the way has been made clear for God. for with God everything is possible.The experience of God 135 on every side in an aporia more complete and encompassing than Aristotle ever imagined. when we see nowhere to turn. we in the West. When the future is more or less planned and foreseeable.” Our experience of God is very much tied to a God of experience where experience has the sense of venture and adventure. The name of God is the name of a horizon of absolute expectation. then the power of God steps in to lift us out of despair. 8:38–9). in a word. nor angels. but with the absolutely unforeseeable. and cannot see its way. More precisely. So insofar as the name of God is linked to the experience of the impossible. for “experience. who is against us?” (Rom. what we mean. The name of God is the name of our hope. where there is a taste for time and history. nor height nor depth. and when the unexpected happens we are left wondering how that was possible. Paul says that “hope that is seen is not hope. nor rulers. Hope cannot imagine what the future holds. which constitutes a more radical and “absolute” future than the “future-present” of the stockbrokers. When we reach the limits of our power to hope. But hope that has pushed to its highest potentiation is blinder than that. the power that steps in our weakness and hopelessness. For “if God is for us. 8:31). it also opens up another experience of time and a certain phenomenology of an absolute future. no hope on the horizon. it is concerned not with the unseen but foreseeable. then we turn to God. nor anything else in all creation” – will be able to stand between us and our hope (Rom. then. That. time becomes a certain approximation process which gradually edges closer and closer to the hopedfor point in the future. When we are surrounded on every side by an encompassing horizon that encloses us within hopelessness. When every possibility has been dashed. including the impossible. as I have said. Nothing at all – “neither death nor life. of unconditional hope. nor things present. nor things to come. nor powers. 8:24–5). I am suggesting on purely phenomenological grounds. Then we are filled with rising expectations.

very definitely – but you always have to watch out for number one. You need friends to be happy because no mere mortal can make it alone. all within the limits of reason and moderation. Love is a gift that is given unconditionally. and return our love with love? Is that not even a common practice among the Mafia.136 j o h n d . A good wine. belongs to the circle of good that one draws around oneself in order to be happy. neither too little nor too much. c a p u to experience. for the only measure of love is love without measure. “yes. where it can be properly reciprocated. He thinks that when it comes to friendship the best should stick with the best and that true philia is possible only among those of equal station. the very idea of what Climacus means by a mediocre fellow. who stick by us. this fellow says. perhaps love above all. You need a talent for friendship and you need the good fortune not to be born mean. a good investment counselor. who think well of us. and our idea of God. who sing our praises. is governed by this axiom of the impossible. For love is measured by its measureless expenditure. is potentiated or raised to its highest potentiation by the impossible. after a e certain amount of deliberation. it is not love. Love does not calculate the return for its expenditure. and animals only in an increasingly weak and proportionate extension of the term. love i s w i t h o u t w h y Let there be no mistake. and curmudgeonly so that you drive people away from you. Now of all the “virtues” that least lend themselves to the phronimos’s idea of measured moderation. the phronimos has friends and is an advocate of philia. but the return is not the condition or precondition of the expenditure. Having a closed circle of friends. in certain respects. too. of people who mutually will the good of one another and support each other when times are tough. since one never wants to go overboard – is a lover without passion. and up to a certain point. until death us do part commitment and giving. The fellow who says that he loves something – be it a woman or a cause or even his cat – just so far but not too far. what is easier than to love those who love us. its no holds barred. an organization not widely known for love? Loving those who are lovable and who return . so that men may love women.” then whatever it is the poor fellow feels. If upon being pressed whether he loves his spouse or fianc´e. For. a good job. whoever we are. its unconditionality. we who are an ambiguous mix of Greek and Jew. it is perfectly true that one loves and desires the return of love for love. after all. who live in the difference between the two. love leads the list. repulsive. slaves. and good friends are all part of the good life. Love.

then it is something we owe to the one who earned it. “these people do not deserve our love. must love be deserved – or is love a gift? If love must be deserved or earned. love your enemies. of course. But love your enemies. for here we are asked to love the completely unlovable. and lend. yes. a why. to have a logos. expecting nothing in return. pray for those who abuse you. a reason – or is love without why? But let us raise the stakes still higher. If you love those who love you. indeed. even if we keep a safe distance from it ourselves and would not blame someone who avoided it. what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners. Be merciful. Consider the following hymn to the impossible: But I say to you that listen. We start to hit a point where it is not possible to love these people. and push love to its highest potentiation. to receive as much again. for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Just as thought desires to . just as your Father is merciful. and then it is more like wages for labor than a gift we give without condition.” which is. what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. But that is impossible. turning on the idea that nothing short of the impossible will do. bless those who curse you. and to love those who return love with hate. an eminently reasonable thing to say. (Luke 6:27–8. a little more impossible. That is why this love is what it is and why we love this love so much. It is mad. what credit is it to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive. 32–6) These sayings are predicated directly on the axiom of impossibility. Your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High. all too entirely possible? Does it not rank high among the achievements of the experts of the possible? But does not love begin to reach its higher registers only when it starts to become a little more mad. Is love given unconditionally or do you have to meet certain conditions in order to earn it? Does love always have to have be reasonable. which would mean when what we love is not so lovable and tends not to return our love? Like loving an aged parent who no longer even knows our name or recognizes us? Or loving an ungrateful child who has no appreciation of the genuine bond that unites children with their parents? Or an ungrateful friend who only shows up when he needs a handout and never shows the least bit of gratitude for all we do for him? We are beginning to move into a space where love is tested and fired by the increasing heat of – what else? – the impossible.The experience of God 137 our love with love – is that not possible. do good. If you do good to those who do good to you. To be sure. But then again. that the impossible makes for the highest potentiation of love. do good to those who hate you. or at least recognize in it love’s highest potentiation. where the understanding says.

But love is perfect not when love is drawn around a closed circle of friends and intimates. in extremis.8 That is what God is. God – or perhaps just chance? Now we come back to a point I intimated earlier. let us love one another. when it is mad to love. Even so. When your love is like that. a qualitative shift takes place . so love is love when love is faced with the most loveless and unlovable hate. that does not get going unless it is provoked by the impossible. God is love and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them. when we are or when someone we love is struck by a potentially fatal disease. for love is love only in excess and overflow. (1 John 4:7–8. as opposed to defining God onto-theo-logically in terms of possibility and actuality. it would be at best a quasi-definition because in saying that God is love one is not de-fining God in the sense of setting forth God’s limits and boundaries. and hope is called for when it is hopeless. but saying that God is unbounded and unlimited and unconditional excess.138 j o h n d . twisting and flipping about until the air gives out. then this text from 1 John says that you are the children of love. and faith is asked to believe what is most unbelievable. not in moderation. . So the experience of God is given in the experience of love. we oppose the experience of the impossible. 16) There is no name more closely associated in the Christian Scriptures with “God” than love. . we cannot avoid feeling a little like June bugs with which children play of a summer’s night. at this limit point. t h a n k i n g o u r lu c k y s ta r s Thus to the well-hinged experts of the possible. Here. which makes perfect sense and is perfectly possible. which is when or where God rules. or like fish caught in a cosmic net. The God of love and the God of the impossible seem like a nice fit. With the experience of the impossible. because love is from God. a kind of pre-fit. sane and moderate fellows that they are. essence and existence. for God is love: Beloved. and this comes as close as the New Testament comes to a “definition” of God. Whoever does not love does not know God. whose acts are always well ordered within the horizon of the possible and properly proportioned to their potencies. c a p u to think what cannot be thought. or of God. everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. but precisely when love is stretched to the breaking point of loving when love is mad and impossible. for God is love . which is a kind of divine madness that is intoxicated with excess and the impossible.

when history or nature has taken its deadly course and God has not intervened to stop the disaster or the disease in its tracks. come what may. God’s mysterious love is unfolding in our lives. The impossible is not that. not blind chance. in a second motion. the hour might pass. constituting a kind of divine super-cause who produces effects that are beyond our human powers. the stuff of which it is made. against all the odds. For our prayer is a way to affirm that there is meaning in our lives. we are still praying. this tragedy or misfortune. Father. Foreseeing the sufferings that lay ahead. is sustained by incomprehensible love. do these limit-situations necessarily present us with “God” – or with what we sometimes call “the gods. that behind the meaninglessness and tragic course that is taken by our lives. that a meaning is possible where it is impossible that this death or illness. we amend that prayer and pray for what God wants. are the raw materials of religion. that if it were possible (dynaton estin). for with God. the things that are not under our control. for what I want. there will be a miraculous intervention from on high. yet. First we pray for a specific outcome. the question persists. both personal and collective. after the death of the beloved. could have any meaning. for you all things are possible (panta dynata soi). for with God all things are possible. For a God who. upon being pressed by our prayers. the occasion upon which the name of God makes its entry. there is a mysterious love. but that there is a meaning here. We do not pray that God rethink the matter and alter his present plans. For even after the event. in this impossible situation. not what I want. To speak in strictly phenomenological terms. where we have run up against the limits of our powers.” by which we just mean chance? At these limit points in our experience have we come face to face with the gift of God’s grace? Or with a fortuitous turn of events? Might the impossible be a mark not of the “kingdom of God” but of the domain of fortune and chance. he “threw himself on the ground and prayed. alters natural processes is every bit as onto-theological as the causa sui of metaphysical theology. remove this cup from me. which it is impossible to comprehend. that our lives have meaning for God in the midst of this tragedy.” Then he said. We would do well to make it clear that in this confrontation with the impossible we are not praying for a magical divine intervention in the course of nature. if we treat . “Abba. all things are possible. but that what is happening in our lives.The experience of God 139 in our experience and we enter another domain where things slip out of our control. Still. not of love but of luck?9 Indeed. but what you want” (Mark 14:35–6). Then. that we will have the strength to believe and hope and love that. The prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane is paradigmatic in this regard.

does not dare. knowing full well that it can be broken by the slightest shift in the cosmic winds. and far be it for me to take on as redoubtable a phenomenologist as Johannes . with whom nothing is impossible? Might there be an experience of the impossible that would belong to a certain religion that we can call a religion without religion. without implicating oneself in God or religion? With God. but might the impossible be possible without God? Is the “highest potentiation” of our powers an independent phenomenological structure that stands with or without God. In terms of the specific problematic of the impossible. Johannes de Silentio said that without faith in God.140 j o h n d . like it or not? We concede that our lives are tossed about by the winds of chance and there is no benign design behind it all.” which is the experience of us westerners who have been shaped by (among other things) these very Scriptures. even without the God of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. to look the impossibility in the eye. We hang on to such happiness as we have by a tenuous gossamer thread. or to hope against hope. the question is this: Can one desire to think what cannot be thought.” which. we need faith in God to believe that we will get Isaac back. just an idiosyncratic turn of events in the great cosmic stupidity as it hurtles its way into entropic dissipation? Here we touch upon the question of the gift and its enigmatic hermeneutic. might “the possibility of the impossible” go under another name than “God?” Might the name of God be an incognito under which the possibility of the impossible travels? Might the impossible still be possible. which gets along without what the Scriptures call a loving father? Might the work that is performed by (in) the “name of God” be carried out in other ways and under other names? Might a certain “religion” survive as a residue of biblical religion in the phenomenological structures it leaves behind (if biblical religion has been left behind.”10 That is true. is it a gift of God? Or is it not just the effect of a quirky molecular mutation taken in some far-off corner of the universe. we can only get as far as infinite resignation. For faith is not just believing something in “childlike na¨vet´ and innocence. have we actually pulled the rug out from under religion? Even if the name of God is the name of the possibility of the impossible. . with whom all things are possible. which I doubt)? Are not these structures inscribed deep within our “experience. . for after having given Isaac up one would actually be embarrassed to get him back. though it ı e is a beautiful thing that can “bring the very stones to tears . c a p u to life itself as a gift. with or without religion? By confining ourselves to a rigorously phenomenological ground. in the pain of resignation. that there will be a repetition. nothing is impossible.

We thank our lucky stars.” The impersonal course of things took a fortuitous turn. Still. remains in place. (The next question is this: Is “the possibility of the impossible” a kind of freestanding phenomenological unit which sometimes goes under the name of “God” in religion? Or is it radically parasitic upon the historical Scriptural traditions. constituting the structure of what Derrida calls a religion without religion. That is a large part of what the name of God signifies in the biblical tradition. the gift is not the doing of anyone’s generosity and there is no one to thank. a passion for the experience of the impossible. but the gift may well be a gift of chance. alas. but the stars. Modernity is marked by a needless and distortive secularization of our experience. and love. and I am following him here. prepared to go under. but without the historical religions. constituting a certain religion with or without the historical religions. hope. but we were prepared for the worst. we are engaged in a monologue and we are simply purging ourselves of a need to express our gratitude. its detachable phenomenological content.The experience of God 141 de Silentio. the phenomenological structure of this passion for the impossible. the name of God means the possibility of the impossible. But since I take the results achieved by Johannes Climacus and Johannes de Silentio to be phenomenological. to try to outlaw it. Still the phenomenological structure of ineradicable faith. There is an ineradicable undecidability here between “God” and “the gods. not the gratuity of a divine graciousness. and it is not up to me to ban that linguistic usage. I can conclude that one might use the name of God as a kind of “placeholder” or “incognito” for our hope against hope. do not know we are here. After all. a bit of fortuitousness. which is a passion that outstrips the conditions of possibility imposed upon experience by modernist criticism. which is why it has come under increasing fire ever since Kierkegaard first gave it a piece of his formidable mind. the impossible is where we look for God. mysterious love and blind chance. I did not invent that. If there is a “gift” here.” the gift of God and the gift of chance. By this Derrida means. The name of God is the name of one who can make the impossible possible. For the phenomenon stands with or without the historical religions. which I am treating here as its phenomenological content. from which we learned it in the first place?) Things happen in this sphere beyond our control “gratuitously. We believed against all the odds and kept the faith in order to keep the future open. we caught a break and our faith and hope were “rewarded. if we express our gratitude to the stars. between two different ways to regard the gift and to treat the .” like a grace.

and the “love of God” be no more than a name we have for our love of the impossible? Perhaps. and standing by the beloved until the end. When the impossible happens. I would say that I thank God because with God nothing is impossible. the gods smiled upon us – or we were blessed by God – and the impossible happened. which is what the Scriptural traditions call God. that as a phenomenological matter faith is faith. for only the impossible will do. so that it does not matter whether one makes use of the name of God at all? Then what difference would there be between standing by the beloved until the end. “my God. which could bring Isaac back just as easily as they snatched him away. tout court? I have been arguing that the “experience of the impossible” is the way in which the “experience of God” is given. I would say as a phenomenological matter. if there is one. a concluding impudent postscript. whose discernment constitutes the stuff of what I like to call a “more radical hermeneutics. even though the situation is impossible. I must – love the impossible and think that anything is possible. I can – indeed. would be carried out. however impossible. hope is hope. but the question is. so long as each is fired by the experience of the impossible. I love God because I love the impossible.” One might well think that a repetition. let us thicken the plot and complicate the paradox with a final twist that would call for another and extended analysis: Suppose one said that nothing turns on how one resolves this fluctuation. We got lucky. even the impossible.142 j o h n d . which does not set out to resolve this conflict but to identify the precise point of fluctuation at which a resolution. c a p u to course of events. I thank what the great Patristic phenomenologist Augustine of Hippo called in the most intimate and the most powerful phenomenological terms deus meus. . as long as one hopes against hope and loves beyond love. But might the “experience of God” be no more than a name we have for the experience of the impossible. “what do I love when I love my God?”11 Now. as Augustine also said. but I love the impossible in any case. radical or more radical. To be sure. no such hermeneutics. for with God nothing is impossible. But now we ask. just so long as we do not give up. is just the sort of thing that might be brought about by the shifting tides of time and chance. for there is no higher axiom in virtue of which one could name. by way of a parting gesture. Making a move in this impossible situation is what I mean by radical hermeneutics. and love is love. identify. And if the impossible happens I thank God. or my lucky stars.” Speaking strictly as a phenomenologist. in the name of God . will be able to provide a general formula for resolving the difference. or resolve the irresolvable fluctuation in the experience of the impossible.

it would concentrate on the “sense” of a faith that can move mountains rather than worrying about its objective physical or metaphysical possibility. Joseph T. or A Fragment of Philosophy and Johannes Climacus. Philosophical Fragments. A phenomenology is always concerned with the precise sense of appearing. which is but one of its many meanings. Some things. and ed. Howard Hong and Edna Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. Given the many meanings of the word “impossible. in spending oneself on behalf of the democracy to come? Facere veritatem. possibility. it would bracket a causal or realist account of experience and adhere closely to a descriptive account. 37. Minimally. for example.” it would be arbitrary to restrict the notion of the impossible to the objectivistic sense of a simple logical contradiction. where God slips out of sight in order to let the world come into view. The Origins of English Words (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. does not a certain transformation into praxis occur at this point in virtue of which the experience of God and the experience of the impossible are caught up in a cognitive fluctuation that is resolved in the doing. on the sense of the angel Gabriel’s Annunciation to the Virgin Mary rather than whether the evangelist records an actual historical episode.” where no one suspects that anyone gave anyone anything? Again. In the case of the Scriptures. . 2. might one undergo an experience of God and never even know that that is what happened? Would that not correspond rather nicely to what Derrida calls a “gift. where God withdraws in order to make things possible. or possible for God that are impossible for human beings. possible for the wealthy or strong that are impossible for the poor or weak. than phenomenologies avant la lettre? 4. etc. trans. vii. including the impossible. or De Omnibus Dubitandum est. 304. with the structure of phenomenality. without being in principle committed to a Husserlian theory of “consciousness” and the primacy of the cognitive. 1984). 3. despair.The experience of God 143 does that matter? Recalling that the peira of experience and praxis share a common root. in loving God in spirit and in truth. rather than the objective reality of an appearance. as the history of phenomenology after Husserl testifies. Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms constitute clear antecedent figures in the history of phenomenology: what else are their descriptions of freedom. would it not correspond to what theology calls God’s kenosis. “per III. this last sense plays an important role in this chapter. anxiety. for with God nothing is impossible? n ot e s 1. Kierkegaard’s Writings. 1985). all things. Shipley. Could it be that the experience of God is given in an experience in which the name of God never comes up? Unlike landing on the moon. are possible for women that are impossible for men.” p. vol.

posse/esse. 1985). but something that is invoked in the face of the meaninglessness of life. 2000). 8. In De Possest. my God. Banning Press.” means having a “good spirit. see Paul Ricoeur. 1986). Philosophers have neither the means nor the authority to ban its use. altogether inaccessible and impossible. for disclosing to me that there is no other way of approaching You than this way which seems to all men. the name of God is not something requiring justification or explanation.” See Nicholas of Cusa’s Dialectical Mysticism. 3rd edn (Minneapolis: Arthur J. The phronimos. See his The Unmaking of God (Lanham. which we usually translate as “happiness. The name of God is not primarily a matter for philosophical or theological speculation but a historical expression in which a community articulates how “God” has entered into the structure of its everyday life – its births and deaths.: University Press of America. c a p u to 5. (New York: Fordham University Press. Dominique Janicaud et al. See E. The name of God will flourish as long as there are such communities. Eudaimonia. One can say this without a trace of supersessionism.” – before its occurrence in any philosophical treatise. see the translation of De Possest in Jasper Hopkins. and the speculations of the philosophers and theologians about this name will always be parasitic upon these practices.” accompany you through . “I thank You. 3rd edn by Jasper Hopkins (Minneapolis: Arthur J. Translation. knows as well as any reader of the Scriptures that not everything is under his control and that he can only be praised or blamed for the things that are up to him. Its primary sense is found in its use. in a greeting – “God be with you” – or a prayer – “O God. who are the Nourishment of the full-grown.” like a “guardian angel. because impossibility coincides with necessity. Banning Press. I do not think that Ricoeur’s attempt to distinguish a phenomenology of essences from a hermeneutic of historical texts and cultures can stand up. pp. Nietmann says. O Lord. 39. And You. “Experience and Language in Religious Discourse. for in stressing love the New Testament is just being as Jewish as possible. For You have shown me that You cannot be seen elsewhere than where impossibility appears and stands in the way. and Interpretive Study of De Visione Dei. where God is the actuality of every possibility. No. 59. But in On the Vision of God (De Visione Dei). he leaves that up to moira or “the gods. Text. for example. ed. De Possest. Md. 7. joys and sorrows. P. No. A Concise Introduction to the Philosophy of Nicholas of Cusa. 127–46. As William F. despite the polemics of the new “Way” against the older Jewish traditions. he ventures further to show that God is also the coincidence of necessity and impossibility.” which are an essential element (over and above his own virtue) in what he calls eudaimonia. their main role is to respond to the learned despisers of this name.144 j o h n d . Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress. possest. including the most learned philosophers. since God by the necessity of his infinite being is capable of what is impossible for us. have encouraged me to do violence to myself. 1988). Sanders. Nicholas of Cusa is content to show the coincidence of possibility and actuality in God: posse est. in a religious language. There he writes. 1994).” in Phenomenology and the Theological Turn: The French Debate. As for the rest. 9. 6.

A good daimon bears a resemblance to the loving hand of what the Scriptures call “God” watching out for the least among us. Fear and Trembling. trans. or all of these at once. 47. . 10. Confessions x. poor. 1983). or dispositionally unlovable. by the shifting tides of happenstance. Howard Hong and Edna Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. ugly. and to enjoy good luck as life goes on. You need the good fortune not to be born stupid. See Augustine. 11. or what Jesus called his abba keeping a loving care over us. but within a framework governed not by love but by luck. catching a break in the cosmic twists and turns.6.The experience of God 145 life and protect you from fortune’s more outrageous turns. Søren Kierkegaard.

Both have had significant Catholic receptions and both continue to have important influences on contemporary discussions of ethics and politics. one might think that Levinas and Strauss do not have much in common philosophically with one another.” As has been argued by a number of recent interpreters. at best. the crux of Levinas’s philosophy is his reorientation of “Greek” by way of “Hebrew. Levinas’s decidedly “Hebrew” thought would seem to be opposed philosophically to Strauss’s decidedly “Greek” thought. and both claim Franz Rosenzweig as a. if not the. The exegesis of classic Jewish texts matters greatly to both of them. Nevertheless. And if one made this claim.” many if not most of Strauss’s interpreters continue to argue that Strauss comes down largely on the side of “Athens. and each claims to be returning to Plato. of instrumental significance. Both are post-Holocaust thinkers attempting to rethink the philosophical possibility of morality after the Nazi genocide and they use many of the same philosophical resources to do so. 146 . Levinas is thought to be a Jewish philosopher whose achievement is to have revived the Jewish tradition philosophically. it would be based largely on yet another remarkable similarity between Levinas and Strauss. from the perspective of their philosophies themselves. despite these striking historical similarities.chapter 10 Jewish philosophy after metaphysics Leora Batnitzky The intellectual biographies of Emmanuel Levinas and Leo Strauss are remarkably similar.” Therefore.” In this light. major influence in so doing. which is their respective constructions of the relation between what Levinas calls “Greek” and “Hebrew” and what Strauss calls “Athens” and “Jerusalem. Both studied with Husserl and Heidegger in the 1920s. Strauss has been viewed largely as a political philosopher for whom revelation is. While Strauss maintained that what he called “Athens” is in necessary tension with what he called “Jerusalem. In contrast. with the exception of a few recent interpretations. both claim a methodological return to Husserl in arguing against what each maintains is the amorality of Heidegger’s philosophy.

I would like to complicate the frameworks that have been applied to them in order to question what I shall argue has been a largely Christian.” I suggest that Levinas and Strauss can be more fully understood in relation to one another than they can be in relation to current conversations about post-modernism (in the case of Levinas) or neo-conservatism (in the case of Strauss). philosophical differences between Levinas and Strauss. but rather for its ethical or political implications. “What is Metaphysics?. Let me state clearly that my p