Book Plug: Susanne Claxton’s Heidegger’s Gods: An Ecofeminist Perspective

By David Utsler (Ph.d. candidate at the University of North Texas and co-author of Interpreting Nature: The Emerging Field of Environmental Hermeneutics.)

With the publication of Heidegger’s Gods: An Ecofeminist Perspective, Susanne Claxton has provided an engaging and fresh contribution to the literature of both ecofeminism and eco-phenomenology. Reflecting on the many afflictions that plague human existence, Claxton observes that we humans either never knew or have perhaps “forgotten how to fully dwell,” by which she means “to meaningfully exist as that which we are in the context of all that exists and to which we are intimately related.” Indeed, dwelling as meaningful existence (as Ricoeur would say “with and for others in just institutions”) does appear to be in short supply if the numerous very serious problems facing human existence to which Claxton refers are any indication.

Claxton begins by examining the thought of Martin Heidegger, specifically, his engagement with the Greeks with a particular focus on the notion of a-letheia—that is, truth as that which is “un-forgotten” or “un-concealed,” from the place it had been forgotten and concealed. It is in chapter 4 where Claxton returns to the idea of dwelling, or as the chapter is titled, “Our Loss of Dwelling.” After providing a very succinct and very good overview and history of ecofeminism, she discusses four causal explanations traditionally held by ecofeminists that reveal the logic of domination behind subjugation of women and nature, indeed all forms of subjugation and oppression. These are 1) the scientific revolution and its accompanying mechanistic view of the world; 2) “the rise of capitalism and its accompanying colonialist/imperialist practices,” 3) the advent of patriarchal religion and the patriarchy in general, and 4) self and other dualisms. It is this 4th in which I am particularly interested.

Of the many ecofeminist thinkers to which Claxton refers, I was surprised at the absence of any reference to the late Val Plumwood. Claxton’s already excellent work here on dualisms would have benefitted from an engagement with Plumwood’s work. I am thinking especially of the second chapter of Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, “Dualism: The Logic of Colonisation.” Plumwood described dualisms as having a character of radical exclusion and a relation of power where the oppressed side of the dualism is seen as essentially inferior and the other essential superior. Claxton noted that a universal character of dualisms is “to establish value hierarchies and determine what constitutes the norm” (94). The norm, of course, flows from the dominant side of the dualism. Another insight of Claxton’s that could be underscored by Plumwood is that the subjugated side of the dualism is homogenized as a group, individuality reduced to this homogenization, hence rather than a “powerful self” one may discover, “the other is negated” under the normative force of the dominant side of the dualism.

The consequence of the four causes of the logic of domination is the loss of dwelling. Claxton’s key insight here is the loss of dwelling entails a loss of self. A fundamental principle of hermeneutics is that all understanding (interpretation) is simultaneously an understanding of self. A loss of dwelling compromises the interpretation we might have of the world in which we exist, so a compromised understanding of self is inevitable if this is the case. Claxton writes: “Perhaps it should not be surprising that human beings, subjected from birth to systems of existence that operate primarily on principles of domination and denigration, ultimately opt to forego the depths and tread only on the surface. Such human beings simply await their optimization” (95), This is, perhaps, the most crucial observation in the book.

There are far more riches in this text than can be mentioned in a brief review. I would like to give special notice, however, to chapter 6, “Beyond the Binary.” Environmental philosophy has long been plagued, in my view, with the debates surrounding eco/biocentrism and anthropocentrism. If we just recognize the correct “center” from which to reason, our environmental ethic and practice will be as it should be. Ecofeminism in general and Val Plumwood in particular have seen the problem with this binary and Claxton has contributed an excellent ecophenomenological perspective to the discussion. She coins the term “Daseincentrism” to refer to what she describes as a way to potentially overcome what is problematic in the binary. Elsewhere, I have proposed what I call “polycentrism,” which is a recognition of several “centers” from which valid claims emerge and can be critically addressed. Daseincentrism appears to aim at a similar goal.

Heidegger’s Gods: An Ecofeminist Perspective should be widely read and also makes an excellent text to assign in courses for both ecofeminism and ecophenomenology. Highly recommended.

Book Plug: Interventions in Contemporary Thought: History, Politics, Aesthetics by Gabriel Rockhill

Gabriel Rockhill’s recent book, Interventions in Contemporary Thought: History, Politics, Aesthetics, was written over the course of nearly a decade and consists of three major divisions—History, Politics, and Aesthetics—each of which contain three chapters addressing particular concerns and written in specific contexts. (Click here to view the table of contents.) As a result, the chapters, which discuss figures such as Foucault, Derrida, Rancière, Castoriadis and topics such as aesthetic revolution and modern democracy, the tradition of radical critique, architecture as the forgotten political art, and whether difference is a value in itself, can be read independently with great benefit.

Central to the book is what Rockhill describes as a “heuristic distinction between two types of theoretical practice” (1). On the one hand, we have interpretation, which adheres to the norms of an established discourse and operates within “the praxeological and epistemological framework of an institutionalized set of activities” (1). On the other, we have the activity of intervention, which is agonistic and “seeks to contest these operative norms and guiding parameters in order to introduce alternative forms of intellectual practice” (1). Although there are varying degrees of interpretation and intervention, what distinguishes the two is that the former stays within the boundaries of particular theoretical practices and related socialized norms, whereas the later challenges such boundaries and seeks to reconfigure the present strictures of intellectual activity (2). In short, an intervention is not simply a more radical or highly innovative way of engaging a text, performing or interpreting an artwork, or revamping political practices. Intervention operates, so to speak, at a deeper level: it seeks to change the historical conditions of possibility and in doing so to change the activity of thought itself and, presumably, what can show up as a viable option or way of acting and being in a particular context. “In other words, interventions are never purely intellectual endeavors or thought experiments. They are practical incursions into the social rites and rituals of theoretical work” (3).

Although one might at first get the impression that Rockhill views interpretation as passé and something to move beyond, he himself counters such a conclusion. For example, he says that interpretation is “an important practice for developing theoretical possibilities within particular parameters” (3). Yet it is clear that Rockhill wants to foreground and draw our attention to the need for alternative engagements, or as he puts it “anchored struggles” that might reconfigure current norms of intellectual, social, and political practices (3). In addition, Rockhill issues a timely critique of continental philosophy. Although the continental tradition is typically considered historically minded or attuned, nevertheless it often employs “impoverished models of historical analysis and explanation, which is at times directly linked to a haughty refusal to engage with the human and social sciences” (11). As a result, what we frequently get are overly simplistic narratives, disembodied models or ideals of doing “true” philosophy, and Eurocentric accounts that privilege the works of great males of a certain socio-economic class, which is set over against the unthinking, lowly masses—all of which is often supported by a rigidly fixed canon interpreted in a way that further entrenches the established discourses and practices of particular institutions. Exegetical reason, the main focus of Rockhill’s critique, it seems, incarnates itself in the commentary tradition and thus functions as the life-giving soul of established canonical traditions, whose practices end up reducing philosophical activity to the production of secondary literature analyzing and commenting upon the canonical texts.

Rockhill’s critique of Eurocentrism is refreshingly nuanced and resists falling into an overly facile binary of oppositions—geographic or otherwise—which then demonizes Europe and seems to assume that “Europe” has a stable, unchanging center. Rather, as he explains in an important footnote (n. 45): “The decolonization of theoretical practice requires the development of a complex cultural topography based on a multidimensional conceptualization of space” (31). The radical geography that Rockhill proposes seeks to “denaturalize space and to chart a multiplicity of different and overlapping spaces while being attentive to the stratification and distributions operating within each of these heuristically delimited fields” (31). While such radical geography continues within the domain of critique discourses of Eurocentrism, it is attuned to the unfixed, center-less character of “Europe,” which it unearths as the “site of striated, overlapping and contested spaces” (31).

Given that most of Rockhill’s chapters are by and large devoted to well known male philosophers in the European intellectual tradition, one might tempted to turn aspects of Rockhill’s critique against him. However, this would miss the point of his thematization and advocacy for intervention. In other words, while foregrounding female or non-European figures would have been beneficial on multiple counts, what is important from the standpoint of intervention is what is done with, to, through, and beyond the particular figures engaged. Stated otherwise, an interventionist approach seeks neither to glorify prominent thinkers via hagiography nor damn them through a form of intellectual parricide; rather, as Rockhill explains (and here it’s worth quoting him at length):

this book proposes a critique of exegetical reason by rigorously engaging with prominent philosophic positions precisely in order to develop a deep methodological intervention into contemporary theoretical practice, as well as propose an expansive and potentially innovative thematic analysis. The metaphilosophical critique of continental scholasticism needs to mine this tradition and cull from it its major strengths, one of which is historico-hermeneutic rigour and precision. We need to move, however, from imprisonment to empowerment, from incarceration within the interstices of a socially constituted canon to an empowering historical elevation of thought that carefully works through—in order to think with and potentially beyond—some of the most prominent intellectual projects of a certain philosophic tradition (15–16).

Book Plug: Heidegger’s Confessions by Ryan Coyne

Countering a Significant Omission: Heidegger’s ConfessionsHeidegger's Confessions

Reviewed by Dr. Gary R. Brown, University of Dallas

It is well-known that the compelling breadth and depth of Heidegger’s thought is due in large measure to how much of the Western philosophical tradition it encompasses. He has ferreted out, rethought, and retrieved significant themes from everybody’s favorite thinkers. We can find echoes in Heidegger’s work of Kant, Nietzsche, Husserl, Kierkegaard, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Eckhart, Aquinas, Dilthey, Jaspers, Lask, Scheler, St. Paul, Luther—a list that can be further extended even without including poets and dramatists. But, according to Ryan Coyne, there is another, perhaps equally significant, thinker whose longtime influence on Heidegger has been sorely overlooked, and that is St. Augustine.

The first reaction by many Heidegger scholars to such a claim is surprised denial. It is widely assumed that after The Phenomenology of Religious life, Heidegger moved progressively further away from Augustine as he set about de-theologizing philosophy. Heidegger’s supposed incompatibility with Augustine might seem even more pronounced after Phillip Cary’s Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self. Cary shifts the blame for modern subjectivity from Descartes’ shoulders to Augustine’s—its true originator. If we can claim anything with certainty about Heidegger’s work, it is that he has labored mightily against Descartes’ subjective metaphysics. So why would Augustine’s abiding influence on Heidegger be something to consider as possible?

Coyne argues that Heidegger’s reading of Augustine’s Confessions for his 1921 seminar allowed him to see Augustine as a predecessor in his battle against Cartesian metaphysics. Having Augustine as an ally in his exploration of the concrete facticity of life had greater influence on Heidegger’s future work, according to Coyne, than his study of the Pauline epistles during the same period. Heidegger’s ongoing de-theologizing of theological concepts hid Augustine’s influence on Being and Time, but after the Kehre Heidegger returned to his early reworking of Augustine’s thought in order to find ways to move forward. Coyne finds echoes in the Contributions to Philosophy (1936-1938) of Augustine in Heidegger’s rethinking of Dasein in terms of displacement and “restraint.” He points to Heidegger’s reference to Augustine in the 1946 study, “Anaximander’s Saying” while trying to interpret the early understanding of being. Coyne also presents textual evidence for a “muted resurgence of resignified Augustinian terms” in Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s completion of Descartes’ metaphysical project (1944-1946). This twenty-five year span of Augustine’s influence, which surfaced during significant periods of crisis in Heidegger’s work, brings clarity to the tension in Heidegger between the secular and the religious contributions to the meaning of being. Coyne’s presentation is a pleasure to read due to the clarity of his argument, his impressive knowledge of the stages of Heidegger’s development, and the rich selection of supportive textual details.

Book Plug: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Critical Appropriation of Russian Religious Thought by Jennifer Newsome Martin

By Robert Saler

Robert Saler is Research Professor of Lutheran Studies and Executive Director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, IN.

In this study, Jennifer Newsome Martin offers far more than a relatively esoteric consideration of the influence of the 19th-century “Russian School” (particularly Vladimir Soloviev, Nikolai Berdyaev, and Sergei Bulgakov) on Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theology, as interesting as such genealogy might be to theologians. Instead, by considering how Balthasar incorporates and rejects the fruits of a uniquely daring and speculative period within Russian theology (and Eastern Orthodox systematic theology in general), Martin is able to provide one of the more lucid introductions to the speculative yet ultimately disciplined character of Balthasar’s own theology. Indeed, given that von Balthasar has come under attack in recent years particularly by Roman Catholic theologians who regard some of his more daring theological formulations (e.g. his subjunctive universalism, his account of Christ’s descent into hell as one of suffering rather than triumph), Martin’s careful exegesis of where Balthasar follows the lead of his Russian interlocutors (as well as that of their mutual textual foil, Schelling) and where he demurs from their more radical conclusions in the name of Catholic doctrine and/or Christocentric theology serves a more subterranean yet compelling purpose: to demonstrate that Balthasar, whose capacious appreciation for intellectual sources outside of Roman Catholicism and indeed outside the orbit of Christian theology altogether, nonetheless was creatively orthodox in his interweaving of these disparate strands into a sustained theological vision of the fulfillment of all human endeavors – artistic, philosophical, and religious – in the resurrected life of Christ.

The result of this is a marvelously scholarly and non-polemical survey of some key themes in Balthasar’s theology, particularly in relation to eschatology, biblical hermeneutics, and the role of myth in theology. For instance, regarding the role of myth, Balthasar shared with both his Russian interlocutors and Schelling a suspicion of the seemingly deadening impact of unchecked Enlightenment rationality in describing the human condition (as well as the subsequent impact of such anemic understandings of revelation and the apocalyptic upon Christian theology). However, Balthasar saw in his Russian counterparts’ reception of both Schelling and Schelling’s ideological predecessor Jakob Böhme an object lesson in how to critically appropriate mythic hermeneutics both within and cognate to Christian scriptures in both unhelpful (as in his firm dismissal of Berdyaev on this score) and in evocative ways (as in his greater sympathy for Bulgakov).

In reading Martin’s account, the principal of “resonant, not relevant” comes to mind – because these Russian thinkers in diaspora, as heterogeneous as they were, all were confronted with the challenge of reconciling aesthetic and philosophical currents of modernity with biblical and patristic sources (a task that was arguably mostly eschewed by the subsequent neo-pastristic Renaissance brought to fruition by figures such as Florovsky, despite that movement’s ostensible program of synthesis) but from a wildly different cultural and ecclesial location than that of von Balthasar, their consideration of sources common to both East and West from the standpoint of ecclesial fidelity could inform Balthasar’s speculative imagination while also modeling epistemological and/or doctrinal restraint at key junctures. As Balthasar himself said about that tensions in inherent in that task (as quoted by Martin),

Being faithful to tradition most definitely does not consist…of a literal repetition and transmission of the philosophical and theological theses that one imagines lie hidden in time and in the contingencies of history. Rather, being faithful to tradition consists much more of imitating our Fathers in the faith with respect to their attitude of intimate reflection and their effort of audacious creation, which are necessary preludes to true spiritual fidelity. (14-15).

One of Martin’s most significant contributions in showcasing Balthasar’s “true fidelity” on this score is to demonstrate how, when all was said and done, for him the key theological loci of bodily resurrection and eschatological redemption as construed by the Catholic tradition are absolutely necessary for doing justice to the strivings of the human condition as reflected in art, philosophy, and other modes of cultural aesthetics. Indeed, Martin demonstrates convincingly that the moments in Balthasar’s corpus where he is most severe and epistemologically restrictive in his willingness to speculate apart from received Catholic doctrine is when he feels that the centrality of the resurrection (with its theological approbation of the material body as a site of God’s redemption) is in danger of being subsumed by quasi-gnostic mythos.

As a scholarly monograph (indeed, a dissertation revision) and as a sympathetic rendition of Balthasar’s major themes, Martin’s book succeeds well. Indeed, the only significant frustration that I had with the book was that, in this case, those two genres exist in some tension: because Martin stays on task of assessing Balthasar’s corpus in light of his Russian and German idealist interlocutors, the book – though clearly written – will largely be inaccessible for those seeking a more general introduction to Balthasar as well as a more sustained response to his more vociferous critics (whom Martin introduces and summarizes fairly but mostly rebuts, if at all, via indirect demonstration rather than direct response). If this book is any indication, Martin has quite a bit more to add to consideration of Balthasar’s legacy, and we can hope that her future contributions will help those of us who are sympathetic both to Balthasar’s theology and the larger theo-aesthetic tasks to which he addresses himself to draw some more pointed lines in the sand against those who would discount his impact or his legacy. But in the meantime, this book is a solid foundation on which to begin to build that case as well as a study that will be of interest not only to Balthasar scholars but also Eastern Orthodox scholars looking to see how a theologically astute Westerner “looks in” on a fraught and heavily contested moment in their theological heritage. Martin makes a convincing case that such resonant readings across traditions is all to the benefit of theology.

Book Plug: Unfinished Worlds: Hermeneutics, Aesthetics, and Gadamer by Nicholas Davey

Unfinished Worlds by Nicholas DaveyNicholas Davey’s book, Unfinished Worlds: Hermeneutics, Aesthetics, and Gadamer, is a thought-provoking study of Gadamer’s integration of hermeneutics and aesthetics. Importantly, Gadamer’s fusion of hermeneutics and aesthetics reverses traditional conceptions of both disciplines. For example, hermeneutics is typically understood as focusing on meaning, whereas aesthetics is concerned with the particularities of visual, auditory, and related sensual experience. Davey, however, shows both how Gadamer challenges traditional accounts and the resultant consequences, which include: (1) an anti-essentialist account of the artwork as dynamic and relationally constituted, (2) a significant revision of the theory-practice relationship in art and the humanities, (3) a hermeneutics of transformative experience, and (4) a redefinition of the nature of aesthetic attentiveness (2). Davey not only helps us to better understand Gadamer’s reorientation of aesthetics (chapter 2) and his philosophically robust account of the artwork, but he also advances Gadamer’s insights, bringing them to bear on central issues in contemporary hermeneutics, philosophy of art, and aesthetics.

Davey’s analysis and constructive development of Gadamer’s contributions intersect with broader philosophical concerns of interest to the Continental philosophical tradition. For example, is an excess of meaning a problem that constricts one’s understanding of the aesthetic or does it enlarge one’s understanding? Is ambiguity and multiplicity of meaning something to be embraced (as Derrida and other contemporary thinkers claim) or avoided? Given certain readings of Gadamer as a traditionalist averse to ambiguity and fluidity, some might be surprised that his hermeneutical aesthetics is quite at home with polysemy, excess of meaning, and  ever-open “unfinished” worlds.

One of the central claims with which Davey dwells is Gadamer’s proposal that artworks address us. That is, hermeneutical aesthetics maintains that artworks possess a meaningful content and such meaning is relational. In the experience of art’s address, the viewer or auditor is both drawn in by the work and actively participates in its occurrence or event-ful character. Art’s address has the capacity to transform one’s horizon. As Davey’s explains, such a transformative experience “entails the cognitive relations within a spectator’s outlook being transformed by those which constitute the work. This is made possible because of the surplus of meaning attached to visual signs and symbols as well as to the images of literature and poetry” (2). Such symbols and literary ideas have the ability to function as placeholders in multiple discourses. This “transactional capacity” of symbols and poetic and literary ideas, and what Gadamer calls “subject-matters” (Sachen) allows a key term in one’s home horizon to be “transformed when that term meets different deployments within a foreign horizon” (2). In such an encounter, one’s horizon is not superseded but rather acquires a significantly expanded, enriched form. This account of the transactional or placeholder capacity of symbols and subject-matters to operate across different horizons or frameworks of meaning not only provides an explanation of the structure of transformative experiences in art, but it also clarifies how “the transformative capacity of interdisciplinary study depends precisely upon the movement of shared placeholder terms between different practices” (3). Here we encounter one of Gadamer’s innovative contributions, viz. an articulation of an active, participatory aesthetic attentiveness as a practice, which Davey discusses in detail in chapters 3 and 4. In contrast to traditional accounts of aesthetics wherein one passively receives a work and relishes in its aesthetic qualities, in a Gadamerian practice of aesthetic attentiveness the spectator lingers with the work, allowing its complexities to emerge and actively facilitates movement between the placeholders in her own horizon and that of the artwork (3). Such lingering or tarrying with the artwork is necessary for a transformative experience to occur. In short, Davey shows how Gadamer successfully reconciles the “alleged disinterestedness of aesthetics with the cognitive interests” attendant to a phenomenological examination of our experience of art” (16). As Davey puts it, “Aesthetic attentiveness is no unthinking receptiveness but a complex reflective practice capable of transforming understanding” (ibid.) Moreover, this reconfiguration of our experience of art as participatory adds a new dimension to the hermeneutical part-whole relationship. Such part-whole structures can only be understood via participatory engagement. Thus, given Gadamer’s emphasis on the dynamism of aesthetic experience, the idea of a “detached aesthetic observer” must be discarded and replaced with an engaged spectatorial (or auditoral) participant (ibid.)

For Gadamer, profound aesthetic experience involves the ineffable and thus serves as a challenge to philosophy’s predilection to clarify and even master the “objects” of its study. Although Gadamer agrees with the artist and practitioner that the complexity of aesthetic experience transcends linguistic capture, he nonetheless contends that striving to find new words and a new language that more adequately approximates the intricacies of such experience is a worthwhile endeavour. Here Gadamer’s hermeneutical aesthetics unites practitioner and theorist as mutually beneficial dialogue partners who facilitate a greater understanding of aesthetic experience.

Other significant topics addressed in Davey’s study are as follows: appearance as ontologically significant (chapter 5), aesthetics attentiveness and distanciation (chapter 3), the disjunctive image (chapter 3), art’s language and Gadamer’s rich yet often misunderstood notion of Sprachlichkeit or linguisticality (chapter 6). Lastly, chapter 7 provides a helpful summary of Davey’s principle arguments.

I highly recommend Davey’s study for those interested in Gadamer’s hermeneutical aesthetics, as well as anyone interested in a defence of the value of aesthetic education and the humanities in general. Not only does he accomplish the noteworthy task of lucidly explaining the key moments of Gadamer’s hermeneutical aesthetics, but he also makes a compelling case for applying a Gadamerian “poetics” of aesthetic experience to our understanding of interdisciplinary study and in so doing urges us to reconsider the social and cultural significance of the humanities. In light of its transformative possibilities, aesthetic education takes on new urgency in our fragile, violence-ridden, and ever-changing world. “Not to invest in the attentive practices of the humanities, not to nurture the ability to dwell within spaces of hermeneutical challenge and not to teach how to be patient in developing as yet unknown but wished for responses to such provocations is to disinvest in our collective ability to respond creatively to the inevitable challenges of the future” (171).

[Unfinished Worlds is part of Edinburgh University Press’s excellent Crosscurrents series, edited by Christopher Watkin, Monash University, Australia. This series explores the development of European thought through engagements with the arts, humanities, social sciences and sciences.]



Book Plug: Interstitial Soundings. Philosophical Reflections on Improvisation, Practice, and Self-Making

Interstitial SoundingsMy new book, Interstitial Soundings. Philosophical Reflections on Improvisation, Practice, and Self-Making, is now available for purchase. Below I have included a brief description of the book. Also, Cascade/Wipf & Stock has put together a very nice promotional flyer with lengthy excerpts from the first two chapters. Those interested may download this document via this link.*

In the present work, Cynthia R. Nielsen brings music and philosophy into a fruitful and mutually illuminating dialogue. Topics discussed include the following: music’s dynamic ontology, performers and improvisers as co-composers, the communal character of music, jazz as hybrid and socially constructed, the sociopolitical import of bebop, Afro-modernism and its strategic deployments, jazz and racialized practices, continuities between Michel Foucault’s discussion of self-making and creating one’s musical voice, Alasdair MacIntyre on practice, and how one might harmonize MacIntyre’s notion of virtue development with Foucauldian resistance strategies.

*Used with permission of Wipf & Stock Publishers.