The Modern Philosophical Revolution: A Travelogue

This is the story of a year and a half of reading philosophy, culminated in a magisterial volume by David Walsh, “The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence.

I have not approached philosophy to find the winning key for a moral debate, or to prove my Christianity. I confess that I don’t know why I am interested in philosophical questions. Therefore, I’ve never had a consistent agenda, but that does not mean I set aside my faith and all my prior affective commitments at the altar, or rather the coatroom, of Socrates’ chamber. I haven’t bracketed myself from the process – and that, it turns out, is a major conclusion of recent philosophy.

This is the story of a year and a half of reading philosophy, culminated in a magisterial volume by David Walsh, The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence. Walsh’s book fits neatly over my travels, so his story is overlaid with my own in this personal book review.

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A Beginning of Sorts

Just over a year ago, I planned out a Kierkegaard reading group with some friends at church. We were going to read Fear and Trembling. As I perused around about the Dane, I realized that in order to understand him, you had to understand Hegel. And as I figured out more about Hegel, I realized that you had to understand Kant. This kicked off a year of reading at least one book from what turned out to be seven of the eight philosophers discussed by Walsh. (In addition to the three just mentioned, I picked up Nietzsche, Heidegger, Levinas, and Derrida. Walsh also includes Schelling.) It was the first time I had read a complete work by any of the men.

My search goes back somewhat further, though. For, philosophy is not a subject whose conclusions can be learned out of a context of questions. The relationship of ontology to epistemology, for example, only has meaning with regards to a certain set of inquiries. What Knowledge is legitimate? Can you talk about knowledge without talking about who you are, as a knower? The questions drive the answers, and it is supremely difficult to glean from a great philosopher without being tuned to the questions he is trying to solve.

My questions are varied, but an explosion of interrogation came out of reading Eric Voegelin before this Modern Philosophy quest began. In The New Science of Politics, Voegelin traced the history of political philosophy’s successes and wretched failings according to what he called, “the differentiation of the soul.” In Voegelin’s conception, political philosophy was about a person connecting to society through the divinity that holds together all existence. In this way, the irreducible inwardness of a person is tied to the social, political order.

In the history of the soul’s differentiation, the divine is first seen pantheistically in all the world, and then divinity is personalized and differentiated from the world itself (think, Egyptian gods). Next, the order of the world is envisioned in the polity of human society, as the Greek polis, and later in the Roman ecumene. Christianity provided further differentiation by insisting that while existence is found on earth, it is also not completely here. We are able to grasp the idea of divinity and the social whole – but their perfect, immanent reality is just beyond our reach. This “truth of the soul” has been a hard one to keep, though, and modern politics has often been a crumbling of the Christian articulation as men have sought to bring the kingdom on earth. To be clear, Voegelin opposes 18th to 20th century totalitarianism (political and philosophical) because it represents a regression in our ability to think the world as it really is. Totalitarianism’s very falseness of representation, Voegelin said, would be its own death as the menace grew bigger. Eric Voegelin thus truly predicted the moral collapse of communism, even at its promising political height in the 1950s.

I was floored by Voegelin because of his ability to talk about the soul on philosophical terms. It began to seem to me that a conversation about faith was implicit within a conversation about philosophy. And the way through, pace Voegelin, might be found with the language of existence. Voegelin uses obscenely hard phrases like “the divine ground of existence” and “the differentiation of the soul.” It is possible these phrases have no meaning, but if they do, then I might better understand my own obsessive pull toward both philosophy and faith.

As it turns out, David Walsh is something of an expert on Voegelin. He has edited three volumes of Voegelin’s writings, and The Modern Philosophical Revolution turns up phrases like “the divine ground of existence” when you’re barely looking. More importantly, Walsh’s own concerns are sympathetic to Voegelin’s, so Walsh’s questions find resonance in me.

The Modern Philosophical Revolution

The modern philosophical revolution, according to Walsh, is not godlessness or liberal hype or even necessarily Gnosticism. Rather, beginning with Kant, a sensitivity began to grow about where theoretical knowledge comes from, and how we get access to it. In Walsh’s account, this ambiguity has always been slightly below the surface of philosophy, but it came to the fore due to the bewildering advances of technology – instrumental reason. With growing awareness and articulation, a number of thinkers followed this problem. Particularly, there was interest in a key insight: that if theoretical reason is continually subject to the demands of instrumental reason (e.g. the causes and sources of it), the result seemed outside of normal philosophical language.

The quest to find the source was so pressing, in Walsh’s reading, because the result would not be some abstract conclusion. The result of such an enquiry is oneself, one’s own soul, the source of one’s own existence. When Kant recognized, with the rest of his age, that both empiricism and rationalism were proving to be unreliable explainers of the core of knowledge, he tried to formulate a third way – beginning not with where knowledge comes from, but the structure of the mind that receives it. Kant was not a psychologist, talking about how reality fits into our mind, but rather he explained how the structures of our thought fit into reality.

The result was a new start for philosophy. The question was no longer how we know things, but how we can explain our own selves to ourselves, based on the kind of thinking we do. In other words, my existence is the most important thing I can account for, but it is the very source of my life and all the accounting and thinking I do. When I try to explain this mysterious core, I pretend to step apart from it. But that is impossible. I always think out from my existence. I am always participating in it. The participating in existence can only be explained through participating in existence. This is problematic for the person looking for objective certainty, since the criterion of objectivity is non-participation.

This bewildering existential problem has been the core logic of modern philosophy. Many thinkers, Walsh seems to imply, were unable to hold this mystery and tried to pretend they could speak about the core of existence and meaning with objectivity – Marx, Hitler, and Mao held this in common. In Voegelin’s phrase, they “immanentized the eschaton” and pretended they could bring history to a conclusion. This means they also pretended existence itself could be brought to a conclusion. The source could be held, and all anxiety and fear and responsibility would wither away.

Where Voegelin had called this tension, “the truth of the soul,” Walsh clarifies the philosophical problematic: whenever we use language, we assign categories that are outside of ourselves. This is theoretical reason. Theoretical reason breaks down when we try to explain the condition for our own existence. On the one hand, if we pretend that we ourselves are a category outside ourselves, we lie. On the other hand, if we assign a category to the condition for our existence, we claim to master the thing that is the condition for that very act of mastery. It is a contradiction. However, if we are really honest, we actually use a practical, less theoretical reason to talk about ourselves and our own experience. Since we have to speak from our own selves, all talk (theoretical knowledge) comes out of the self you always already begin from (practical reason).

It is this difficulty of saying the unsayable, trying to drive at a source that is always just beyond our grasp (because the grasp, the last step of theoretical knowledge, would simply create a new item for theoretical knowledge to consider), that has produced such original and extremely difficult modern philosophers. Many, as I noted, could not hold this tension at all. Others held it poorly or awkwardly. Among these latter, Walsh counts Kant, Hegel, Schelling, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida, and Kierkegaard.

Philosophy and My Personal Inadequacies

If you’ve read these titans before, you may be thinking that they should be Walsh’s very opponents. Wasn’t Hegel the great systematizer, whom Marx himself was based on? Walsh, however, offers a re-reading of each of these philosophers based on the inner logic of this problem of existence and language. The very problem is so hard to say exactly, that they have often been misread. Their originality in trying to find fresh words led to their misinterpretations by those who seized the new formulations, conceptualizing the very approach that had been an attempt at articulating a non-concept: the source of our own existence, spoken from our own existence.

Walsh, in fact, leaves open the possibility that the philosopher was not fully aware of the consequences of his own writing, and could easily get caught up in his own logic, or the excitement of finding a solution to apply to all of reality.

The men hardly knew what they themselves were getting at, due to the difficulty of holding such a truth. Moreover, many of these writers seem not to have been fully aware that others struggled with the same problems. At this point, Walsh is suddenly shedding light onto me. While his reading of modern philosophy is new to me, I’ve been startled to find that some of my own reflections over the last year and half fit into his paradigm. In a poem I wrote last year, “Communicability”, I talked about trying to communicate without saying:

“… The struggle in the speech, never quite the words:

I thought a little, and maybe understood.

Not a bit made sense; from me no response.

But the whole? Yes, I’d tell you as well.

Or at least I hope I could.”

At least two of the devices used in the poem, Walsh emphasizes with regard to Kierkegaard’s work: the use of the aesthetic and the use of pseudonyms/characters to point to the truth obliquely, when a direct proposition would seem to destroy it by conceptualizing it.

Is this inability a fault on the part of the author? A personal inadequacy? That was part of the impetus behind my poem. Walsh emphasizes, though, that there are structural inadequacies – we might even say logical inadequacies – in attempting to speak about speaking about life. How can you criticize a means that you can’t help but use? How can you understand the process of understanding?

Finding Religion in the Absence of Metaphysics

You must live within it. This has been the abiding insight of the modern philosophical revolution. A profound case in point is Derrida and différance.

Reading Derrida, like most of these writers, carries baggage. Many of his fanatics are queasy about his later preoccupation with theology and religious language, while his opponents have made him their ultimate villain – both sides taking him to be the apotheosis of postmodernism. Walsh thinks they are both mistaken for their inability to account for Derrida’s later religious reflections, and their inability to see in Derrida the tension of the modern philosophical revolution.

Another hurdle in reading Derrida is that he is so difficult to read. Until Walsh, I had no teacher for guidance, and I must admit the task was a little too high. I did not finish all of the essays in Writing and Difference.

Here is what Walsh showed me. Derrida picked up on Heidegger’s effort to return to the Greek intuition that thinking and being are one. Heidegger thought they had been unduly separated, warping philosophy along the way. Derrida learned greatly from this critique, but he also learned from Heidegger’s overzealousness. While thinking really is a mode of being itself, and therefore epistemological questions are really ontological questions at heart, the reality is more complicated.

Thinking and being are one, but they are also different. Every time you try to think about being, every time you say something about being – it fails to measure up to being itself. By saying something, you are doing something, which affects being. The two are never quite the same. Not only are they different, but every possible refinement you could use to talk about being falls just short of it. As soon as you conceptualize being, it becomes subject to theoretical logic, with questions like why? And where did it come from? As soon as you say something, there is something deeper. So being (and any kind of meaning) is just beyond grasp, and it is deferred one more step away when we talk about it. It is deferred and it is different. Derrida was able to combine both ideas into one, since they are actually the same word in French: différer. So he made up a new word to catch our attention and emphasize that the two ideas go together: différance (spelled with an “a”).

As you can see, Derrida is actually kind of justified in making his ideas hard to understand. His very idea is that if you say it outright, you’ll miss the point. So more often than not, he uses his idea to try to help us understand it more obliquely.

Maybe this is why I would trudge through scores of pages of analysis in Writing and Difference, wondering if I was picking much up, waiting for the end of an essay … when Derrida would suddenly blow me away with his conclusion. In Derrida’s famous essay on Emmanuel Levinas, I struggled through the long dissection of infinity and ontology. Then right near the end, as I’m getting ready to congratulate myself for making it this far without seeing anything, Derrida somehow brings in the medieval churchman, Nicholas of Cusa, to make his point for him. Here is the section:

The very content of the thought of God is that of a being about which no question could be asked (except by being asked by it), and which cannot be determined as an existent. The Idiot (Idiota), an admirable meditation by Nicholas of Cusa, develops this implication of God in every question, and first in the question of God. For example:

The Idiot: See how easie the difficultie is in divine things, that it always offers it self to the seeker, in the same manner that it is sought for. The Orator: Without doubt, there is nothing more wonderfull. Id: Every question concerning God presupposeth the thing questioned; and that must be answered, which in every question concerning God, the question presupposeth: for God, although he be unsignifiable, is signified in every signification of terms. Or: Declare thy self at large …. Id: Doth not the question, whether a thing be or no, presuppose the Entitie? Or: Yes. Id: Therefore when it is demanded of thee, whether God be, (or whether there be a God?) answer that which is presupposed, namely that he is; because that is the Entitie presupposed in the question. So if any man shall ask thee, what is God? Considering that this question presupposeth a quidditie to be; thou shalt answer, that God is absolute quddity itself; for God is the absolute presupposition itself, of all things, which (after what manner soever) are presupposed as in every effect the cause is presupposed. See therefore, Oratour, how easie Theologicall difficulty is …. If that which in every question is presupposed, be in divine matters an answer unto the question, then of God there can be no proper question, because the answer coincides with it.

What is going on here? Why is the Master of Deconstruction appealing to a Cardinal in the Church? In Walsh’s reading of modern philosophy, Derrida’s questions are not entirely new – which is what shocked me on my first reading of the passage above.

For Levinas and Derrida, the best available means for talking about the problems of thinking and being were theological language, for Christians are prepared for the tensions that modern philosophy has articulated to itself. While Levinas prefers to use Plato’s phrase, “the good beyond being,” to indicate the inaccessibility of the source of being, Derrida is content to use the religious phrase, “God beyond being”: the non-conceptual source of all conceptions, and the ground for all thought. This ground, this core of our existence, is something irreducible, because it is not subject to theoretical questions of causation and partition. The questions would only indicate something even deeper that is irreducible, and they can only move forward by presupposing something irreducible. “If that which in every question is presupposed,” opined Nicholas of Cusa, “be in divine matters an answer unto the question, then of God there can be no proper question, because the answer coincides with it.”

Thus Derrida finds himself in a relation to God. He is unable to say anything about God, but he admits that he is in relation to something like God. Derrida is no Christian, but he finds himself saying oddly Christian things by the end of his life, like “I am waiting for the Other, who will show himself as Other.” All Derrida is able to mean by this is that he can make no certain apperceptions that are wholly outside himself, but all his existential terminology points to something actually graspable beyond his experience, just barely beyond it. Thus, he is constantly in-between, “waiting.” Christian eschatological language has long emphasized this character of existence. If Jacques Derrida is not testifying to the objective truth of Christian dogma, he is giving significant imprimatur to its “truth of the soul.”

The Life of Faith

The true believer would like to jump on this point, but as yet there is no confirmation of the religion of Jesus Christ. Couldn’t it be that the existential truth of Christianity explains its longevity and success, while still being wrong? Couldn’t it be a “necessary myth” of the Platonic type? Levinas and Derrida had insisted on the distinction of thought and being, within their unity; perhaps the thought (the dogma) could never line up with the existential reality, which is of a wholly different type.

Now, the relationship of the reality to the idea, of praxis to theory, is one that has bedeviled the modern philosophical revolution along with most of the history of philosophy. Marxists, for example, have long struggled to connect the loftiness of their revolutionary language with its actual implementation. This connection, though, finds a new pathway in the modern philosophical revolution, with its preference for practical reason and existential language at the basis of theoretical reason. This revolution, then, finds its best spokesman in a man who felt most deeply the salience of action at the core of his inwardness: Søren Kierkegaard.

Walsh places Kierkegaard anachronistically after Derrida in order to emphasize this element. In Walsh’s reading of the most famous Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard is notable for two reasons. First, Kierkegaard takes the priority of practical reason and existential language much further than the other philosophers. The oblique nature of pseudonyms and characters has already been noted, in their ability to more closely “say without saying” the existence that underlies our ability to say anything about our existence.

Second, Kierkegaard is eminently concerned, paradoxically, with both inwardness and action. Kierkegaard is able to use psychological language like anxiety while avoiding the false resolution of “genuineness” that lured Heidegger, Sartre, and others. At the same time, Kierkegaard shows how the decisions people make – even moral decisions – are not reducible to systematic explanations. That is, there is an irreducible, mysterious core to human existence, action, and life that cannot be adequately accounted for by an all-encompassing system, because the terms of that system would always come from within the system. This means not only that the actions and decisions of our life actually constitute our life – it also means that it is impossible to approach life, even through thought, without actually taking part in its activity and decisions.

This is why faith is so central to Kierkegaard’s writings. For him, faith and action and thinking are all one. The Greek identification of being and thinking is actually bound by the mystery of faith. Faith is the substance of action, because action presupposes and acts from the deep core of existence. Thinking is impossible apart from this action, in part because thinking is an action.

It has been noted by Christians affiliated with Dutch Reformed thought that faith is necessary for philosophy, because faith is necessary for any worldview. Kierkegaard, though, is saying something different. Instead of an intellectual presupposition, the use of faith is the use of the divine un-nameable that enables our lives. That is, Kierkegaard has penetrated beneath the theoretical reason, so faith cannot simply be a theoretical substitute for a theoretical aporia (the presuppositionalism of the Dutch Reformed camp and its offspring). At the essence of practical reason and the roots of existence is the wellspring of life, which is what we necessarily live and act within. Faith, then, is the necessary language by which we describe ourselves to ourselves and justify our own existence. Our lives are not our own, because we can never comprehend for ourselves the source of our existence. The justification for even our moral activity is bound within this mysterious infinity of the human person that is not reducible to anything – not even to that person. It goes deeper than the person, to something that enables the person. The language of divinity overflows from here and enables the living of life that theoretical reason had found itself unable to justify or connect with.

Walsh finds one other thinker who approaches this mystery in a way that duly assimilates the modern philosophical revolution: Friedrich Schelling. Schelling’s relative obscurity (vis-a-vis Hegel, Fichte, and other German giants) is his own fault, for he refused to publish after age 40, beyond which we rely on his lectures. After Schelling had penetrated the existential logic of the modern philosophical revolution, he realized that not only were the language and presuppositions of religion necessary – so was its actual practice. From a theoretical standpoint, practiced religion is far more adequate to approach the unapproachable, and it is much better at living the unsayable truth of our existence. An existential problem requires an existential answer; God is deeper than his effects, which means he is beyond reason. This oblique approach of practicing faith, rather than speaking directly about existence, interacts directly with the reality of our souls. That is why speaking about religion, or on religious terms, became necessary for Derrida, even if he was unable to follow through on the practice.

In the preface to The Modern Philosophical Revolution, Walsh underlines this point. I read the preface several months before reading the book, in the middle of my own travels in modern philosophy, and the extracted quote has lay in a link on my desktop since then, as I wonder at its prescience. Walsh says:

So while metaphysics in the propositional sense may have become defunct, it is by no means the case that our orientation within metaphysical openness has disappeared. The death of metaphysics in thought has meant the openness to metaphysics in life. God, immortality, and freedom, as well as the unsurpassable exigency of goodness in its unending struggle with evil, not only remain real but have acquired an existential force that is all the more powerful for our inability to contain them within discursive limits. … But if we are to make sense of these strange reverberations in a context that has understood itself apart from all theological and metaphysical reference, we must be prepared to understand why the transcendent can surface only within this profoundly mysterious mode. It is not that we in the modern world have lost faith, but that philosophy has come to understand the meaning of faith in a very different way.

… the modern philosophical revolution has done no more than bring to light what has all along been the source of the very tradition against which it sought to distinguish itself. The practice of faith has ever and always been the only available source of faith.

[emphasis added]

Religion Finds Philosophy, and Philosophy Finds Religion

I used to admire how politics was a gateway to philosophy. This I saw in figures from Plato to Leo Strauss. In my historical research, I saw that the opening to new political options was a major impetus to new philosophy in early modern Italy, France, and England.

In my own life, it had seemed that initial interests in the practical realities of politics had been the inspiration for probing the philosophical foundations of social reality. For myself, these beginnings included undergraduate interests in Marxism, and later the conservative politics into which I entered in Washington, DC.

Without denying the philosophical potential of politics, I now see, through Walsh, the religious struggles of some of the most important thinkers in the logic of existence. All eight figures of The Modern Philosophical Revolution either started or ended their career justifying religion in some way. The insights into existence that they gained were either the result of religious practice from which their minds never fully recovered, or else it led them to a view of Canaan, if they were never quite able to enter. That view, however, was not simply topographical, but a deep understanding of the dynamics of the active life of the religious soul.

While my political interests have been an impetus to my philosophical perusals, I am beginning to see that the zeal and impatience and shear distress that I occasionally feel when working through the latter topics can only be explained by markedly religious anxiety. The religious inflection of my contemplative mind is not due as much to the presuppositions that are necessary for its propositions, as to the (Pentecostal) formation that has marked my spiritual outlook. I have been trying to justify myself to myself, and explain my spiritual self to myself. Not that the meaning of philosophy is merely individual and relative – but that it is always personal and spiritual. That, anyway, is the reason for and end of the quest.

Does this tell us whether the Christian faith is true? Or is it just a necessary existential myth? The implication, I think, is that it does not tell us whether the faith is true, in the way the question is framed. However, it does tell us more than Voegelin did, that Christianity simply comports with the “truth of the soul.” Much more than that, we see that “the practice of faith has ever and always been the only available source of faith.”

Walsh himself admits that his book does not touch on whether the faith that has become necessary for modern philosophy is the same as the faith of old. However, he concludes this tome with a summation of modern philosophy as a call to responsibility, since it ultimately connects knowledge to the action of living life. Atheists cannot pretend to hide behind objective distance. Agnostics cannot veil themselves with indecision. Christians cannot stand behind the self-righteousness of being correct.

Thinking and being are one, but they are more than the sum of their parts. It is with this understanding that I can take a breath in my philosophical journey, because I see it as a part of my spiritual travels. I may not be able to explain my spiritual self to myself on philosophical terms, but I am now more comfortable acknowledging that I daily effect that explanation in my lifelong journey closer to Christ.

1 Comment

  • August 29, 2011

    Toby Simmons

    Brilliant. A great blog all-round! A joy to read.