Monthly Archives: October 2012

Augustine and the Cruelty of Peace

“Peace and War had a competition in cruelty; and Peace won the prize.  For the men whom War cut down were bearing arms; Peace slaughtered the defenseless.”

-Saint Augustine

“881 were civilians, including 176 children. Only 41 people who had died had been confirmed as ‘high-value’ terrorist targets”



St. Augustine and Libertarianism

Augustine’s introspective posture in his famous (or, for some, infamous) Confessions has led to his adoption by individualists of every stripe.  There is certainly philosophical merit to such an adoption, if for no reason other than his notable influence upon important historical “individualists,” e.g. certain prominent existentialists: Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, etc.  If one were to consider the political ramifications of such a seemingly radical individualism, one might be led to suspect that Augustine would find himself comfortably situated in Liberalism, or perhaps even its more radical cousin, Libertarianism.  Yet, in her Augustine and the Limits of Politics, Jean Bethke Elshtain makes the following observation:

“[For Augustine] there are two fundamentally different attitudes [caritas and cupiditas] evinced within human social life and enacted by human beings.  One attitude is a powerful feeling of the fullness of life.  A human being will not be denuded if he or she gives, or makes a gift of the self, to others.  One’s dependence on others is not a diminution but an enrichment of self.  The other attitude springs from cramped and cribbed pity, from resentment, from a penury of spirit.  The way one reaches out or down to others from these different attitudes is strikingly distinct.  From a spirit of resentment and contempt, one condescends toward the other; one is hostile to life itself.”*

What political lessons can be drawn from this profound dichotomy, from these two quite different loves?  His existential-individuality aside, it is impossible to read here anything other than a critique of political-individuality.  Simply put, Augustine was a communitarian.  One might go so far as to say that President Obama’s infamous claim, “you didn’t build that,” a claim which the radical right has condemned as godless-communism with its chants of “I built this,” for Augustine, might simply be an advocation of Life-itself. For it is only as a community working together, even a community of individuals working together, that we can achieve the “fullness of life.”  It is not through the myth of the self-made-man that we will attain the fulfillment of life, but on the contrary, through “dependence.”  Perhaps, through this Augustinian insight, we can resurrect this term, “dependence,” a term which has become a dirty-word in American politics.  And, while wedge issues like abortion and gay rights may continue to push large swaths of Christianity towards the right,  Augustine may seek to remind us that Christianity is, at its source, a communitarian endeavor, a socio-religious experiment in communal living.  Against the liberalism of the Democrats and the Libertarianism of the GOP, Augustine reminds us that Christianity’s love, its caritas, is always toward the other, the gift of the self, and the community.

*Elshtain, Jean Bethke.  Augustine and the Limits of Politics. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press): 36.

Schelling on the Sublime in Art

“For the difference between a beautiful and a sublime work of art rests only on the fact that where beauty exists the infinite contradiction is resolved in the object itself, whereas where sublimity exists the contradiction is not unified in the object itself but is merely raised to a level at which it involuntarily removes itself in the intuition, which then is as good as if it were removed from the object.”

-Schelling, Deduction of a Universal Organ of Philosophy, or Main Propositions of the Philosophy of Art According to Principles of Transcendental Idealism

Schelling prefigures Marion’s conception of the Saturated Phenomenon by about a century and a half.  In case you didn’t know, all of phenomenology’s best ideas can be found in 19th century German Idealism.

Merleau-Ponty Symposium at Duquesne University

The Simon Silverman Phenomenology Center
Presents the 31st Annual Symposium

Over 50 years after his death, we may be still only beginning to know Merleau-Ponty’s thought and its significance for thecontemporary world. While historical research into Merleau-Ponty’s thought is crucial, the Simon Silverman Phenomenology Center’s 31st Annual Symposium on “Merleau-Ponty Into the Future” will take a different approach.

We will ask not what Merleau-Ponty’s thought was or even is but what it might become. Merleau-Ponty will be brought into conversation with registers such as aesthetics, psychology, ecology, geopolitics and feminism. We will explore how Merleau-Ponty’s thought might flower anew in such fields, and how such registers might themselves take new directions through engagements with the possibilities opened by Merleau-Ponty’s thought.

We invite you to join us for this exciting exploration.

Speakers include:

Galen Johnson, University of Rhode Island
Geil Weiss, The George Washington University
Laura Doyle, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
David Abram, The Alliance for Wild Ethics

Graded University Pay Scale Threatens the Humanities.

As the university system continues to technologize, embracing the capitalist/scientistic framework, the humanities may take a great hit.


I apologize that posts have been few and far between.  My new program is kicking my ass scheduling wise.  I promise I haven’t disappeared off the face of the earth.

Interview with John D. Caputo

Micro-Reviews #9 Michel Henry’s “Barbarism”

Overall Rating: 7/10

This year has been a wonderful time for (English speaking) Michel Henry Fans.  Already we received Words of Christ and have now been blessed with Barbarism, a recent translation of Henry’s 1987 La Barbarie. Situated in the middle of his career, Barbarism predates his later explicitly religious/theological publications.  This work reads similarly to other contributions of the period, notably Seeing the Invisible: On Kandinsky, avoiding the extensive technical vocabulary of his earlier work (The Essence of Manifestation, etc.). That is not to say that this work is fully lacking in Henry’s typical idiosyncratic concepts, “self-affectivity” and the like.  In this way, while familiarity with Henry’s corpus may be helpful for uncovering the nuances of his argument, the overarching moves are within the grasp of anyone who possesses basic philosophical training and rough knowledge of major 19th and 20th century figures (e.g. Heidegger).

Barbarism is primarily intended as a critique of scientism.  Concerning this, it must be emphasized, a critique of scientism is not a critique of science.  Simply put, Henry’s concern is the expansion of “scientific” thinking beyond the natural sciences and into realms of thought once occupied by psychology, religion, ethics, and art.  Nonetheless, as critics have often noted, this work does have a tendency to venture into the polemical, often posing terms in unnecessarily divisive categories.  One must therefore tread lightly, recognizing Henry’s most lucid presentations of his thesis, and sidelining his overly excited science-bashing.  For, even Henry often mistakes the critique of scientism for a critique of science.

Throughout Barbarism, Henry seeks to unify many diverse critiques of 20th century culture; critiques of technology, of capitalism, and of the modern university (to name a few).  What sets Henry’s analysis apart from similar accounts (e.g. Heidegger’s critique of technology), and forms the most noteworthy contribution of this work, is Henry’s conception of a “Galilean reduction.”  By this term, Henry intends the reduction of the subjective features of reality, those features which affect the human individual.  Let us take color as an example.  For the subjective individual, colors are always presented with an affective tonality:  a deep blue might resonate with sorrow, a yellow with ecstatic energy or motion.  Yet, for the Newtonian physicist, such tonalities are secondary epiphenomena, if they are are considered at all.  Within physics (the natural science par excellence) light is simply the vibration of photons.  In this way, color is stripped of its affective tonality, its meaning, and its value, and instead rendered as a quantifiable object.  Such an analysis is not intrinsically problematic, quite on the contrary, it is a necessary component of the natural science’s work.  The question put forward by Henry is, what are the consequences of this devaluation of reality once it is moved beyond the lab or the classroom, when science posits itself as the only valid form of knowledge?  As he writes:

“This is not in science in itself, which is entirely positive in the knowledge of nature that it defines through its procedures.  But, as we have sufficiently insisted, it is the belief that the Galilean science of nature is the only possible knowledge and the only real truth, such that there is no other reality, as true reality, besides the objects of this science.  As a result, the human being would only be real under these terms and all knowledge of the human being would only be a mode or a form of this single science.  Here an ideology–scientism and positivism–replaces science, but it is through this ideology that the world comes to be grasped as a scientific world.”

Such an analysis remains invaluable in the 21st century, as positivism continues to gain influence in public consciousness, technology develops at an astounding rate, capitalism continues to establish itself as the principal human reality, and the university increasingly devalues the human sciences.  While certainly these may not be intrinsically negative events, it is imperative that they are critically engaged and that their consequences are seriously considered.  In this way, Barbarism is a text as comfortably situated in the 21st century as it was in the 20th.