Archive | Philosophy

Phenomenology of Practice | Max van Manen

The cover of van Manen's Phenomenology of PracticePhenomenology is a philosophical tradition first described by Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). Phenomenology eschews post-event theorizing in an attempt to return ‘to the things themselves.’ Using a method called the reduction, phenomenologists bracket out all post-hoc interpretation and attempt to see the actual phenomenon in its prereflexive immediacy.

The philosophers that followed Husserl (Scheler, Stein, Heidegger, Patočka) expanded, challenged, and modified Husserl’s thought, giving it legs that in turn inspired existentialists like Sartre and de Beaurevoir and more language-based philosophers like Gadamer and Ricoeur. Still, phenomenology was first-and-foremost a philosophical way of understanding the world.

This changed in the early 1950s when various professional university faculties began to approach their own fields phenomenologically. Now psychology, pedagogy, medicine, and other fields were explored using phenomenological reduction.

Van Manen’s book is brilliant in a couple different ways. First, he offers an evocative look at the philosophy of phenomenology before transitioning to qualitative research methods. This grounds the reader in the right perspective from the start. Second, this book is a phenomenological text in itself. Van Manen writes evocatively, conveying a sense of wonder about the world.

Phenomenology of Practice is no simplistic follow-these-steps-and-produce-a-phenomenological-study guide. It’s far more valuable than that. This book will awaken the philosopher-researcher’s desire to do phenomenology both in an academic setting as well as in daily life.

Van Manen, Max. Phenomenology of Practice: Meaning-Giving Methods in Phenomenological Research and Writing. New York: Routledge, 2016.

The Christian Existentialist | Bernard Häring

The cover of Härings The Christian ExistentialistThis book made me nervous. While I have been formed intellectually by many themes of existentialism (see my review of The Committed Self), the existential emphasis on individualism is troublesome, theologically. The Christian is never a mere individual, but a member of an interdependent body with Christ at the head holding his body (along with the whole created order) together.

These four lectures, from one of the formulators of the ecumenism of Vatican II, quickly put my fears to rest. The very first lecture differentiates Personalism (Häring’s viewpoint) from mere Individualism. Individualistic existentialism embraced in various forms by Heidegger, Sartre, and de Beauvoir “aims at man’s stepping out of an anonymous existence and emerging from himself in true being-one’s own” (22). Fully developed personalism, on the other hand, portrays a person who steps out of anonymous existence as a mere functionary in a technological machine into communities of love where “he once again feels himself a man in the full sense of the word, i.e., he becomes a person” (9). This Personalism is fundamentally Christian: “a personalism of encounter and community in word and love” (11).

The second and third lectures discuss the intertwined ideas of morality, conscience and freedom. “The fully developed Christian conscience,” writes Häring, “is inseparable from a loving regard for one’s neighbor and a presence before God in faith and love” (57).

The final lecture, “A Christian Existentialism in the Perspective of Salvation History,” was a compelling exposition of the Christian virtue of prudence. The word prudence today is closely associated with the pejorative epithet “prude,” as in someone who has limited their freedom. Häring takes a richer view. Prudence is “the art of adapting our action to the redemptive actions of Christ within the whole history of salvation and in the context of a present salvific community.” Prudence is nothing less than an attentive alignment with the kairos of God’s pneumatic presence in the world.

Existentialism embraces a broad gamut of thought from Nietzsche to Buber. Häring shows that existentialism and Christianity not only fit together, they enable thoughtful Christians to reflect deeply on the their existence and responsibility before God.

Häring, Bernard. The Christian Existentialist: The Philosophy and Theology of Self-Fulfillment in Modern Society. The Deems Lectures. New York: New York University Press, 1968.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra | Friedrich Nietzsche

The cover of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke ZarathustraThus Spoke Zarathustra is a difficult book to read. In fact, literary critic like Harold Bloom called it “unreadable”! Why, then is it one of Nietzsche’s most famous works? Why is it reprinted generation after generation? What made it “the book of choice” (345) for German soldiers on the battlefield?

Zarathustra is the story of a man who leaves his contemplation to share his wisdom with the rest of humanity. The book contains eighty short chapters on various repetitive themes and ideas that have no logical order. This is not a carefully crafted philosophical argument—it is a collection of ideas thrown out to take root in people’s minds.

Three themes stand out above the rest:

  1. It was here that Nietzsche first claimed that God is dead.
  2. Humanity needs to evolve into the Superman (or Overman), a person beyond good and evil.
  3. The Superman embraces “eternal recurrence”(341) by taking ownership of everything that has happened and will happen again.

In Zarathustra, Nietzsche called on people to reject the moral claims of the religious and embrace the will to power. Nietzsche viewed Christianity as a religion of weakness (which, ironically, it is—God’s strength demonstrated in weakness).

Nietzsche’s desire to evolve beyond mere humanity to the Superman is a lonely task. In the end, Zarathustra leaves all his weak followers behind. There is no room for a community of Supermen—only a lone powermonger. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is no less than a manifesto for an anti-Christ.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and for No One. Translated by Thomas Common. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, 2012.

V for Vendetta | Alan Moore

The cover of Moore's V for VendettaWhat do you get when you cross a fascist totalitarian government with a masked anarchist with a penchant for revenge? V for Vendetta!

Moore and Lloyd first started publishing this comic series in Warrior comics in 1982, but the comic was cancelled before the series was finished. It wasn’t until 1988 that D.C. Comics convinced Moore and Lloyd to finish what they had started.

The story takes place in 1997, which was at that time 15 years in the future. After a nuclear war, the government of England assumed total power and kept its citizenry in check through it’s various agencies. At the centre of the regime sat their computer system, “fate,” which enabled them to maintain control. The dehumanizing nature of the regime was emphasized by their agencies which were named purely for their purpose: the propoganda department is called the “mouth,” the state police are called the “finger”.

V, the anti-hero of the tale, begins by taking out the state propaganda system and continues from there, setting people free from state control through violence. Believing that freedom can only be birthed out of chaos, V espouses the “do what thou wilt” philosophy of Alister Crowley.

V for Vendetta is a classic graphic novel for good reason. The story is as involved as any novel, and the dystopia feels all too real.

—Alan Moore and David Lloyd with Steve Whitaker and Sidbhan Dodds, V for Vendetta (New York: Vertigo, 2008).

The Committed Self | Victor A. Shepherd

The cover of Shepherd's The Committed SelfI was in over my head.

With a Bachelor in Theology under my belt, I entered Tyndale Seminary‘s M.Div. program eager to learn something new. I convinced the registrar to exempt me from some compulsory courses that overlapped my previous studies in order to replace them with electives. This is how I ended up in Victor Shepherd’s second year course, “Philosophy for understanding Theology” during my first year.

As mentally invigorating as the course was, I struggled the whole semester like a drowning man trying to keep his head above water! Philosophy is a triple challenge:

  1. First you have to understand the philosopher’s context. What is he reacting against? What personal, social, political, and economic forces are at play in his life? You can’t understand Kierkegaard without knowing a bit about Regina. You can’t grasp Sartre without understanding his radical resistance efforts during the war.
  2. Once you have context in hand, you need to understand the language. This in itself is a two-fold problem. First there’s the translation issue. Kierkegaard wrote in Danish, Nietzsche in German. Most of us read these philosophers in translation. Second, philosophers have a tendency to re-appropriate or create words only to invest them with their own technical meaning. From Heidegger’s Dasein to Buber’s I-Thou v. I-It, each philosopher uses language in a precise way that has to be learned before it’s understood.
  3. Finally, you have the philosopher’s actual philosophy that you have to untangle from popular misconceptions and sinister misuse. When Kierkegaard said truth is subjectivity, he did not mean that all truth is subjective (relative). When Nietzsche spoke of the will to power, he in no way had in mind the way the Nazis would misuse his work.

To make matters muddier, all three of these challenges must be learned concurrently since they all relate to each other. This is where Victor Shepherd’s book is so strong. He focuses on the existentialist movement in philosophy, specifically Hegel (not an Existentialist, but the direct background to which the existentialists would revolt), Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Buber, Heidegger, and Sartre. He takes time not just to explain the logic of each philosopher, but also to situate them in their context and explain their peculiar uses of language.

Although this is a book “for Christians,” the philosophers examined are both Christian, Jewish, and atheist. Shepherd treats each philosopher generously, seeking to understand how their thought (whether theistic or not) can challenge and inspire us as Christians.

I read this book fifteen years after my fledgling attempt at Shepherd’s philosophy course at Tyndale. I was surprised to see just how much of Shepherd’s interpretation of Existentialism I had absorbed. There were many moments during this book where I thought, “Ah, that’s why I think like that,” or, “That’s where that idea of mine came from.”

Philosophy is like Jazz. It may seem incomprehensible at first, but repeated encounters and attempts to enter the world yield rich results.

—Victor A. Shepherd, The Committed Self: An Introduction to Existentialism for Christians (Toronto, ON: BPS Books, 2015).

Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death | Søren Kierkegaard

The cover of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto DeathKierkegaard is the godfather of Existentialism. He relentlessly disposed of the elegant self-contained world of Hegel’s thesis→antithesis→synthesis and asserted that philosophy can only be done in fragments. Furthermore, because you can never stand outside any self-contained system of philosophy and view it as a whole, you need to throw yourself into it—commit yourself. In Christian terms, have faith.

This emphasis on commitment comes through in all of his writing. Take The Sickness Unto Death, for example. Kierkegaard spends a few pages dismantling the Socratic understanding of sin as ignorance. One big problem with this view is that:

It lacks a dialectical determinant for the transition from having understood something to the doing of it. (224)

If sin is ignorance, you can understand (the opposite of ignorance) the Socratic view of sin without doing anything about it. The true Christian view of sin, on the other hand, moves us past this inactivity:

The whole of Christianity hinges upon this, that it must be believed, not comprehended. (229)

And, of course, believing means committing. It’s this sort of commitment that forms the interpretive centre of Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death.

Fear and Trembling (1843)

The story of Abraham and Isaac is one of the most emotionally devastating passages in all of scripture. In Genesis 22, God told Abraham to take his promised Son, Isaac, and sacrifice him on Mount Moriah, a three day’s journey from home. Much ink has been spilled on this story, as James Goodman’s book, But Where is the Lamb attests. Yet no one has entered into the paradoxical nature of the story as deeply as Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard begins by imagining what that event must have been like. What went through Abraham’s mind on that three day journey to Mount Moriah? How did Isaac’s faith handle the ordeal? Kierkegaard imagines Abraham violently accosting Isaac saying, “Stupid boy, dost thou then suppose that I am thy father? I am an idolater. Dost thou suppose that this is God’s bidding? No, it is my desire” (27). Perhaps this, Kierkegaard reasons, may have rescued Isaac’s faith.

One of the challenges of reading Fear and Trembling is understanding Kierkegaard’s voice. He writes as Johannes de Silentio, a pseudonymous person who has passed through the aesthetic stage of life—that stage in which sensory experiences are the most important and has entered the ethical stage. In the ethical stage, the person acknowledges that there is a universal principle which at times overrules aesthetics. De Silentio has not, however, reached the religious stage which is only attained through faith. This makes the book that much more intriguing because the voice of de Silentio cannot comprehend Abraham’s action—this is something only a believer can grasp.

The believer embraces the paradox of Abraham’s choice. He believed two contradictory (from the ethical point of view) things:

  1. God gave him Isaac to fulfill his promise of future descendants.
  2. God asked him to sacrifice Isaac.

Abraham believed God “by virtue of the absurd.” He had faith despite the paradox:

What a tremendous paradox faith is, a paradox which is capable of transforming a murder into a holy act well-pleasing to God, a paradox which gives Isaac back to Abraham, which no thought can master, because faith begins precisely there where thinking leaves off. (64)

Kierkegaard doesn’t mean that faith is irrational. De Silentio has not made the existential leap which would allow him to grasp that act.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is difficult material to meditate on. It’s far easier to skip ahead to a gentler story. If you’re ready for your faith to be challenged by the weight of this story, Kierkegaard’s de Silentio is the best guide you’ll find.

The Sickness Unto Death (1849)

“This sickness is not unto death” (John 11:4), and yet Lazarus died. (144)

With these words Kierkegaard launches into an immensely insightful exploration of sin and human psychology. The book is divided into two parts:

  1. That despair is the sickness unto death
  2. Despair is sin

Kierkegaard’s study of despair is precise. He demonstrates how pervasive despair is and how it exhibits itself in various ways. On one side you have the despair of not willing to be oneself. On the alternate side there is defiant despair—the despair of being willing to be oneself. And despair is sin.

Here’s how Kierkegaard describes sin:

Sin is this: before God, or with the conception of God, to be in despair at not willing to be oneself, or in despair at willing to be oneself. Thus sin is potentiated weakness or potentiated defiance: sin is the potentiation of despair. (208)

Kierkegaard’s understanding of sin is wise. More than mere acts, sin is a state that a person is in. For as often as a person remains in that state, sin accrues to his or her account. Thus, despairing over your sin only adds to it. Despairing of forgiveness of sin—that which Christ offers— adds to sin. In the end, despairing of Christianity altogether is the ultimate sin which is “sin against the Holy Ghost” (255).

Reading Kierkegaard can be a challenge. It takes work to understand what he means by various words and to follow the subtlety of his logic. Kierkegaard, writing as Johannes de Silentio, suggested that there would come a day when people wouldn’t take the time to understand this sort of writing:

He can easily foresee his fate … in an age when an author who wants to have readers must take care to write in such a way that the book can easily be perused during the afternoon nap. (24)

Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death demand more than a casual read, but the rewards are proportionately great.

—Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death, Trans. Walter Lowrie (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1941).

The World Beyond Your Head | Matthew B. Crawford

The cover of Crawford's The World Beyond Your HeadBlame Kant.

That we are more distracted than ever is a truism. It is more difficult today to sustain focus on any one thing than ever before. The standard scapegoat for this distraction is technology. With text messages interrupting your flow and the incredible candy-like temptation of time-wasting games and social networking, what else can you expect?

Crawford agrees that we are more distracted than ever—and that technology plays a role in this. This prevents us from being real individuals. Under the onslaught of corporations whose goal it is to take our attention, we flit from thing to thing like everyone else. While we prize the Enlightenment’s gift of individuality, we cease to experience it in any meaningful way.

Rather than blame technology alone, Crawford sees it as a symptom of our real problem. The underlying issue is the influence of Kant’s understanding of the autonomous will. Here’s Crawford quoting Kant:

“Autonomy of the will is the property of the will through which it is a law to itself independently of all properties of the objects of volition,” Kant writes. “If the will seeks that which should determine it … in the constitution of any of its objects, then heteronomy always comes out of this.” In such a case “the will does not give itself the law but the object through its relation to the will gives the law to it.” Autonomy requires that we “abstract from all objects to this extent—they should be without any influence at all on the will so that [the will] may not merely administer an alien interest but may simply manifest its own sovereign authority as the supreme maker of the law.” (73)

Crawford’s disagreement with Kant on this point sets the agenda for the entire book. Kant (challenging the scientific determinism of his day) tried to maintain human free will by removing human will from the objects humans interact with. For Kant, we don’t deal with things, but with abstractions of things.

The World Beyond Your Head is a passionate, articulate, and philosophically astute book that argues for a direct re-engagement with actual things—not mere representations. He backs his argument up with examples from many different places—the world of high speed motorcycle racing, the fatalistic goals of slot machines, and even the tyranny of Micky’s Clubhouse.

The final chapter describes the author’s trip to George Taylor and John Boody’s organ making shop. These craftsmen know what its like to develop a skill in working with real objects that only come through years of apprenticeship and sustained attention. While they don’t disdain technology, their engagement with the real allows them to use it as a tool rather than to be mastered by it.

This is the best book, of any genre, that I have read in years. Crawford not only diagnoses our problem accurately, he offers inspiring solutions to the autonomous perils of our day.

—Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (Toronto: Allen Lane, 2015).

Plato at the Googleplex | Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

The cover of Goldstein's Plato at the GoogleplexPlato is the man. There is no greater figure in the history of Western thought and philosophy. While it’s true that Socrates lived and taught one generation prior to Plato, we know most of our information about Socrates through Plato’s eyes and writing.

In Plato at the Googleplex, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein imagines what it would be like if Plato was alive today. The chapters in her book alternate between essays about various elements of Plato’s thought (i.e. the role of virtue, the trilogy of the good, the true, and the beautiful, the meaning of Socrates’ death, etc.), and fictional scenarios where Plato is dropped into the modern world and responds.

In the title chapter, Plato is introduced to the internet. He also spends some time on a conservative radio show, debates parenting styles, challenges a neuroscientist as he prepares to undergo an FMRI, and even writes a relationship advice column.

This book is a fantastically informative and thought provoking read on the life and influence of Plato. Goldstein not only gives you information about Plato, she invites you to think through the ideas that he first thought.

My only nagging concern came from my background in studying Jesus. Just as many theologians end up painting a picture of Jesus that validates their own beliefs, I can’t help but wonder whether Goldstein did the same with Plato. (As Reza Aslan did with Muhammad) She paints him as the champion of secularism—basically an alternative to the religious worldviews that have dominated history until very recently in Western society. While its clear that Plato was a radical thinker, I can’t imagine that all of his references to the pantheon were purely rhetorical devices. I don’t think it’s possible for someone to be so removed from their milieu.

Plato just feels too at home in the 21st Century.

—Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex (New York: Pantheon Books, 2014).

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