Plurality and unity in the modes of wonder

The discussion of the phenomenology of religious feeling in the “DFW and All That” post took an interesting turn yesterday.  Albert Borgmann’s work on the philosophy of technology is important for our book, and his account of focal practices especially has been influential for both me and Bert, so I’m enormously grateful for his contribution in the comments.  He also expresses the hope that lots of people will read our book, which doubly endears him to me!  But most importantly he brings up a topic that I’ve been interested in for a long time, so let me take this opportunity to explore it.

Albert endorses the account I give of the phenomenology of religious feeling as it is found in Homer, but as a Christian he wants to give it a different name.  Instead of experiencing the presence of a god, Albert says, the Christian should describe it as the presence of grace.  I suspect there is a genuine phenomenology to this distinction – that it is not a distinction in name only – but I’m not entirely sure how to describe it.  Let me give it a shot.

I’m tempted to say that the phenomenological difference, if there is one, is that the feeling of grace has a certain kind of unity to it, whereas Homer’s Greeks experienced a plurality of distinct kinds of wonder and the gratitude that goes along with them.  This would certainly account for the distinction between Greek polytheism and Catholic monotheism.  But every time I try to imagine what this distinction is like at the level of phenomenology I lose track a little bit.  I guess you’d have to say that the Greeks really could feel a wonder that indicates the presence of Athena as opposed to one that indicates the presence of Ares or Poseidon.  You would have to say that these felt like wonders that share a family resemblance with one another, but that are recognizably distinct nevertheless.  By contrast, the presence of the grace of God would have to feel unified, as if all that is wonderful stems from a single source.  But surely there is a panoply of different kinds of wonder.  The wonder one feels in the presence of the pounding sea or the threatening storm clouds is just different from the wonder one feels at the moment one knows for sure how to go on in a tricky social situation, or the wonder one feels in the presence of heroic activity.  So the Catholic unity to all these must be somehow on top of their multiplicity, or riding behind it, or  holding them all together.  That’s quite a subtle phenomenon.  Moreover, this would have to be felt as a unity of source rather than a unity of resemblance.  The Greeks, after all, had Zeus at the head of their pantheon of gods, holding them together as a family (more or less).  But somehow their being was distinct from his, in a way not allowed by Christian monotheism.  A subtle distinction indeed.

It gets even more complicated in the Catholic tradition when you add the possibility of Saints to whom one can pray.  Presumably the Saints are not unified – each has his or her special domain.  So then there is the question of the relation between the kind of plural wonder one finds in this aspect of Catholicism and the kind one finds in its Homeric counterpart.  Suppose someone prays to Saint Anthony for the recovery of a lost thing, and then it shows up.  Does the feeling of astonishment and wonder in the presence of the found thing evoke gratitude both to Saint Anthony and also to the God in whom he shares?  Is this latter clause the difference between Catholic gratitude and Homeric?  Between the presence of grace and the presence of a god?

The book is predicated in part on the idea that the death of God is the death of this sense of the unity of all wonders.  Not that certain individuals can’t feel it, but that it is no longer a background assumption of the culture.  As Heidegger says in “The Question Concerning Technology,” this is the most extreme danger.  For it initiates the possibility that we will no longer experience ourselves as receptive beings at all.  (Long story about why.)  But if we get in the right relation to this danger, experience it as a danger, then it becomes a saving possibility as well.  For it reveals a genuine plurality of wonders that is even better than the plurality Homer’s Greeks experienced; a “new beginning” that is not the same as their “first beginning”.  For the Greeks the plurality of wonders came with a felt temptation to unity, a temptation they were eventually unable to resist.  But that temptation is now closed off with the death of God, so our saving possibility, if we take it up, will put us in a genuinely different place than the Greeks.  Anyhow, that’s the idea.  But the worry is that it’s based on a distinction that is too clever by half.  That’s as far as I’ve gotten so far…

About Sean D. Kelly

Sean Dorrance Kelly is the Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. He is also Faculty Dean at Dunster House, one of the twelve undergraduate Houses at Harvard. He served for six years as chair of Harvard's Department of Philosophy. Kelly earned an Sc.B. in Mathematics and Computer Science and an M.S. in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences from Brown University in 1989. After three years as a Ph.D. student in Logic and Methodology of Science, he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1998. Before arriving at Harvard in 2006, Kelly taught at Stanford and Princeton, and he was a Visiting Professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Sean Kelly's work focuses on various aspects of the philosophical, phenomenological, and cognitive neuroscientific nature of human experience. He is a world authority on 20th century European Philosophy, specializing in the work of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He has also done influential work in philosophy of mind and philosophy of perception. Kelly has published articles in numerous journals and anthologies and he has received fellowships or awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEH, the NSF and the James S. McDonnell Foundation, among others. Fun fact: He appeared on The Colbert Show in 2011 to talk about All Things Shining. Sean Kelly lives at Dunster House with his wife, the Harvard Philosopher Cheryl Kelly Chen, and their two boys, Benjamin and Nathaniel.
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4 Responses to Plurality and unity in the modes of wonder

  1. Doug says:

    Background: I recently listened to the first few lectures of Prof Dreyus’ Phil 6 class and was intrigued by the idea that Athena changes Telemachus’ world so he can see what he needs to do. This contrast’s with a modern psychological view that would ascribe such a change to something happening inside Telemachus’ mind. This caught my attention becuase I am a Catholic lay Dominican who is trying to learn to preach. The model we use for preaching in our group is to read the scripture passages, make an interpretation about “what is God doing that humans cannot do for themselves”, then use stories, etc from our community’s life to show how God is acting today.

    I have a hard time seeing how God is acting today – due in part to my modern world view. I am an engineer by profession and more easily attribute any event to a “natural” cause (psychology) rather than a “supernatural” cause (God). So Prof. Dreyfus’ explanation, using Heideggerian phenomenology, might be a way for me to start to see the world differently.

    Main point: Prof. Kelly’s comment parallel my thoughts above. But I did not assume there is a phenomenological difference between what Homer attributes to the gods and I, or any Catholic, attribute to God. Why can’t it just be a difference in culture that causes a people to attribute the same phenomenon to different gods? Albert Borgmann says “I would see the presence of grace where Homer sees the presence of a god.” Pretty simple. Prof Kelly makes it unnecessarliy complicated.

    An ancient Greek finds a lost object and is grateful to Artemis (the hunter…right? Well, let’s just go with that for arguement’s sake), while a Catholic finds a lost object and is grateful to St. Anthony, while a secular person finds a lost object, thinks he lucked out and is grateful to no one. The same phenomenon but different attribution.

    The culture affects how we experience equipment (eg The Gods Must Be Crazy). So culture can also affect how we experience finding things and the associated gratitude.

    Another problem is getting the Greek, the Catholic and the secularist to describe their experience in culture neutral ways. That’s probably impossible. So if it is impossible to say that the “finding a lost object” experience is the same for each, then it is equally impossible for Prof Kelly to talk about a phenomenological difference. (But now I’m the one who is making things unnecessarily complicated).

  2. Albert Borgmann says:

    In the Letter on Humanism Heidegger says: “Only from within the truth of being is it possible to comprehend the nature of the sacred. Only from within the nature of the sacred is it possible to comprehend the nature of divinity. Only in the light of the nature of divinity is it possible to comprehend and to say what the word ‘God’ is to name.”
    The truth of being is that the gods have fled (Hölderlin), that all that is sacred has been profaned (Marx and Engels), that the world has been disenchanted (Max Weber), that God has been eclipsed (Martin Buber), and that we live in a secular age (Charles Taylor). To say that God is dead (Nietzsche) seems a little tendentious to me.
    To be able to live lives truly worth living we must acknowledge this condition and try to rediscover the sacred. This is the most important step, promising in some ways because even atheists like Steven Weinberg, Daniel Dennett, and the later John Rawls (an agnostic perhaps) acknowledge the sacred, difficult in other ways because of naturalist philosophers who’ll have none of it and religious people who have the metaphysical perversion of it. At the level of the sacred Doug, I think, is right—the presence of a god and the presence of grace are the same thing.
    But the sacred so conceived is ambiguous as well, and All Things Shining rightly, it seems to me, resolves the ambiguities of the sacred and of divinity though in a way where, here I agree with Sean, there is a difference at the end (Heidegger earlier in the Letter doesn’t take sides, allowing both for the “existence of God” or God’s nonexistence and “the possibility or impossibility of gods”). The difference has been unduly sharpened by metaphysics. The sacred has a broad scope in the gospels where parables, e.g., are not just fungible vehicles of theology, but the invocation of the richness of divinity (though there is some metaphysics in the gospels already).
    The ultimate resolution of the sacred and of divinity is a subtle and unusual task, and Sean’s careful kind of phenomenology, I would say, is the right kind of approach. In that spirit let me add that, yes, there is that unity of experience, enriched, perhaps, by a postmetaphysical awareness of divinity. But combined with that sense of unity there is also one of universality and penultimacy. Say you’re blessed by the presence of Poseidon on the north shore of Oahu. As a Christian you cannot forget what Poseidon is already doing to the Marshall Islands and will soon be doing to Bangladesh and that it’s not really Poseidon who is doing all this but our thoughtlessness and that, given this background of injuries and sufferings, unreserved surrender to the beauty and power of the moment is unwarranted and would have to yield to melancholy were it not for the promise of salvation.
    Sean is right (and supported by the thinkers I mentioned) that these background sentiments fail to be universal if by that we mean “background assumption of the culture.” Hence the ultimate step of Heidegger’s ascent cannot count on that assumption. It’s probably part of the secular age that at stage of final resolution discourse doesn’t stop, but demonstration does. Talking must finally yield to walking.

  3. M. Heidegger says:

    Sacred is nothing more than preservation of the practices that are set by the gods. When the gods are changed, what was once sacred could become profane. This is because a new set of practices must be maintained for the transcendence of Dasein. Gods provide the resonant frequency of a period of transcendence to which all the elements of Dasein, which is Dasein, must necessarily synchronize with their own frequencies. Frequency is a ratio of space and time, which therefore is a relationship between being and caring. Gods bring us closer to our being, which is god’s being, by showing us our cares.

    When a new god is needed, a clearing is established upon which Dasein projects a god. That god projects our new cares, which we absorb. Then we project our cares to bring closer our wonders which we absorb. In the absorption, wonders become unified in being. When they become one with Dasein the wonderment is dead; and when that happens, then the god must die. Poseidon died when we began to understand large bodies of water.

    Note: The god that “rules the day” is known to Dasein prior to that god’s entrance into the clearing.

    Also, my apologies for making these posts less detailed than they should be. I hardly have enough energy to write on this blog, as I am working on the new book which is a major evolution of all the prior work. I also am directing my comments to scholars who should be sophisticated enough to fill in what I have not stated.

  4. M. Heidegger says:

    All this theism has me worried that there are too many people still trapped in Cartesianism at best and occultism at worst. There is no way that a true Heideggerian would believe in the existence of God in the religious sense. The idea of an entity generating the world and everything in it is buying into Descartes subject/object philosophy.

    Furthermore, if you understand the later work, and understand the role of a god, then one can see how god/s and dying are related. A god transcends a world and the Dasein within it. As transcendence occurs, revelation takes place in the clearing that is set for a god/s to appear. These revelations become familiar and wonder occurs less frequently. During this whole period a new god or gods are born. They are projected by the old god/s. The new god/s kill/s the old god/s, and the cycle repeats. It is in the dying of the god/s, which begin/s at the first appearance of that/those god/s, that comports all Dasein towards caring and coping. (Always remember that what Dasein cares about most is itself.)

    During this whole time the god/s never get/s realized, because by the time Dasein gets close to being godlike, a new god has taken over. God is the future projection of Dasein. It is a preconceived future Dasein, that is known before it occupies the present. God/s die/s only to find itself/themselves as Dasein looking towards the new god/s for its/their transcendence. Dasein always seeks to be itself.

    That’s all that I feel like writing right now. I am tired and need some rest. I will either make this more clear tomorrow, if I decide to even bother with this site.

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