Gratitude and the Sacred

I have been reading, and re-reading, a long e-mail that Charles Spinosa sent to me a couple of weeks ago.  It followed on a conversation that we had a few weeks before that, when he visited Cambridge with his family.  Charles has given me permission to quote from the e-mail and it is so interesting, and also so beautifully written, that I will definitely do that at some point.  But today I’d just like to put its main issue on the table.

The issue is the experience of the divine.  Or maybe the experience of the sacred – I’m not entirely sure I understand the difference.  In the book Bert and I argue that the phenomenology of the sacred can manifest itself in a variety of different moods:  for the Homeric Greeks it included a kind of wonder and amazement at everything that is; for Jesus it included an all-encompassing agapic love for everyone and everything; for Dante it involved the transcendent bliss of a beatific vision; for Luther it had at its center an overwhelming joy that one can feel here on earth; for Kierkegaard a passionate sense of defining commitment.  And so on.  These are not all the same experience by any stretch of the imagination, and that is (one aspect of) the truth of Heidegger’s epochal account of the history of being.  The moods that ground the way a life can matter are distinct from epoch to epoch, and so ground distinct modes of existence.  But the practices for each of these moods remain somewhere in the margins of our culture, waiting to be re-vivified and re-appropriated, and we feel called to reveal them in whatever (transformed) way is possible in our secular age.

But we also say in the book that there is something that seems to run through each of these moods, that connects them and makes them all aspects of the sacred.  That is the gratitude one feels in their presence.  One simply cannot feel the Homeric mood of wonder and amazement at everything that is, for example, without also being taken over by a sense of gratitude.  Gratitude that the world rises up before you in this wonderful and amazing way.  Homer is full of this kind of gratitude, but each of the other epochs has its version as well.

Gratitude is the mood that seems most lacking in the secular age.  When something amazing or wonderful or joyful or passionate or otherwise meaningful and mattering happens to us nowadays, we are more likely to think that luck or chance was at work than to feel a sense of gratitude.  Gratitude, after all, naturally comes as gratitude towards someone or something, and in a culture that (in general, though not of course in many individual cases) has rejected the idea of a divine being who stands as the ground to everything that is, such a mood seems inappropriate.

This lack of a sense of gratitude, this loss of touch with the overwhelming sense of gratefulness that one feels in the presence of something wonderful or joyful or otherwise deeply meaningful and worth caring about, is the central danger of our age, according to Heidegger.  And this danger is related to our cultural rejection of a divine entity that stands as the ground for everything that is.  But this danger is a saving possibility as well.  A possibility available to us now for the very first time in the history of the West.

The new possibility arises out of our cultural rejection of an entity that stands as the ground of being.  For there is a danger in assimilating the ground of being to a being, a danger to which all those epochs before us in the history of the West have succumbed.  It is the danger of failing to recognize the ontological difference, of failing to recognize, in other words, that whatever it is in virtue of which things are what they are – wonderful, lovable, blissful, joyful, and so on – whatever it is on the basis of which these aspects of things are available to us is not itself another entity.  Failing to recognize this is dangerous because when one fails to appreciate the distinction between entities and the basis upon which they are what they are, one is naturally drawn to ask about the ground of being, or in other words about being itself, the kinds of questions one asks about beings:  questions like, “Does it last forever?” “Is it infinitely powerful?” “In what sense is it omniscient?”  And so on.  But these are simply the wrong kinds of questions to ask about being.  For being is just whatever it is on the basis of which things are revealed as wonderful, joyful, amazing, and so forth.  And among other things this basis consists in the cultural moods of wonder, joy, amazement, and so on that are focused in the practices of a culture by works of art or focal activities.  To think that these cultural moods – and the practices that focus them, articulate them, and reinforce them – are themselves entities is to make a category mistake.  But it is a dangerous category mistake.  By placing the power of being into an entity entirely distinct from us, it covers up our own responsibility to care for and cultivate the practices in which these cultural moods are manifest.

That brings us back to the mood of gratitude.  The issue that Charles and I are discussing is whether one can feel gratitude without feeling it as gratitude towards someone or something.  I think you can and that you ought to hold onto this possibility.  Charles thinks that one sometimes does, if I understand him correctly, but that this is a weaker and less impressive experience of the divine.  We can hope for more.

The disagreement, then, is partly about the phenomenology itself but partly also about what matters in it.  In the basic case of the gratitude one feels in the presence of things revealed as wonderful, for example, it is hard for me to see what it adds to say that the gratitude is experienced as directed toward some entity.  The phenomenon of gratitude as I experience it in these instances is deep and abiding, and it is gratitude for something that feels as though it was given to me rather than produced by me.  But to say that it feels as though it was given to me by someone or something seems to me to be adding something more, and I’m not sure what aspect of the phenomenon this more picks out. But moreover, I think this is a good position to be in, rather than something to be bemoaned.

The phenomenon that is therefore at the center of the book that Bert and I have written is the gratitude one feels in the presence of a gift without a giver.  This is what I think Heidegger means when he starts talking about Ereignis as a sending, but steadfastly refuses to talk about it as if it were sent from someone or something.  And holding onto this aspect of the phenomenology is possible for the first time now in the history of the West.  If we can recover the wonder and joy and amazement and all the other mattering cultural moods while at the same time feeling no inclination to find their source in a divine entity completely outside of us, then we will have the chance for a “new beginning” that has all the advantages of the “first beginning” in Homeric Greece, without the inherent tendency to devolve into nihilism, emptiness, and stomach-level loss.  At least that’s the idea.

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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10 Responses to Gratitude and the Sacred

  1. Chris Hoover says:

    Sean Kelly,

    Could you perhaps elaborate the following two statements: 1) “By placing the power of being into an entity entirely distinct from us, it covers up our own responsibility to care for and cultivate the practices in which these cultural moods are manifest.”

    and 2) that the gratitude you, Sean Kelly, experience “is gratitude for something that feels as though it was given to [you] rather than produced by [you].”

    For context, I have read little Heidegger and am perhaps still bound to the subject/object framework, so maybe that is part of my confusion. But to explain my question, I’m wondering if you are suggesting that, roughly, being is up to us. If that is sort of on target, then that is where I see statements 1 and 2 conflict.

    If our cultural moods are part of the basis of being, to what sense can gratitude be anything but self-gratitude? That is something I don’t want to say and I’m not sure you do either. I agree with both points you make and statement 2 (coupled with the idea that there is no divine entity on the other end of the transaction) certainly hits home with me. So this is not so much a critique as it is a hope that you can explain something I myself can’t.

    Thanks for your time.

  2. Daniel says:

    I could feel guilty or fearful for not expressing gratitude towards the giver. A giver might take the gift away, if I do not express gratitude. If there is no giver, then there is no urgency for me to express gratitude.

    Gabriel Marcel discussed losing the gift in The Mystery of Being. “[…] I cannot even be certain that I may not make myself unworthy of the gift, so unworthy that I should be condemned to losing it […]”.

  3. Britt Z. says:

    Sean, when you write:

    “If we can recover the wonder and joy and amazement and all the other mattering cultural moods while at the same time feeling no inclination to find their source in a divine entity completely outside of us, then we will have the chance for a “new beginning” that has all the advantages of the “first beginning” in Homeric Greece, without the inherent tendency to devolve into nihilism, emptiness, and stomach-level loss. At least that’s the idea.”

    I begin to worry….

    In “Early Greek Thinking,” Heidegger asks what if the earliest surpassed the latest in a historical Wiederholung (the greatest danger becomes the site of the saving power) (18). In answering this “what if,” he writes:

    “What once occurred in the dawn of our destiny would then come, as what once occurred, at the last, that is at the departure of the long hidden destiny of being. The being of beings is gathered [logos] in the ultimacy of its destiny. The essence of being hitherto disappears, its truth still veiled. The history of being is gathered in this departure. The gathering in this departure, as the gathering at the outermost point [eschaton] of its essence hitherto, is the eschatology of being. As something fateful being is inherently eschatological.
    However, in the phrase ‘eschatology of being’ we do not understand the term ‘eschatology’ as the name of a theological or philosophical discipline. We think of eschatology of being in a way corresponding to the way the phenomenology of spirit is to be thought, i.e. from within the history of being. The phenomenology of spirit itself constitutes a phrase in eschatology of being, when being gathers itself in the ultimacy of its essence, hitherto determined through metaphysics, as the absolute subjectivity of the unconditioned will.
    If we think within the eschatology of being, then we must someday anticipate the former dawn in the dawn to come; today we must learn to ponder this former dawn through what is imminent” (18).

    So we can see the true difference between Hegel & Heidegger: Hegel’s history is a teleology and Heidegger’s history is an eschatology. However, metaphysics definitely begins to creep into Heidegger’s eschatology (teleology and theology are still lurking about, closer than he thinks) when he begins to discuss and hint at destiny, salvation, and the imminent. He holds the play from “The Principle of Reason” in check (this check being the very aim or goal of metaphysics); it embodies a gathered unity of destination, or destiny, and is too reassuring. The supposed difference between Heidegger and Hegel is highly diminished, as both deploy an organizing principal — whether the beginning overtakes and ends the end or the end fulfills the beginning thus putting an end to the beginning; it’s still a limiting/guiding structure. The beginning is not repeated, just metaphysics.
    To summarize, if you and Bert desire the notion of a gift without a giver, which resembles a bestowing from the play of forces, but you use this aspect of Heidegger, in which play is restricted with a sense of destiny, then you have to answer who or what organized this historical sending, this destiny, so perfectly, thus ruining or heavily damaging your prospects of achieving that aim. Heidegger’s eschatology also seems burdening, where as you and Bert, it seems, want to discuss wonder and joy, which involves a level of playfulness. Hopefully, this further explains my worries in the “Geschick” entry. Heidegger just seems to get the tails of his coat stuck in the door, especially with his “eschatology.” However, a different Heidegger emerges in “PR,” he frees himself a great deal from the clutches of metaphysics.


  4. Britt Z. says:

    Also, his talk of “spirit” from the selection is not very encouraging.

  5. David Leech says:

    I think that you and Professor Dreyfus are on one facet of what Taylor calls the unquiet frontiers of (post) modernity and folks like Taylor, Borgmann, and maybe Spinosa (other than Discovering New Worlds, I don’t know his work), are on another facet of that frontier. I’ll bet the frontier of the future will come in part from a merging of these facets.

    You and Dreyfus (I surmise), and people like me, come at the issue of uncovering meaningful differences from a secular intuition. For us, your analysis of attunements to gifts without a giver is going to be powerful and insightful. But people like Taylor and Borgmann (and maybe Spinosa) come from a perspective where “the giver” is important, if only as the common intuition of a community of what Taylor (following Wuthnow) calls “pilgrim seekers” who re-interpret what Dreyfus would call marginal practices for a meaningful life in a technological age (Taylor’s Age of Authenticity, p. 532-33).

    Importantly, both groups are after something similar; both seek a new god or things thinging (shinning?) as a source of meaningful differences in a post-technological age, a new epoch. Both are open to the possibility of a new epoch. They are receptive to the saving power within the danger.

    The community of pilgrim seekers to which I presume Taylor and Borgamann belong feel that their “giver-focused” community permits some degree of easier access to things shinning than the more secular among us. (Borgmann, Power Failure, pp. 125-126.) I think this might be right. While “institutions” that facilitate a new kind of gathering may be appearing — this blog, Ruspoli’s movie venues, Kelly’s and Dreyfus’ lectures, All Things Shining book parties — there are in short supply relative to the historical “infrastructure” of gift-giver venues.

    I see young people — of the next generation (post-Taylor’s cultural revolution generation to which I belong) — raised in both “giver” and “giverless” mini-cultures forging relationships NOT on the basis of their different intuitions about the being of a giver but rather on the basis of a shared intuition that there is something missing, something meaningless, in the dominate culture.

    I think its really exciting to see this issue being tackled by Kelly and Spinosa.

  6. M. Heidegger says:

    Gratitude is the feeling Dasein gets when it is allowed to make meaning of itself. Ironically by being closest to itself, it is furthest from itself. So every now and then, Dasein loses touch with itself and thus loses its sensibility of its self. Whenever Dasein regains its track on itself, it thanks itself. Nothing can be worse than losing what is most important to one’s self, which for Dasein, it is Dasein.

    What is most important to you? How thankful would you be if you could recover that thing?

  7. Michael P says:

    I apologize if this comment is out of place and uninformed, as I am not a philosophical professional and have never read Heidegger. So, sorry in advance. But I read this post and wonder if entity-directed gratitude has an advantage over the detached gratitude that isn’t being mentioned.

    When one feels gratitude to another person, that gratitude often serves to give one a reason to act in a certain way towards that person. Suppose, for example, that my best friend gives me a gift. How do I react to this gift? Emotionally, I feel a sense of gratitude. But I also now have reasons to act in a different way. My gratitude towards my friend gives me a reason to give her a gift back. It gives me a reason to do her favors, out of a feeling of indebtedness. My gratitude gives me a good reason to act in various ways that will deepen our relationship.

    To put this back into the context of the Divine, when one feels gratitude towards the Divine one is not only filled with a certain emotion, but rather one has reasons to act in various ways, out of a feeling of gratitude to the gift-giver. Now, in the case of my best friend my gratitude gives me a reason to fulfill some of my friend’s desires. Something similar is possible with the Divine, however, since religious traditions provide believers with teachings that transmit God’s desires. So a feeling of gratitude towards the Divine might lead one to bring sacrifices, attend Church more often, burn Korans, or donate to charity; it all depends what one believes the Divine desires.

    Whether the possibility of being spurred onto action by Divine gratitude is a positive or a negative is a different debate, but I do think that it’s quite different from a detached, entity-less gratitude.

    This might all be besides the point, since I suppose what your post was asking was whether the phenomenology of gratitude is different when it’s entity-directed or detached, and I’m not sure whether the experience of “having a reason to act” counts as part of a phenomenological state, since I know nothing about phenomenology.

  8. dmf says:

    ” it is gratitude for something that feels as though it was given to me rather than produced by me”
    seems connected to our use of the term ‘gifted’ in relation to talents, for example a song writer may have the feeling of being given a melody or a novelist a character’s voice but there is no need to take such a feeling literally/concretely (with an enactivist sense of human-being this of course has wider implications than these examples), elsewhere in discussions of the likely evolution of religious attitudes people have noted our tendencies to project/personify (and the folk/gossip-world being our primary socialization into most of our human/animal faiths in the world), such that say an experience of natural beauty may feel like a gift. To priviledge experiences with a Giver (watchmaker?) seems to be an added bit of moralizing/preaching (perhaps after Tillich?) not found in the phenomenology.

  9. says:

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