But then again I sometimes think the opposite

Yesterday I wrote a long post.  The main goal of the post was to articulate a core aspect of the phenomenology of the sacred that I believe runs through the various epochs in the history of the West.  The central feature of this phenomenology is that it involves a sense of gratitude for something felt to have authority outside oneself, something on the basis of which everything is felt to matter in whatever way it does.  But this gratitude is essentially objectless.  Indeed, I suggested, it is a metaphysical mistake to feel this gratitude to be directed toward an entity that grounds the way things matter – a mistake that leads (or anyhow has led) to our current nihilistic age.  Fortunately, I said, echoing some aspect of what Heidegger sometimes says, our technological age has the chance at a new beginning.  For the first time in the history of the West our gratitude – if we can recover it – will feel no temptation to direct itself toward an object.    We can regain touch with a way things matter – indeed with many ways things matter – without setting up an imminent fall.

That was yesterday.

Today I’d like to say something else.

It’s not that I don’t really believe all those things about the gift without a giver.  I do.  And in some ways they are the first and most natural things I believe.  As a matter of personal history, which may help to explain the issues, I can say that I come to this belief through my focus on Merleau-Ponty.  When Merleau-Ponty talks about motor intentionality – about the way the world is given to me in my most absorbed kind of skillful activities – it is very important to his view (as I understand it) that the situation calls me directly to act without there being an object or entity that does the calling.  The world, at this level, is a world of situational forces or powers and I am a direct openness to them.  To turn the world into a world of objects, or to turn me into a subject directed towards them, is to cover up and eventually vitiate the structure of worldly calls and bodily opennesses.  But since this is the most basic way in which things can matter, such a cover up leads to nihilism as well.

That said, I sometimes think exactly the opposite.  That is to say, there is another tradition I am influenced by, and which I’m sure has something right, that emphasizes the importance of the bodily presence of an entity in establishing a mood by means of which the world can matter.  As far as I can tell, this is not just a small lacuna in the position.  It is a glaring contradiction.  Maybe it is a useful contradiction.  Maybe, as Melville says, the most important things are never complete or completable.  But in any case there’s no use covering it up.  For I’m quite sure this contradiction runs through the book as well.

Let us take the central case.  A crucial fact of  Christianity, and something that we argue renders it simply irreconcilable with any kind of Greek philosophy, is that Jesus was the incarnation of God.  The bodily incarnation.  And furthermore, Christianity claims, this incarnation is one of the central aspects of who God is.  God is, and has to be, incarnated in the Christian tradition.  Now, if there were no phenomenology behind this claim – that’s to say if it didn’t accurately reflect some aspect of the phenomena we can grab hold of by thinking about how cultures and our own individual histories work – then I wouldn’t take the claim so seriously.  But one goal of the book is to ground this claim in the phenomena.  In particular, we argue that the Christian idea of three persons in one God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the Christian case – is actually a reflection of the three aspects of a work of art that can ground the meanings of a culture.  The work of art needs background practices already manifest in the culture (the Father), it needs a particular embodied presence to reorganize those practices (the Son), and it needs articulators to interpret and bring out the aspects of that reorganization (the Holy Spirit as it speaks through folks like Paul, John, and others).  Heidegger works out (something like) this threefold structure in the case of the Greek temple, and Bert has explored it elsewhere in some of his other work.  But the argument in the book is that the Christian tradition has the tripartite structure of the work of art built right into its conception of God.  And that this is one of the ways in which it captures something that the Greek philosophical tradition couldn’t manage.

Now, this story that emphasizes the importance of an embodied presence seems to stand in direct conflict with the claim that the gratitude we are called to feel has, properly speaking, no object.  There is a question, of course, what role the incarnation plays.  But in the work of art story it is a pretty substantial one.  Without Jesus as the bodily manifestation of the public mood of agape love, for example, there would be nobody from whom to catch the mood, and so Christianity couldn’t get a foothold in the lived world.  One thing Christianity has right on this view, therefore, is that these kinds of public moods, which can really instantiate a way the world matters, have to be manifest in particular individuals.  (Dostoevsky seems to get this in his de-mythologized version of apostolic succession in The Brothers Karamazov.  Alyosha’s bodily presence allows others – like Grushenka and the boys – to catch his mood.)  But if the incarnation – the bodily presence – is so important to how the phenomena of mattering work, then how can we say that the gratitude we feel in the face of a world that matters is felt for a gift that comes without a giver?  That is the central conflict in the position.

There is something to be said about how Jesus, or Alyosha, as the manifestation of a public mood that others can catch, is not properly thought of as an object or entity.  So if one feels gratitude towards them, perhaps it is not gratitude towards them as a thing or entity.  The same might be said for Heidegger’s Greek temple.  Whatever the ontological status of these bodily incarnations, they are not properly assimilable to other kinds of things.  But they are bodily incarnations nevertheless, and it seems to be crucial to the way they work that they be this way.  Furthermore, this focus on the importance of the body traces back to Merleau-Ponty in an obvious way as well.  So if the gratitude we properly feel is objectless, then what are we to make of the idea that the “source” (this must be the wrong word!) of the mattering is necessarily instantiated in the world?


That’s where I’ve gotten today.

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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9 Responses to But then again I sometimes think the opposite

  1. laurence MCM says:

    Dr Kelly,
    Like I suspect many other hidden entities surrounding this blog, I have been following it with great enthusiasm. I do not have any kind of recognisable background in philosophy, but my career in architecture has drawn me to the field of phenomenology and I have been a grateful recipient of the many online resources available. In particular the lectures and writings provided by Prof. Dreyfus has been immensely helpful in consolidating my “spare time” readings of Heidegger, and for this I have been intending to extend my gratitude to him, although my fear of further clogging up his undoubtedly bloated inbox has so far prevented me from doing so. That being said I would like to take this opportunity to thank you and your colleagues for the accessibility of your work, and of course its beautifully rewarding content.

    While reading your post of 14th Sept. entitled Gratitude and the Sacred, I was overcome by one of those rare moments of illumination where many vaguely formed thoughts are brought into clarity. I often follow a comment board here in the UK on the Guardian newspaper website, which regularly features articles related to religious belief. These articles are without fail bombarded with Dawkinesque atheists wishing to mock any form of non-scientific belief. In their desire to rid the world of “irrational” superstition, they also carry an implicit desire to rid the world of any profound sense of gratitude for our being-in-the-world. This for me is the most pernicious form of nihilism, against which your post and forthcoming book will provide me with some valuable counter-measures to their certitudes.

    But my beef with these people is a digression..

    I found your follow up post of 15th Sept. less immediately illuminating as you throw so much into doubt, but because of this it is much more intriguing and it has inspired me to break my own silence and offer the following thoughts in response:

    The conflict/contradiction you identify is between the notion of having a gift for which gratitude is shown towards no particular entity, and a gift for which gratitude is shown towards some particular entity. In the first case the gratitude is supposedly “objectless”, and in the second case the gratitude has a discernable “object”. It seems to me that your concern over this is rooted in a confusion arising from an assumption that there must be a giver distinct from the gift. Whether of not this giver is present to us in some way is the conflict. I would argue that in leading yourself down this path you are in danger of forgetting the phenomenon itself. A sense of gratitude is always directed towards something; there is no possibility of an objectless gratitude, in the same way that there is no possibility of an objectless sight. Gratitude therefore is always instantiated in the world, and more specifically it is instantiated with the gift itself. In seeking out the ground for the gift as some kind of giver you seem to be overlooking the gift itself. Would it not be more phenomenologically truthful
    to understand the gift as that which gives itself, rather than as that which has been given by some unknown something? Is it right to ask for an objectless ground for gratitude, when that ground can clearly be found within the giveness of the gift itself?

    I think the reason Heidegger refuses to talk in terms of a giver, but only in terms of giveness, is because he recognised this way of understanding as being integral to the metaphysical tradition. The assumption that there must be a ground beyond or behind the things themselves is contrary to his philosophy. Gratitude for Heidegger is by virtue of the givenness of the gift. Likewise for Merleau-Ponty’s notion of motor-intentionality the calling of the situation is embodied within the worldliness of the situation itself. I think you are right to say that for Merleau-Ponty there is no object or entity that does the calling, only if by this you mean beyond the objects and entities of the given situation.

    Your correspondance with Spinosa is obviously crucial here and I would look forward to seeing this to further my own understanding.
    Once again my gratefulness to you as both giver and gift is unbounded.

  2. Britt Z. says:

    This is really getting interesting! What about the earth aspect of the work? Aren’t we led astray when we focus on presence, on the bodily incarnation? Like you say, the worst mistake takes place when gratitude is aimed at the entity/object. Its role is to keep the clearing open; it doesn’t give us the clearing. Doesn’t Heidegger want to call us back to the earth, that which is mysterious, self-concealing, resisting our attempts at representation? I’m thinking of a few lines from “The Way Back into the Ground of Metaphysics”:

    “The tree of philosophy grows out of the soil in which metaphysics is rooted. The ground is the element in which the root of the tree lives, but the growth of the tree is never able to absorb the soil in such a way that it disappears in the tree as part of the tree. …Philosophy does not concentrate on the ground. It always leaves its ground — leaves it by means of metaphysics. And yet it never escapes that ground” (266).

    If we think of the epochs as sprouts, emerging from the soil, the earth, a physis-like emergence, then it is our duty to recognize, cultivate, and care for the sprout, making it shine for all to see. Through cultivation and care, we bring-forth the fragile plant from sprout to flower. It is a poeitic creation, nothing we produced but aided in its manifestation . We can articulate this unfolding differently by various methods, pruning leaves etc, as we attempt to get it clear. It was something given by the ground, the earth; however, if we focus too much on the presence of the flower, the ground, that which gives and nourishes, becomes forgotten. We end up placing our gratitude in the entity embodying presence — a clear mistake. Our gratitude should be aimed at the anonymous “it,” in this case the earth. Why does the earth nourish some seeds and not others? It’s something mysterious. In the history of the West, we have misplaced our gratitude. The flower will linger for awhile and eventually die, the world and epoch with it, but the soil will continue to give. The danger of current epoch is the way we cultivate by challenging-forth, manipulating and destroying the earth; the way we destroy the mysterious.

    Concluding, we’re grateful for the sending of being, a gift we attempt to articulate and preserve, and we should only give sincere gratitude to the withdrawing, anonymous “it” which gives, not to what has been sent…


  3. M. Heidegger says:

    Time to reread Being in Time and immerse yourself in Dreyfus podcasts, lol.

    Being occurs only in time. So the Father, Son and Holy Ghost must necessarily have temporal designations. The Father is the past. the Son is the present, and the Holy Ghost is the future. The same holds true for art. The transcending culture has three components, all of which are temporal. There is the preservation, the trend and the emerging trend. The son always looks towards the father and sees what is familiar, which is himself. The son is a projection of the father who will absorb the projection of the son which will produce the transcendence, which in reality won’t be the Holy Ghost, but the grandson. I could tell you more, but you will have to wait for my new book.

  4. JSE says:

    And furthermore, Christianity claims, this incarnation is one of the central aspects of who God is. God is, and has to be, incarnated in the Christian tradition.

    But not in the Jewish tradition, of which the Christian tradition is a revision. Jewish law demands lots of ritual expressions of gratitude. These are not to be thought of as objectless — there is a God, who is an actual entity — but it’s kind of important that God is not incarnate. In Jewish tradition, God is not only not embodied but doesn’t, except in historical times, intervene in the physical world at all.

    So I guess I don’t think you need a bodily incarnated divine entity in order to get this contradiction started. Surely we are not to see Jewish prayers as objectless just because their object is, by its nature, impossible to manifest in physical form.

  5. M. Heidegger says:

    Physical anything has to exist in space, and we all know that space belongs to caring. We also know that Dasein only cares about itself. So, what Dasein seeks in space is Dasein, which it always wants to bring closer to itself, and thus comports itself towards this end. When a deity appears for Dasein, that deity is the self that Dasein seeks. It exists in a physical form because it belongs to what Dasein cares about, which is itself.

    Keep in mind that, in simple terms, gods are usually personifications of the ideal that we seek to be.

    P.S. I wasn’t dead. I was just taking a long nap.

  6. David Leech says:

    Sean says,“calls me directly to act without there being an object or entity that does the calling. The world, at this level, is a world of situational forces or powers and I am a direct openness to them. To turn the world into a world of objects, or to turn me into a subject directed towards them, is to cover up and eventually vitiate the structure of worldly calls and bodily opennesses. But since this is the most basic way in which things can matter, such a cover up leads to nihilism as well.”

    At first this bothered me like it seems to have bothered laurence MCM. I thought, “In what situation are there not objects? So what sense does it make to dismiss them and talk of being called directly as if the objects themselves were not part of the situation?” But as I thought of a way to counter Sean’s (and presumably MP’s) claim, I convinced myself of the way that he is right, if I understand him correctly.

    I understand Sean’s, “calls me correctly” to mean that my attunement isn’t best understood as an attunement to things but as an attunement to what my culture “instructs” me to understand the object “as.” So, while the object is part of any situation, it’s not the object to which I respond but rather the cultural understanding of what the object stands for. So when, for example, I see an object for which I have no understanding of it “as” something, I go haywire while I try to register it so as to cope with it. This is a relatively rare experience but it happens. The coke bottle in the movie, The Gods Must BE Crazy is a good example. (I had an experience like this myself — very discombobulating — recently: Some motorcycles now sport bright eerily-blue running lights. They are low to the ground and seem to travel fast when, at night, all you see is this narrow set of lights coming at you from afar. I was driving at night and perceived this narrow blue streak coming at me at an apparent distance from the ground of maybe 6 feet. This was an illusion having to do with my car’s and roadway’s orientation. But I could make no sense whatsoever of the fast blue streak and it completely freaked me out momentarily. I felt very disoriented. I had to pull off the country road on which I was traveling.)

    I take this (and the Coke bottle in The Gods Must Be Crazy) to be an example of what Sean is taking about. In this case I had no category and it was the lack of the category (an “as” structure), not the lack of an object, that flummoxed me.

    So, I take it that in this “breakdown” case I was directly responding to (the lack of) the “as structure” of the entity (a light-emitting diode or bright bulb). So even though the object was something I could drop on my foot (a giver) the “as structure” is giverless and I experienced it directly.

  7. M. Heidegger says:

    There is no separation between the world and its constituents. As the world transcends so do all of the elements that comprise it. You have come into being because the world allowed you to become a part of itself. The world always has its conditions for the elements that are necessary for it be itself. Your parents had what it took to live long enough to pass on their DNA (historicality of the constituent), which adds to the transcending character (world historicality) of the world.

    What you perceive is what you are ready to perceive and how the world is ready to transcend. Dasein seeks out only that which it is ready to perceive, whether it is there or not. If it is not there, Dasein will create it, hence the book “Being in Time”.

  8. David Leech says:

    In breakdown there is a separation, so I am not sure M. Heidegger has this right. Maybe s/he’s been napping through Bert’s and Sean’s classes! Sean’s/MP’s notions of “calls directly” seems to imply a separation as does the breakdown situation.

  9. M. Heidegger says:

    I am the source. Bert and Sean learn from me. So when I tell you that there is no separation, there is no separation. As soon as you accept the idea of separation, you immediately fall into Descartes’ trap of subject/object. In “The Basic Problems of Phenomenology” (trans: A Hofstadter) you will recall that on p.66 at the bottom of the page: For the Dasein there is no outside, for which reason it is also absurd to talk about an inside.

    In a breakdown, time stretches to accommodate the accumulated being. What caused the breakdown is not separated from Dasein but makes itself perceived as a constituent of a bloated being.

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