A Genealogy of Redemption

I was honored to be interviewed recently by Charlie Taben of the American Philosophical Association about my forthcoming book with Harvard University Press, The Proper Dignity of Human Being. My contribution to the interview ended up being a kind of extended essay, which the APA published in two parts. Part I went up last week and Part II went up just this afternoon. They gave the whole thing a cool title: “A Genealogy of Redemption in the Western Tradition.” I’d love to know what you think! Please leave comments either here or at the APA site itself; or even both!

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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6 Responses to A Genealogy of Redemption

  1. dmf says:

    I don’t think that this takes into account the essential role of Contingency in our lives/world, either in the sense that Rorty wrestled with or in more explicitly evolutionary terms, and so remains in the vein of the theological. Andy Pickering might be a useful fellow traveler along that line of flight:
    https://syntheticzero.net/2014/11/25/andrew-pickering-being-in-an-environment/
    Do you get to the Anthropocene in yer book?

    • Thanks for your comment, dmf. You’re certainly right that nothing in what I wrote for the interview goes very deeply into the role of contingency. I do hint at it towards the end when I suggest that the defining danger of the technological age is it’s ambition to install itself with the force of necessity. But this is merely a hint. That said, the interview is only meant to set up my positive view regarding dignity, not to present it. You are right that, even in its fullest form, my view is quite different from Rorty’s. But that’s more because I think about the role and nature of contingency differently than he does, not because I don’t think it’s essential.

      • dmf says:

        thanks for yer generous reply Sean, I certainly didn’t take these essays to be your entire project, I think your own explicit hesitancy in the 1st to the format/limits of the Q&A/salespitch/soundbyte are close to concerns I raised in response to your last post about podcasts/youtube/etc. I do wonder if the kinds of precarity we are now facing leave us only the sorts of brief dignities Saidiya Hartman imagines in her book on Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments?

  2. Jack says:

    I’ve just read Part 1 and I feel this line of thought is terrific. I’ve found the legacy of “the authentic,” especially in the wake of the 20th century, troubling because of the uses it has been put to, and the weaknesses that result from its malleability, so I was particularly receptive to your critique. That’s to say, in the existentialist thought your specifically call out in Part 1, heroic authenticity as a moral or ethical imperative (as opposed to, say, Heidegger’s use) was always part of its appeal, but also just so damn problematic. And I think here in the U.S., and perhaps more fully in the West, we’re all experiencing the rotted fruit of the Enlightenment description of the self in terms of self-ownership. “Merciless” is a key insight. That economic approach certainly failed those who could not afford the steep costs of such ownership – as colonialism and slavery have sorely testified – but now we can see it undermining all but the most powerful. Everyone is getting priced out of the neighborhood. If authenticity was supposed to pickle us from that result, it hasn’t.
    Notwithstanding DMF’s concern about the theological, at least from the descriptive point of view I think there’s something to mine from “alternative Christianity” that might be valuable to the conception of redemption you’re developing. Have you read any of Richard Rohr’s work which, I’d offer, is an anti-redemptive account of the story of Christianity? It probably holds no currency in your circle, but Rohr frequently argues against the redemption myth — on his view, it is Christ’s birth (the Incarnation) and not his Death (the Resurrection, Salvation, etc.) that’s the point of the whole story. To anticipate your use of dignity, perhaps, Rohr wants to say that we all come into being already with “God’s grace” — nothing must be earned, redeemed or paid for. It’s free, not in the Kantian sense of being “so high as to be above value,” but because it is constitutive of what it means to exist at all. There is no economic barrier to being.
    I’m not proselytizing here: I’d characterize myself as a non-believer fascinated by religion, and how it reflects our self-understanding. As a foil to the orthodoxy, Rohr’s interpretation — its mere existence — can illustrate flaws in the prevailing conception of the self as an economic being.
    One more thought to add to a long-winded comment: I was reminded of Stephen Hayes’ observation that “you are not a problem to be solved.” I think the technological stance depends on the contrary, which in turn absolutely depends on the self-as-in-need-of-redemption. Which perhaps explains why the self-help category booms in a post-religious, secular age – how many books, retreats and online courses seek to teach us how to redeem ourselves in the eyes of others?

    • dmf says:

      broadly speaking my concern about the theological is with the re in redemption, as it there was a form/fit to be recovered and or to be measured against to be found authentic, one could instead embrace the kind of event-uality that Jack Caputo offers (https://www.academia.edu/5477218/Education_as_Event_Caputo_Interview) but if one takes away his auto-bio-graphical attachment to the New Testament I can’t see a difference that makes a difference from Rorty’s neopragmatism. One could read Bert Dreyfus’ complaint against the calculative-reasoning of AI as merely being about foregrounding the individualist concerns of embodiment and object-relations (as in environmental psychology) but could be a more about the difference between the engineering/governance of open and closed systems.

      • Jack says:

        Yes, the point about the “re” in redemption is thematically concerning and a very useful distinction. Thanks for the pointer to the Caputo inteview, too!

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