Archive for the ‘Robert Spaemann’ Category


When Death Becomes Inhuman — Professor Robert Spaemann

May 31, 2011

Robert Spaemann

[From Wikipedia] Robert Spaemann (born 5 May 1927) is arguably the foremost Roman Catholic philosopher in Germany today. Spaemann’s focus is on Christian ethics. He is known for his work in bioethics, ecology, and human rights. Although not yet widely translated into languages other than his native German, Spaemann is internationally known and his work is highly regarded by Pope Benedict XVI.

Spaemann’s two most important works are Glück und Wohlwollen (Happiness and Benevolence, 1989) and Personen (Persons, 1996). In Happiness and Benevolence, Spaemann sets forth a thesis that happiness is derived from benevolent acting: that we are created by God as social beings to help one another find truth and meaning in an often confused and disordered world.

The paradigm of acting from benevolence is any action by which we come to the help of human life which requires this help…only when we are helped do we learn to help ourselves, that is, to enter into that indirect relationship with ourselves which is constitutive of for all rationality which is not strictly instrumental, [and instead] constitutive for all ethical practice.”

Professor Spaemann participates in Pope Benedict’s Schülerkreis, a private conference with Benedict convened since the late 1970s.

“WE HAVE BEEN KILLING FELLOW MEMBERS OF OUR SPECIES AGAIN.  This time it has been in the land where Eden is said to have been located, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates. It was no worse than the countless massacres of the last century. In fact, it was more restrained. And it was being done, so it was said, in order to prevent more killing later on. One thing is certain: deliberate killing of fellow members of the species, together with the deliberate killing of oneself, is a privilege reserved to man alone. It is a privilege due to the fact that man, as we have good reason to suppose, is the only being who has knowledge of death, both others’ and his own.

The German poet Reiner Kunze says in one of his poems,

You’re nothing special 
It’s just that you cling to beauty
Knowing you’ve got to leave it all.”

Wesen bist du unter Wesen /
Nur daß du hängst am Schönen /
Und weißt: du mußt davon.”

The knowledge Kunze speaks of pervades every moment of our lives. Heidegger made knowledge of death the key to his hermeneutic of Dasein. It is only when we know about death that we start to discover what it means to live. And yet the fear of death, held in secret, isolates each man, for death is not a collective act. Everyone has to die alone, and whoever has realized this can no longer look to society for the meaning of his existence. He knows that one day he is going to abandon society and society is going to abandon him.

This knowledge of death is curiously ambivalent. On the one hand, it tends to rob man’s doings of any meaning: everything is ultimately pointless. On the other hand, the knowledge of finitude gives existence its precious value. If we never died, everything would lose its significance. Everything that we do today, we might just as well do tomorrow.

For two people who establish a life together on the basis of love, sixty years is a short time. They can wake up on the morning of their golden anniversary wishing that they could finally really get started. But without end? That would immediately destroy the whole thing. The knowledge that there is an end is what first opens up for us the dimension of meaning, which is the condition for having anything like the feeling of meaninglessness in the first place. “It’s just that you cling to beauty”: that is the other characteristic mark of the human in Kunze’s poem.

The experience of the beautiful is closely connected with the knowledge of death. It is the experience of something whose meaning does not come from its value for our biological self-preservation, or even from its utility for others, who, after all, must also die. We call something beautiful that has its point in itself. And among such beautiful things are also human gestures and actions, even when they prove to be useless or unwittingly wasted on the wrong people.

The beautiful is resistant to the vortex of “Creation, Evolution, and the Drama of Redemption absurdity which the knowledge of death threatens to suck us into. For the believer, and indeed already for Plato, it is an anticipated glimmer of something that survives death. How does society deal with death and dying, which are the shipwreck of the totalitarianism of the social?

At least when he dies, if not earlier, man ceases to be a member of a social whole. The state can threaten death, but no one is stronger — and, given the right circumstances, more dangerous —  than someone who has conquered the fear of death. The threat of death is a powerful weapon. The need to make the threat a reality is a defeat.

The European tradition’s ritualized culture of dying and burial was a dialectical phenomenon that enabled society to relativize itself. By embedding death in cultic forms, society integrated into itself the very thing that called it into question. This integration required a religious sense. The thing that relativized society also legitimated it. By acknowledging that it was not God, it was also able to understand its authority as divinely sanctioned. Faith in eternal life also relativized the opposition between life and death. There is an old executioner’s axe in Münster that bears the words, “When I raise the axe I’m wishing eternity for a poor sinner.”

Because modernity is structurally atheistic, it has to conceive the opposition between life and death as if it were absolute. “I’ll live on in my children.” — What an empty phrase in the face of man’s experience of himself as an individual person. Society thus struggles doggedly to prolong life, only to be forced to capitulate in the end. It is unable to develop any authentic rituals to accompany the journey to this end because it lacks any horizon in which to relativize itself.

The first result of this is a tendency to put death out of its mind. Death takes place with increasing frequency in some out-of- the- way holding room in a clinic. The consequence: repressed and yet increased fear of death. Most people today face the prospect of their own death without ever having been present at another’s.

But then there is a further tendency simply to eliminate quietly those who can no longer be perceived as members of the social world. Holland has legalized euthanasia and yet it is by no means ejected from the international community. On the contrary: its doctors think they are in the avant garde when they kill. And all of a sudden it seems as if things cannot happen quickly enough.

The new definition of death as “brain death” makes it possible to declare people dead while they are still breathing and to bypass the dying process in order to quarry spare parts for the living from the dying. Death no longer comes at the end of the dying process, but — by the fiat of a Harvard commission — at its beginning. The Jewish-Christian custom of burial is increasingly replaced by the machine-like disposal of corpses through cremation without any public to look on.

And more and more people believe that they are doing something good for their children when they cut costs by having themselves anonymously stuck in the ground. The oldest distinguishing feature of homo sapiens, ritual burial of the dead, is disappearing. My description of the current state of affairs has been a partisan one. But the official standard account is too. It consists of sheer euphemism. I am making no proposals. Every reflection on the foundations of humanity requires that we start out by taking stock of what is.”
Translated by Adrian J. Walker


Reading Selections from “Looking for Personality” — Gilbert Meilaender

October 7, 2010

A Review of Robert Spaemann’s Persons: The Difference Between “Someone” and “Something” by Gilbert Meilaender. Professor Meilaender teaches Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University. Some reflections on the idea of “person” from a First Things article in 2007.

WE SOMETIMES encounter questions that are both philosophically puzzling and practically significant. The temptation then is to bypass the philosophical puzzles and come at the practical problems in ad hoc fashion. No doubt that is often the best we can do. The more serious the problems, however, the more likely we will be driven from practice to theory in a search for consistency and clarity.

The Meaning of Person
Among the questions troubling and dividing our culture in recent decades are many that force us to ask what we mean by persons (or, to use a common but, I think, mistaken formulation, to wonder which human beings have “personhood”). The language of persons, so important in developing and expanding our concept of human rights, has more recently been used to restrict rather than expand the community of rights-bearers. This issue came to prominence in our society’s debates about abortion, but it has spilled over into many other issues.

How, for example, should we regard those whom dementia or severe retardation has robbed of many or most personal qualities? Persons are, we think, free and autonomous. So we argue about whether they ought to be able to exercise a kind of control or mastery over the conditions of their dying — or even seek assistance to bring about their death. We are tempted to think that persons shirk their responsibilities if they do not shape, as best they can, the characteristics of the next generation. Yet, when we contemplate pharmacological manipulation of our moods (such as anxiety, melancholy, shyness), we may be encouraged to think that this free person is really nothing more than neurons firing in the brain.

Part of our puzzlement, then, grows out of the fact that, while those of us who are incontestably persons affirm our freedom and responsibility, others of us seem to become less persons than things to be shaped, manipulated, and mastered. Moreover, this split may run right through one’s own person: We think of ourselves as things to be altered, enhanced, or euthanized — and also as free to make such decisions.

Spaemann’s View of the Person
A person is someone who has a history, not something that has certain properties. Although persons are members of a species, which has certain properties (and, hence, a nature), they cannot be understood simply in those terms. Persons have that species-specific nature, but the singular individual who has it is more than a member of a species. Likewise, persons are not instances of a universal concept. They are members of a community in which each “occupies a unique and distinctive position entirely his or her own.” (Spaemann is clear, by the way, about what this means for species other than homo sapiens. The community of persons is “open in principle to those of other species,” so if there are other species of living beings who, at least sometimes, manifest the characteristics of personal life, we would have to recognize all members of that species as, along with us, persons.)

What characteristics lead us to identify someone as a person? There is a certain two-sidedness to persons, as is already evident in saying that persons have their nature or exist in their nature. “No one is simply and solely what he is,” or, as Spaemann also puts it, we are “non-identical” with our nature. The “hallmark of the person” is the experience of an “inner distance” from one’s own states. A stone falls from a building and is simply an object constrained by laws of nature. I fall from that same building and know myself as a falling object — which I both am and am distanced from. In the midst of his complex discussion of such matters, Spaemann can find occasion to illustrate the difference between who we are and what we are even from fairy tales: The prince who is changed into a frog and eventually back into a prince somehow — as a person — persists through these several transformations.

This understanding of what it means to be a person is neither obvious nor necessary. It has a history. Indeed, “without Christian theology, we would have had no name for what we now call ‘persons.’” It turns out, then, that in order to think philosophically about persons we must give attention to the history of Trinitarian and Christological dogmas as they developed in the early centuries of the Christian era. To say — as Christians gradually learned to — that God is “three persons in one being” is to say that the oneness or unity of God is a process of self-mediation. The three persons — Father, Son, Spirit — are numerically but not qualitatively distinct. They can be distinguished not by any properties they individually possess but only by their relations to each other. So the Son is not different from the Father but other than the Father. “When all is said and done,” as Spaemann puts it, “it is a purely numerical distinction.”

The Church Views The Person
When the Church turned its attention to Christology, it needed a way to describe Jesus that did not turn him into a hybrid being: two natures simply glued together. The better alternative, which won the day, was to say that both natures of Jesus (divine and human, with their respective properties) are had by one person, the eternal divine Word of the Father. The personal name Jesus does not refer to a particular nature but “to ‘someone’ . . . who bears it. . . . . What is born [of Mary] is not something, but someone.”

In short, it was Christians — trying to figure out how they ought to speak about Jesus and the God who had been revealed in Jesus — who first learned what it means to be a person. They learned to distinguish between what we have (our nature) and what we are (our person). And the consequences are incalculable. Were human beings simply members of their species, it might sometimes, Spaemann notes, make sense to sacrifice “this or that member to the interest of the species as a whole.” But, as persons, human beings are incommensurable. “That is why we prefer to speak of human ‘dignity’ (Würde) rather than human ‘value’ (Wert). The value of ten people may be more than that of one, but ten are no more than one in point of dignity.” Thus, persons are incomparably unique and of “incommensurable dignity.”

The Body Is Inextricably Connected To The Person
If this account is true, however, it clearly raises for us a certain problem. The mysterious “I” who experiences an inner distance from himself or herself might seem hard to locate or pin down. This is not a problem we experience in identifying ourselves; for we know ourselves from within. But how do others know us, or we know them? We cannot know each other from within; on the contrary, we need some sort of “external criterion” by which to locate these strangely singular persons. That criterion, Spaemann thinks, must be and can only be “the identity of my body as a continuing existence in space and time.” Thus, the body is inextricably connected to the person, and we could not identify the latter apart from the former.

Think of a case, Spaemann suggests, in which a person seems to experience a split identity. We may be greatly puzzled, but we don’t really think that we face here two persons within one body. We think, rather, that the one person is ill and in need of a cure. And “if the cure succeeds, we do not suppose we have finally eliminated one of the two persons.” It is the body that provides us a way out of that “ultimate solitude” in which we would otherwise find ourselves; hence, “physicality belongs essentially to human personality.”

Helpful as this is, however, it only forces us to attend to a further, troubling issue. Some of the human beings (whom we come to know through the body that locates them) may seem to lack properties that we think of as characteristically personal. The ability to achieve an inner distance from oneself, to know oneself from within as “I,” seems to require rational capacities, an inner sentient life, and a capacity for self-awareness. This obvious fact has led some to regard the class of persons as significantly smaller than the class of human beings — and to regard only those human beings who possess the requisite capacities as persons and bearers of rights equal to ours.

The Concept Of The Potential Person
Spaemann’s concluding chapter (“Are All Human Beings Persons?”) is a deeply probing attempt to answer yes to the question the chapter title poses. In part, of course, to have thought with Spaemann about the meaning of a person (and the difference between what we have and what we are) is already to have gone some distance toward understanding why all human beings are, indeed, persons. To be sure, we do think of persons as having certain properties (such as rational self-awareness), but it is the human being (who has the properties) and not the properties themselves whom we call a person. Hence, it is not personhood but persons who count. We do not evaluate human beings on the basis of criteria we have established (and which, presumably, we already meet). Rather, we “recognize” them as persons — as someone, not something. When we recognize a person, we are not just responding to certain personal properties. “The mother, or her substitute, treats the child from the start as a subject of personal encounter rather than an object to manipulate or a living organism to condition. She teaches the child to speak not by speaking in its presence but by speaking to it.” She does not first cultivate certain qualities in a little something until, at some point, that something becomes someone.

I am not sure, however, nor do I read Spaemann as sure, that any entirely compelling reason can be given us to explain why we should recognize others — such as that little child — as persons. This brings us up against the boundary of an essentially religious question. For we have to do here with the fundamental direction of one’s will, opening us to others, and this can only be experienced as a gift — which, like all gifts, can be refused. “The gift of open space is not forced upon us.” Still, there are reasons and arguments that may reassure us that we are not wrong so to recognize all other human beings as persons.

Spaemann notes that, though we classify inanimate objects on the basis of properties that they share, living beings are connected by genealogical relation. “The community of a species is a reproductive community first and foremost. Phenotypical similarity is a secondary factor.” Nor is this mere biology. For the body is the place of our personal presence to each other and, far from being “mere animality,” is “the medium of personal realization.” Hence, we should recognize in each other not merely examples of a natural kind but “kindred, who stand from the outset in a personal relation to one another.”

From that starting point we can think about those who might seem to lack personal characteristics. The small child (or even the unborn child) is not a “potential person” — a concept that, Spaemann argues, makes no sense. Nothing that is not a person can develop into a person. But I may quite correctly say, for example, “I was born (or conceived) on January 31, 1946,” even though “the being that was conceived or born on that date did not say ‘I’ at the time.” Likewise, the severely disabled person is not a thing, but a “sick person.” And, in fact, our ability (and willingness) to recognize their existence as persons “is the acid test of our humanity.” Even one who seems entirely beyond the reach of any communication with us, entirely unaware, may remain mysteriously a person. Intentional activity (in which we are simultaneously present in the act and distanced from it) is for us a sure sign of personal presence. We readily see when “someone” acts with intentionality, and we recognize the person in the action. But “we cannot reach the same certainty about its absence.” That is, the seeming absence of such activity cannot assure us that a person, who claims our recognition, is not present.

“Someone” Rather Than “Something”
From Spaemann’s serious, sustained theoretical probing of what it means to be “someone” rather than “something” we may learn how to think better about some of the puzzling questions that trouble our society:

  • The fact that some human beings — fetuses, newborn children, the severely demented or severely retarded — lack some of the properties that characterize persons ought not prevent us from recognizing in them persons like ourselves (though the ability so to recognize them may be a gift that does not come naturally to us).
  • Because the lives of persons are incommensurable, we should be careful lest different ages or stages of development incline us to forget the equal dignity of each person’s life.
  • Because persons have their life, they can surrender it in a good cause or at an appropriate time, but to take one’s own life intentionally is to seek to make oneself solely an object. Attempting to act with the freedom of a person, we do just the opposite and relinquish the distinction between someone and something.
  • Although mental states and brain states always occur together, we need not conclude that neurons firing is all that is going on. The experience of anxiety no doubt has a corresponding neurological state in the brain, but “to look at a brain is not to look at anxiety.” And still more, an examination of the brain states corresponding to my anxiety cannot explain my desire to manipulate or alter it. It cannot explain the way persons are nonidentical with their nature.
  • We live in a world where “what we have” is sometimes confused with “who we are,” and in that world we need to do careful thinking of the sort Spaemann provides. But we should not forget that the very fact that we feel it necessary to go in search of such theory to guide our practice says a good bit about us — and the act of offering theoretical justification is less important than the moral education that enables us to recognize the other persons all around us.

Robert Spaemann’s Philosophy of Selbstsein

October 6, 2010


Robert Spaemann, 2010


In this post Holger Zaborowksi considers Robert  Spaemann’s philosophy of Selbstsein as the paradigm for understanding reality… Spaemann develops his philosophy of Selbstsein not only in Persons, but also in Happiness and Benevolence, which focuses on the ‘precarious balance’ of human happiness and on the reality-disclosing dimension of benevolence. Happiness and Benevolence provides an outline of Spaemann’s ethics oriented towards a ‘syn-vision’ — as opposed to dialectical synthesis — of what one will and what one ought to do; that is to say, of the search for one’s happiness and the ideas of moral obligation…We have to confine ourselves to an examination of the central argument about the gift of Selbstsein and the nature of benevolence.

Later on Selbstsein comes to be defined as ‘Being-one’s-Self.’ Jeremiah Alberg translates Selbstsein, as ‘being a self’ (Spaemann, Happiness and Benevolence, ix (Gluck und Wohlwollen, 10) and, very literally, as ‘self-being’ (ibid. 132 (173fl; O’Donovan in a somewhat Kantian.way as ‘being-in-itself.’ Given that this notion is reminiscent of Heidegger’s use of Selbstsein, ‘Being-one’s-Self’ (see Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983), 149 ff.), would be another translation. However, all these translations, even though they express important elements of what Selbstsein is, do not wholly capture the meaning of Selbstsein and are, at least partly, misleading, which is why we will continue to use the German word Selbstsein for the very Being that, as the being of the nature-having person, is the paradigm of being both in itself and for us.

Spaemann’s philosophy of benevolence is preceded by an examination of happiness. This examination discloses the complex character of happiness. Happiness, Spaemann points out, is not the ‘result of a poiesis.. but a whole praxis’ (vocab:  In Greek, poiesis means ‘production.’ In Plato and Aristotle this is contrasted with praxis, doing or practical activity. It only requires skill whereas practical activity requires virtue. The idea is that in production, the ends are set, whereas good practice requires knowing which activities and ends are worth pursuing.) because ‘the telos (vocab: an end or goal; ultimate purpose) of humanity is not some finite purpose but the beautiful life as a whole.

Happiness is, he further argues, a deeply ambiguous notion: one’s subjective happiness is not necessarily objective happiness; one cannot even make a statement about one’s own life as a whole. Moreover, the reflection upon happiness as a life which turns out well (Gelingen des Lebens) fails to be sufficient for practical philosophy Spaemann acknowledges. ‘One does not enter into practical philosophy without reflection on one’s own happiness and with this reflection one goes no farther.’

This is why one needs a more comprehensive horizon for ethical reflection than happiness or, alternatively, moral obligation. This conclusion leads us to his interpretation of the amor benevolentiae (vocab: the medievals termed that in true love, which is amor benevolentiae, one desires the other not only for one’s own good, but for the good of the other ) and its ethical and ontological implications. For it is within the universal horizon of reality opened up by benevolence that moral obligation and the search for happiness originate.

Benevolence discloses reality in a way both prior to and more fundamental than either the insight into moral obligation or the search for happiness. It ‘is a function neither of instinct nor of the drive to preserve the self or the species, since it is precisely these which it relativizes. It is as universal as the horizon which it opens.’  In the act of benevolence, therefore, a universal horizon opens up, and human beings lose their self-centredness and transcend themselves towards the reality of the other person. The benevolent experience of Selbstsein, Spaemann argues, is therefore an experience of reality which ‘we cannot reduce to a functional interpretation’ by making it dependent on a horizon different from itself.

In his philosophy of benevolent love Spaemann is deeply indebted to Augustine and his theological understanding of benevolence, which Oliver O’Donovan has summarized as follows. Benevolence (benevolentia) is:

the will that something which has its existence from God should fulfill its existence for God. Benevolent love is a possibility only between creature and creature, for God has no fulfillment to which he strives.. [l]t is…a feature of all relations of love between man and man. It is not one kind of human love but a partial analysis of the whole of human love.

This interpretation of Augustine’s understanding of benevolence captures well what Spaemann means by the word — apart, perhaps, from Spaemann’s wider ontological understanding of benevolence; that is, his idea that we ought to be benevolent also to, for instance, animals and things and so respect their  Selbstsein

If Selbstsein fully discloses itself when we encounter the person with a benevolent disposition, a philosophy of benevolence is necessary that is characterized by ‘attention by gratefulness’ for the gift of reality and its glory. (See Simone Weil’s reflections on attention here). In developing this much-needed philosophy Spaemann discloses a dimension of the life of persons that not only calls into question modern functionalist ontologies but also goes beyond the dichotomy of ethics and ontology — not, however, because his philosophy has an anti-ethical and anti-ontological thrust. Rather, he provides the outline of an ‘existential Reason’ which underlies, or precedes, both theoretical and practical Reason as distinctly different faculties. In so doing, Spaemann also remembers a love that precedes the difference between self-love and selfless love and, if properly understood, makes a new ‘synthesis’ of these two kinds of love possible, a ‘synthesis’ that was impossible within the framework of an inversion of teleology.

It is important here to note that Spaemann’s ethics is directed against a dominant strand of contemporary philosophy for which Being has become problematic, with the result that ontology has been kept strictly separate from ethics. Emmanuel Levinas, for instance, developed an ‘ethics beyond Being’, many of the basic ideas of which Spaemann shares. Yet Spaemann criticizes the supposition that the epiphany of the ‘other’ comes from ‘beyond Being’; for ‘Levinas understands “being” in a modern sense as objectification. In contrast to Levinas, Spaemann retrieves what he considers a more fundamental notion of Being, one which goes beyond the distinction between the subjective and the objective and so overcomes the modern dialectic of spirit and nature. This implies neither that there is no clear difference between ontology and ethics nor that there is a hierarchical relation between them. ‘There is, Spaemann states, ‘no ethics without metaphysics, but ethics no more precedes ontology, understood as “first philosophy’~ than the latter does the former.

Spaemann further argues that ‘[o] ntology and ethics — the one as much as the other — are constituted uno actu through the intuition of being as Selbstsein. One of the most fundamental arguments Spaemann proposes for the connection between ethics and ontology is the fact that we need to conceive the other as real, as a ‘thing-in-itself,’ not as an image of ourselves or as a fiction, in order to have the experience of obligation towards the other. To describe the encounter with the human person requires, therefore, a realist philosophy; for ‘unconditional respect for the human, Spaemann argues, ‘is equivalent to affirmation of reality.’

But what precisely does he mean by Selbstsein? This notion is of relatively recent origin. It is characteristic particularly of Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers; the idea is also crucial to Kierkegaard’s thought, though he does not use the actual word. The question of how to translate Selbstsein appropriately in English is debatable. For Heidegger the rendering ‘Being-one’s SeIf’ is appropriate, though not absolutely transparent. Spaemann, however, is far from using this word merely in an existentialist or Heideggerian sense. Selbstsein does not imply that the Being of the self is a temporal process beyond substance and nature. It is the Being of the person, that is to say the dynamic having-of-one’s-nature, not Bei-sich-sein (vocab: self-presence). It cannot be derived from the conditions of its genesis precisely because it opens up a completely new horizon: the horizon of freedom. But it also cannot be understood without proper regard for its natural dimension.

This implies a certain anti-subjectivist thrust in Spaemann’s thought, although he does not at all discount the importance of the subject. He endeavors, on the contrary, as we have already seen, to preserve the subject against any functionalistic and naturalistic dismissal because the current crisis of humanity is reflective of a ‘profound crisis of the autonomous subject.’ In Spaemann’s view; the problem lies not in the notion of the subject as such, but in the abstract idea of an absolutely autonomous and free subject that no longer recognizes the frontiers of nature as showing a ‘basal (vocab: relating to, situated at, or forming the base ) nonnality (vocab: something that does not exist or exists only in the imagination, nonexistence).

Aristotle’s teleological view of nature, Spaemann argues, ‘found its orientation in our everyday talk about nature’ and in ‘an unprejudiced eye for the natural phenomenon.’ In a similar way, as we have discussed, Spaemann considers his philosophy of Selbstsein to be a defense of an everyday understanding of reality and of freedom and the natural in particular, obscured in modernity by the totalitarian claims of scientific reductionism and different kinds of anti-humanism and, closely related to this, by the dichotomization of nature and freedom.

Spaemann claims hereby to retrieve an Aristotelian understanding of substance, for the ‘paradigm of substance for Aristotle is the living being, and the paradigm of a living being is the human.’ While post-Cartesian philosophy, as we have already pointed out, developed a dialectical understanding of Being and  dichotomized nature and freedom, the philosophy of Selbstsein understands Being analogically. Hence, the philosophy of Selbstsein can be considered prima phüosophia with ethical, ontological, and epistemological implications. It also puts an end to the modem predominance of poiesis, because Selbstsein is human praxis, not a product of human making. In addition, it sets a limit to the enterprises of abstract and universalizing reasoning. For the disclosure of Selbstsein is a concrete ‘gift (Gabe) which underlies every possible task (Aufgabe)’ Connected to it is the experience of guilt, for we realize that we should have woken up earlier in order to respond to the Selbstsein of the other.

Thus, Spaemann attempts to reinvigorate a view of reality that appreciates the gift and ‘glory’ of reality. The glory of reality is, in its fullest sense, the given glory of ‘Selbstsein which grounds all objectivity’ and which discloses itself in an event which needs to be, and can be, freely recognized: the encounter with the face of the other person.’ By speaking of glory he avails himself of a notion that does not appear to belong in a philosophical context. The term calls to mind scriptural and liturgical language as well as Levinas’s idea of the gloire de l’infini’ and Hans Urs von Balthazar’s theological aesthetics. It is important to shed light on the implications of this notion, for Spaemann does not delineate it explicitly.

In speaking of the glory of reality he transfers a genuinely theological notion into a philosophical context, but does not thereby secularize the theological notion by providing it with a new meaning or imply that the theological and religious usage of glory is unimportant for the philosophical purposes that he has in mind. Why, then, does he speak of the ‘glory of reality’ as disclosed in the experience of Selbstsein? Reality is glorious because we cannot produce or make it. It does not arise simply as the object of our observations and interferences, but is ‘unpreconceivably’ given. In characterizing reality as glorious, Spaemann reminds us that the abstract dichotomy of res extensa and res cogitans does not do justice to the paradigmatic way in which we experience reality as an interrelation of meaning and being (vocab: res cogitans means literally, ‘thinking thing’. In the Second Meditation, Descartes uses a process of systematic doubt to reach the conclusion that he is ‘in the strict sense only a thing that thinks, that is, a mind or intelligence or intellect or reason’. In the Sixth Meditation, Descartes contrasts res cogitans, or mind, with res extensa (‘extended thing’, or body), and argues that the mind is ‘really distinct from the body and could exist without it’.)

The seemingly infinite regress of the reflection of consciousness — that is, the problem of whether or not there is really something at all apart from our pure consciousness — comes to an end when the reality of the person is recognized. The amor benevolentiae vis-â-vis the Selbstsein of the other person is therefore the ‘spanning of an infinite space between the negativity of reflection and the positivity of being’. While the search for happiness cannot escape the intrinsic antinomies (vocab: Contradiction or opposition, especially between two laws or rules) and ambiguities of happiness, the reality of Selbstsein leaves antinomy and ambiguity behind. It is simply cynical and deeply immoral not to conceive of the other human being as a real and ‘glorious’ gift.

The factual gift and glory of Being shows the limits of aprioristic philosophy and of merely reflective thought. In the human person, we encounter, as he further argues, a ‘representation of the absolute;’ that is to say, the person is a ‘representation of the glory of God’ to which we are ‘premorally’ obliged to respond. In speaking of the glory of reality, Spaemann therefore seems to presuppose that reality has been created by God and cannot be derived from a priori principles.

Yet his philosophical analysis implies that this statement can be understood initially, though not fully, from a purely philosophical point of view. Spaemann would not deny that a full understanding of what it implies to speak of the glory of reality can only arise if the theological origin and dimension of this notion is taken into account, and if one acknowledges that God is ‘an “unpreconceivable” unity of Being and meaning. Yet he speaks of the glory of reality not because of a specific divine revelation, but because of his insight into what he considers self-evident — the disclosure of the dignity of the person — and this is why he does not feel the need to leave the context of philosophical argument. Happiness and Benevolence begins with a quotation from Heraclitus that [w]hile awake, we have one common world. But dreamers turn each to their own’.

Awakening, a metaphor for the essential movement of human beings towards the reality of Selbstsein, a description of reason properly understood, is central to Spaemann’s philosophy and to his Socratic understanding of the nature of philosophy. ‘Philosophy’, he argues, ‘has no reason to promote hopelessness as long as it has not lost the power of recollection’, — that is to say, as long as it can still wake people up and educate them in reality.

Awakening, however, is an infinite process. Full awakening can never be achieved. Spaemann argues that in contrast to the Buddhist conception of awakening, which he interprets as awakening to mere nothingness, awakening to reality remains essentially unfulfilled. It remains ‘in its essence’ desire for Being.  The idea that reality is inexhaustible and that we are always in need of Being is another feature of Spaemann’s philosophy that shows, once again, considerable similarities to the thought of Emmanuel Levinas, who also points out that the desire for the other cannot be fulfilled.

Human beings cannot fully awaken, and full happiness thus cannot be achieved. The reason for this is that human beings cannot autonomously overcome the antinomy of ‘for me’ and ‘as such’. The subjective and the objective dimension of happiness cannot be unified: ‘Happiness names that of which we have here only momentary presentiments, but that is unable to give form to our finite existence.’ The person, however, is a person not only for me. He is a person also as such — as the gift of Being.


Robert Spaemann’s View of the Person

October 5, 2010


Person At The Window, Salvador Dali 1925


Spaemann defends a person-centered understanding of reality, a non-reductive and truly empirical position in that he rehabilitates our everyday experience of life, time, space, freedom, motion, possibility, and contingency and its basis in the self-evident self-experience of the person. This shows that ‘person’ is indeed a fundamental notion which cannot be abolished without implying major shifts in our understanding of reality. In this reading selection from Holger Zaborowski’s Robert Spaemann’s Philosophy of the Human Person, we look at some of the attributes of person in Spaemann’s philosophy. For more on the concept of person and personalism, see Understanding Personalism.

Who Is A Person?
The main thrust of Spaemann’s Persons is not only to show why the concept of person is fundamental for all thought, but also to demonstrate why every human being is a person, as opposed to a mere subset of human beings: characterized by features such as self-consciousness and memory. In what follows we will first examine what, in Spaemann’s view, is characteristic of persons. We will then investigate the reasons why, for Spaemann, every human being is a person, and discuss whether or not Spaemann’s argument is based upon speciesistic premises.

The Inner Difference Of Persons
Human beings, Spaemann suggests, are not just members of their species as ‘something’ is a specimen of a particular species; they are persons who do not immediately instantiate a species. There is, Spaemann suggests, an ‘inner difference’ that characterizes persons. Spaemann illustrates this ‘inner difference’ with three examples.

He first draws attention to the fact that we use the word ‘human’ as a normative as well as a descriptive term. ‘Human’ is not simply everything that belongs to human beings. There are certain actions, for instance torture, violence, and murder, that are called ‘inhuman’ despite their being quite typical of human beings. Animals do not torture and murder one another. Hence, Spaemann argues, there is a difference between what humans are actually like and who they ought to be.

In the second example Spaemann analyses the first-person pronoun ‘I.’ To say ‘I’, he argues, does not rely on qualitative characteristics (nor on time-space coordinates), for it merely expresses numerical identity We can, at least theoretically, distinguish between a person and his qualitative appearance and manifestation. Spaemann mentions, for example, fairy tales, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and our own dream experience to provide illustrations of this. We can somehow imagine (without subjecting being a person to science-fiction criteria!) what it means to be a tree or to live in another persons’ body, for instance. There is, Spaemann points out, a difference between who we are and what we are.

In the third example Spaemann investigates the fact of intentional structures and teleology. This example is by far the most important. Life, he maintains, is characterized by a teleological structure. It is characterized by the tension between the potential and the factual existence of living beings (Lebewesen), or, as Aristotle says, by the tension between eu zen and zen. Human beings are aware of this tension. They know that the ultimate goal of their life is not their survival, the mere preservation of life, but the good life. Thus, the teleology of human life shows that human beings are ‘more,’ so to speak, than mere instantiations of their species; they not simply ‘are’ their nature, they ‘have’ their nature. To speak of persons, Spaemann argues, thus recalls a view of the individual that calls into question the opposition of nature and freedom, of facts and norms, and of self-preservation and self-transcendence.

The inner difference that is characteristic of persons shows that persons are not persons because of certain qualitative characteristics. Unlike ‘human being’, ‘person’ is not, Spaemann stresses, a generic term. It already presupposes the identification of a given being as, for instance, a human being. Because of the qualitative traits of human beings, Spaemann points out, one is able to perform an abstraction and thus to speak of numerical personal identity

But a person is not a person because of these traits, for ‘to reduce the person to specific actual conditions of self-consciousness and rationality ultimately dissolves the notion of something like a person.’ This is why Spaemann refers approvingly to David Wiggins’s non-speciesistic and non-empiricist definition of ‘person’: ‘[A] person is any animal the physical make-up of whose species constitutes the species’ typical members’ thinking intelligent being, with reason and reflection, and typically enables them to consider themselves the same thinking things, in different times and places.’ A philosophy of personhood therefore challenges the objectifying tendency of the sciences and recalls a different, though more fundamental, epistemology. “Person” is not’, Oliver O’Donovan has argued, ‘a genetic or a biological category; to observe a gene is not to observe a person. .

It remains for another mode of knowledge to discern the hypostasis behind the appearance. We now have to ask why members of a particular species who, for instance, are not consciously aware of the inner difference of persons are also persons.

Why Each Human Being Is A Person
In Persons Spaemann offers six reasons why every human being is a person and why being a person cannot be defined with reference to certain criteria, but only with reference to what he calls primary recognition through other persons. These six reasons belong very closely together and, taken together, make a very strong case for the view that all human beings are persons.

  1. Spaemann refers, first, to the ethical fact that each human being belongs to a community of other human beings that is always already a community of persons.
  2. Second, there is, as he argues, no logical transition from ‘something’ to ‘somebody ‘Somebody,’ he suggests, is not a subcategory of ‘something’ and is never transformed into something. The gulf between impersonal entities and persons, therefore, cannot be bridged, because there is no continuity from ‘something’ to ‘somebody.’ Only because we treat other human beings from the very beginning not as ‘something’ but as ‘somebody so Spaernann reminds us, do most of them actualize the features which justify a posteriori our treatment and recognition of them as persons. And the reason why we treat them as persons is that they already belong to a community of persons.
  3. Third, Spaemann argues that the lack of intentionality is difficult to detect, important though it is for the full understanding of persona! being. It is not simply an observable characteristic but an intrinsically personal performance, which links the inner and the outer dimensions of a person and makes it possible for persons to transcend themselves.126 It would thus be impossible to argue without error that somebody is in fact something.
  4. Fourth, recognition is not the scientific observation of certain characteristic traits, but the recognition of the Selbstsein of persons. ‘Selbstsein’, Spaemann argues, ‘essentially cannot be found in the language of the sciences.’ The free recognition of someone does not constitute but rather acknowledges personal identity, as something that is already given. Persons, Spaemann argues, need to be recognized, but they do not need to be recognized to be a person. ‘To know a person,’ as Oliver O’Donovan has put it, ‘I have first to accept him as such in personal interaction. That we are capable of recognizing persons — that is to say, of transcending ourselves — is ‘the nucleus of what we call human dignity Spaemann argues. Thus, one’s dignity can ultimately only be ‘questioned’ by oneself — by not freely recognizing another person as person.
  5. Fifth, there are, as Spaemann points out, no potential persons. Because it does not depend upon certain criteria whether someone is a person or not, and because there is no transition from things to persons, there are no potential persons ‘who’ could, or could not, develop these criteria. Persons have certain potentials that they may or may not be be able actually to develop, but persons themselves ‘are always persons or they never become persons.’It is important to note that this position is more consistent than Derek Parfit’s. Parfit, in defining the notion ‘person’ through qualitative criteria, thus speaking of personhood as potential or alternately developing and ceasing while still seeking to maintain a kind of moral understanding of the person, falls into a biologistic position and commits a naturalistic fallacy — although this is precisely what he intends to reject. This nicely illustrates the dilemma of the post-Lockean definition of person. Either the normative character of ‘person’ is inevitably dismissed and ‘person’ simply stands for a species or class defined by having, or not having, certain traits; or ‘person’ remains a normative notion, though at the cost of an illegitimate naturalistic fallacy.

    However, to argue that each human being is a person does not necessarily entail a naturalistic fallacy, because this assertion can rely on a different ontology altogether. Because the ‘person’ according to Spaemann, is a modus existentiae, and not the subject of certain actualized traits, the definition of ‘person’ does not depend on whether these traits are potential or actualized, because the – ‘having’ of a nature, that is to say the being a person, cannot be potential or actual. Persons relate to their nature both in its potentialities and in its actualized potentialities.

  6. Sixth, Spaemann argues that the recognition of a person is an answer to an unconditional demand. Because there are no potential persons, recognition cannot be dependent upon the actualization of these potentials. Hence, recognition is not a question of co-optation, of a majority decision or of a scientific definition for instance, but an answer to a demand that is always already there. To argue that whether someone is a person or not and, therefore, ‘has’ human dignity is dependent upon the decision of the current members of the human society is, in Spaemann’s eyes, reflective of a ‘totalitarian misconception of society’ and undermines the idea of universal human rights, because they would lose their universality if they depended on certain prejudgments about which human being can be considered a person or not. The origin of being a person, Spaemann consequently reasons, is a ‘mystery’ and ‘unpreconceivable” it is not dependent on acceptance by other persons and cannot fully be explained or examined.

The Supposed Speciesism Of Spaemann’s Philosophy
A common criticism of the understanding of the person as proposed by Spaemann brings up the charge of a speciesism (and therefore biologism). (Vocab:  Speciesism is the assigning of different values or rights to beings on the basis of their species membership. The term was created by British psychologist Richard D. Ryder in 1973 to denote a prejudice against non-humans based on physical differences that are given moral value.)  

In what follows we will investigate why Spaemann’s philosophy is not only not speciesist but calls into question the very premises of this accusation. Before we discuss the question of whether Spaemann’s argument is speciesist we need to investigate why speciesism is, for many philosophers, a position to be rejected. By showing that the anti-speciesist argument depends upon presuppositions that Spaemann does not share, one can easily demonstrate why Spaemann is not a speciesist, but is able to mount an even more radical critique of speciesism than his critics.

The main reason why speciesism ought to be avoided, as many modern philosophers argue, is that it is based upon a naturalistic fallacy. Factual reality, such as belonging to a particular biological species, does not justify normative conclusions, for the gulf between what is the case and what ought to be the case appears to be logically unbridgeable. To be a member of a particular biological species does not per se justify a treatment different from the treatment that members of other species deserve. Peter Singer argues as follows:

The only position that is irredeemably speciesist is the one that tries to make the boundary of the right to life run exactly parallel to the boundary of our own species. To avoid speciesism we must allow that beings who are similar in all relevant respects have a similar right to live — and mere membership in our own biological species cannot be a morally relevant criterion for this right.

In order to avoid speciesism, Peter Singer’s pathocentric ethics focuses on suffering in general, be it animal or human suffering, rather than on each human being as a person (and thus as deserving a right to life) qua human being.

It is important to note that the accusation of speciesism, or alternatively anthropocentrism, is based upon significant presuppositions, including not only the definition of ‘all relevant respects’ but also an empiricist and non-teleological understanding of reality. If there were indeed a gap between nature and freedom, it would indeed be illegitimate — and possibly also speciesist — to derive normative conclusions from factual statements.

The modern dismissal of a teleological view of reality precludes the natural species to which an animal belongs from serving as the basis for any normative statement. However, if there is indeed a natural teleology, if reality is ultimately not dichotomized into ‘is’ and ‘ought’, if meaning and Being, freedom and nature, are ultimately inseparable, then the accusation of speciesism does not pertain per se, because nature and freedom are not necessarily in opposition. The being of a human being is then ‘more than’, or different from, ‘mere being.’ It is the paradigm of being on which every understanding of ‘mere being’ as a reductionist understanding of being is based — and not vice versa.

There is, therefore, a certain kind of ‘biologism’, as Spaemann points out, which is ‘in reality the condition of freedom.’ It is a ‘biologism’ which develops a full account of what human life as the life of a person is. This account would emphasize that being a person always already consists in having, and not simply being, one’s nature (even though this maybe difficult to detect at times), and that every approach to the person that does not do justice to this insight (including many truly speciesist accounts of the person or of human dignity), developed on the basis of a description of how the person has his nature, cannot but fail to understand the person and his dignity as always already given disclosure of the full meaning of being.

How does Spaemann further justify his assertion that being has a normative dimension that one must not overlook if one does not want to fall prey to the modern dialectic of nature and freedom? He not only retrieves a view of freedom as ‘remembered nature,’ as we have pointed out, but also argues that suffering and pain in particular indicate that there is no unbridgeable gulf between what is and what ought to be: ‘The consideration of pain falsifies Hume’s assertion that Is and Ought belong to two incommensurable realms, unless — that is — we deploy a strictly “positive” sense of “is”, meaning “in front of our noses”, out there in the world of objects and waiting to be stumbled over, in which case pain and negativity no longer count among things that “are.”

Suffering and pain do indeed exist, and yet they should not exist. Pain is not just a physiological status, but has a normative dimension. Hence, the factual being and the normative ought (not) to cannot be strictly separated, unless one interprets pain as by definition non-existing. This also shows that while Peter Singer claims to take pain seriously, he undermines the understanding of pain and its negativity that corresponds to human experience. For we experience pain not as nothing, but as something that exists, but ought not to exist. Hence, Spaemann’s philosophy proves even more pathocentric, as it were, than Singer’s because it allows us to take seriously pain as we experience it.

This illustrates once again that the reductionistic and supposedly empirical scientism of Parfit’s and Singer’s philosophies makes it impossible to understand reality fully because their thought is based upon aprioristic presuppositions that do not conform to reality as it discloses itself to us. They do not consider how reality fully appears to us: as meaningful Selbstsein, above all in the other person, and neither as simply objective being nor as mere process. The natural sciences cannot, therefore, provide the ultimate answer to the question as to who a person is, for persons, in their very being, need to be recognized in freedom by another person. This is why the philosophy of the person does not require a scientific methodology; it requires a ‘not merely metaphorical nor poetical hermeneutics of nature,’ which remembers the complementary relation between nature and freedom and appeals to our own freedom to recognize other human beings as persons. That is to say, one needs a philosophy of Selbstsein as the paradigm for our understanding of reality in order to understand more fully what it means to be a person and why all human beings are persons, whether they are self-conscious or not.

Robert Spaemann’s concept of Selbstsein and its impact on our understanding of reality will be the topic of another post.


Robert Spaemann’s Catholic Informed Criticism Of Modernity

October 4, 2010


Robert Spaemann

A Critic Of Modernity
Robert Spaemann is a critic of modernity who comments on modernity both from a philosophical and from a Christian point of view. He does so by way of what he calls ‘recollection’ (Erinnerung). (By this, he means a recollection of what modern reason is otherwise liable either to overlook and to forget or explicitly to dismiss.) In so doing, Spaemann belongs among the outstanding interpreters and critics of modernity and late modernity and their political, religious, and ethical implications in contemporary German philosophy…

Spaemann’s thought can be compared to a hologram in which the parts resemble the whole and one another: the components of Spaemann’s philosophy elucidate one another. Unlike many other philosophers, Spaemann offers many entrées to the paths of his thinking. Accordingly, his writings can be characterized in very diverse ways. One can argue plausibly that the leitmotif of Spaemann’s philosophy is his critique of modernity. This critique, however, is not merely oppositional and judgmental. Spaemann claims to defend the Enlightenment against its self-interpretation by ‘filling out’ (erganzen) the contemporary consciousness.

He intends to liberate philosophy and the consciousness of our time from its fragmentary and one-sided character without attempting to develop a closed system of philosophy, in the modern sense of ‘philosophical system’ because philosophy is itself essentially an act of freedom: it is ‘thinking oneself (Selbstdenken). So his philosophy is a philosophy of freedom, too, a philosophy that takes seriously that thinking is only thinking proper if it is pursued freely — if, in other words, it is an act of freedom.

One can equally well maintain that the leitmotif of his philosophy lies in the analysis of the human person, of his dignity, and of the paradigmatic character of personal action and responsibility; or, that it consists in the rediscovery of a teleological view of nature.

In Spaemann’s view, philosophy is not poiesis but praxis. It is meaningful in itself — a human activity that finds its end in itself — and not with respect to its supposed historical or political goals. Over against the modern assimilation of praxis to poiesis that no longer maintains that, as Aristotle points out, ‘the reasoned state of capacity to act is different from the reasoned state of capacity to make,’ Spaemann draws renewed attention to the fundamental differences between these two kinds of human ‘action’ and to their ethical implications.

‘Making’, or poiesis, another leitmotif of his thought, is not all that can be ‘done’. Human life and its flourishing and happiness depend significantly upon ‘practice’, or praxis, and the recognition of the limits of instrumental and technological reason. It is in acting well, not simply in making, that human life finds its fulfillment. The very existence of a human person, Spaemann reasons, shows most prominently how and why poiesis — the making of something — is limited and how human action is dependent upon what cannot purposefully be ‘made.’ Philosophy, he maintains, reflects this praxis-related dimension of human life, defending the ideas of freedom and human dignity in the face of a vision of a world with respect to which one may wonder ‘if in the long run there will be room for human beings.’

This complex web of leitmotifs reflects the complex character of reality in its unity, which, according to one of the main thrusts of Spaemann’s thought, cannot and must not be subjected to reductive or ultimately dualistic interpretations, nor to philosophical and political ideologies. Reality; in its fullest sense, transcends the effort of every philosophical endeavor, of every supposedly comprehensive system of reality, and thus also of every mechanistic and naturalistic reductionism. Spaemann’s philosophy is systematic in that it explores the coherence of different features and areas of reality; However, it is not systematic in the sense that it develops a closed systematization of reality subject to a priori principles of, say, subjectivity, or a specific political ideology; or the methodology of scientific reasoning.

Spaemann thus does not renew the attempt systematically to reconstruct or interpret the course of history; the nature of human society, the structure of intersubjectivity, and the genesis of individual and collective self-consciousness by means of transcendental philosophy or by a scientistic account of human nature, for instance. To the contrary; Spaemann’s work exhibits an anti-idealist and anti-scientistic thrust, which, as we will argue, comes perhaps closest to Schelling’s self-critical philosophical objections to idealism and his emphasis on freedom, on history; and on the gift of creation.

A Christian View Of Creation
Both Spaemann’s criticism of idealism and that of materialism presuppose a Christian view of creation and its realism. ‘The idealist opinion,’ he reasons, ‘contradicts the realism of all Christian philosophy, for which the world is not an unreal transcript of a world of ideas that have being as such, but a creation of God.’ His criticism of materialism follows similar lines. It is exactly because of his realism that Spaemann’s philosophy cannot be adequately characterized as anti-modern, for he does not share in the irrational and anti-realist outlook of a great many anti-modern philosophers, but attempts to preserve the realistic features of modern philosophy too. In his ‘overcoming of modernity’ he wants to ‘embed the true contents of human self-realization, for which we are indebted to modernity, in insights which come from far away’.

Centering On The Human Person
In doing so, Spaemann endeavors to understand reality consistently and without neglecting its major spheres or dichotomizing it into an objective realm of mere nature and a subjective realm of freedom. His view of reality finds its centre in the human person. The person and his experience of self is, according to Spaemann, paradigmatic of our understanding of reality: ‘Personality is the paradigm for being — not as “something in general”, but as transcendence of objectivity “being in itself.”

To experience the claim that lies in the existence of the other person means fully to experience reality. The person freely relates to his nature. Or, as Robert Sokolowski has nicely summarized Spaemann’s view of the person: ‘As person we shepherd ourselves, and we must cultivate ourselves in accordance with the nature that we have.’ So nature and freedom do not provide philosophy with alternative, but with complementary, ‘foundations.’ They are, properly understood, intrinsically related to one another in the experience of the other and of the self as Selbstsein.

Reason and Reality
In providing a philosophy of the person, as we will see, Spaemann overcomes many of the important shortcomings of modernity and shows that reality cannot be fully understood on entirely modern premises. Reason, his argument goes, is related to reality. Reality however, is always already given. It is a gift of which we have to become more fully aware. It is already there and is not the product of our imagination and making. Consequently, it is not constructed or posited by human reason and autonomy, and cannot be understood adequately by means of an aprioristic philosophy of consciousness. Subjectivity and freedom, Spaemann argues, can only fully be understood if what precedes and limits them is not overlooked. Thus, the notions of nature and substance must not be lost sight of, for otherwise the subject is in danger of being reduced to a mere instantiation of sense perception and memories, and of freedom that has become its own measure.

Spaemann also takes issue with the view that the dismissal of a religious view of reality (the view of reality as a creation, for instance) does not have huge implications for our general view of reality. Such a paradigmatic shift in the understanding of reality has far-reaching implications. In his philosophy he discloses those implications and argues that we have to make a decision about how to view reality. This, he shows, is not a question of strictly theoretical significance, but rather a practical question that concerns the future and self-understanding of mankind.

Spaemann thus attempts to advance considerations that are not meant to be ‘up to date.’ This may be one of the reasons why his philosophy is in fact ‘up to date’ after all. Spaemann’s philosophy, it will be pointed out, provides a powerful counter position to many of the prevailing currents of modern philosophy. It is powerful in that it appeals to ‘common sense’ and recollects what Spaemann considers self-evident and what can only be denied at very great expense — that is, at the cost of self-contradiction and the dismissal of fundamental dimensions of human experience.

For denying personal identity in a book of several hundred pages cannot but be self-contradictory. Who, it must be asked, has written this book which, one would presume, reflects a consistent argument by a writer who, however he may have changed over the course of writing the book and afterwards, is still the same person? And who is supposed to read the book and to understand its argument? In the same manner, as Spaemann shows, the ethical urgency of a great many sociobiological writings runs counter to the arguments they propose. If ethics is nothing but a mere by-product of the natural evolutionary process, and if Being and meaning are dichotomized, why should it make sense to appeal to the reader’s conscience and to promote a conduct which, say, preserves the natural conditions of the existence of humanity? If morality itself is a product of an utterly random evolutionary process, why is it not sufficient to trust that evolution will find its way with or without human beings on its side?

A Counter-Model For Understanding Reality
In a period when philosophical, scientific, and technological developments disclose the unintentional implications of modernity and its analysis of reality, Spaemann does not merely criticize the history of modern philosophy and its development towards a representation of reality as process. He also provides a counter-model for understanding reality that, given the prevailing tendencies of modern and late modern reason, is highly original without claiming to be so. Its originality lies, so to speak, in its renunciation of originality, in its confessed indebtedness to the tradition of Western philosophy and, consequently, to what is already given as well as to what is beyond the reach of autonomous human reason — nature, freedom, history, the ‘other’ and God. Thus, in the opening sentence of Happiness and Benevolence he can express the hope ‘that these thoughts on ethics contain nothing fundamentally new.’

In Spaemann’s view, philosophy does not discover utterly new things, but brings back to mind what we have once known. It is for this reason that Spaemann’s thought can be called revolutionary in the sense in which he understands the word: Spaemann remarks in passing apropos of Rousseau that ‘all great revolutions have understood themselves not as innovations, but as restoration, as recourse to an old forgotten and betrayed truth.’ Spaemann’s approach thus also transcends and questions the common dichotomization of restorative and revolutionary thought and draws attention to a deeper criterion that makes it possible to distinguish between different kinds of revolution and restoration. ‘Restoration as such’, he argues, ‘is neither good nor bad. It is good if something good is restored; it is bad if something bad is restored.’ It depends, he reasons, ‘upon the quality of a society whether disintegration is desirable or not.’

Philosophy As A Socratic Endeavor
His philosophy, we will argue, provides us with a revolutionary example of a good restoration. Philosophy is to preserve, and to remind us of, the largely unspoken-of limits of human action and the background of specific ideas and traditions. Over against a ‘grown-up view of reality’, it ‘naively’ remembers particularly reason and freedom as ‘prejudices of our childhood’ in order to preserve humanity from the abolition of itself. We need these prejudices (Vorurteile) of our childhood, Spaemann reasons, because they are ‘the presupposition for our judgments (Urfrile)’ We cannot live meaningfully as human beings without them.

Spaemann characterizes philosophy explicitly as a Socratic endeavor. In this he once again finds support from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who made much of Socrates’ celebrated profession of ignorance and criticized those Enlightenment thinkers who thought they could find in Socrates a champion to oppose Christ. Against the supposedly enlightened and antichristian wisdom of modernity Spaemann makes his own case for Socratic ignorance — like Socrates, he confesses ‘that I do not think that I know what I do not know and, in the manner of Rousseau’s Socrates, engages in combat against sophistry; both ancient and modern. Philosophy is a conversational enterprise that, through the very fact that it is conversational and realistic, does justice to what cannot properly be understood from a relativistic point of view. To raise questions and to remind people of what they already know thus tends to be more important than attempting fully to answer such questions which, for the most part, cannot be answered even in the long run. So in Spaemann’s view philosophy is essentially characterized by a ‘philosophical anarchy,’ by a non-dominion. His philosophy does not challenge or contradict Christianity’s therefore; indeed, we will argue that the opposite is the case.

He thus strongly criticizes the absolutism and reductionism of modernity because ‘the categories of modern consciousness do not seem to be suitable to depict unabbreviated and without profound corrections what Christianity is all about. If modern philosophy tends to be ‘philosophy sub specie Dei’ — as Spaemann convincingly said of nominalism and of utilitarianism — this needs to be explored and criticized for what it really is: an arrogant pretension that tends to turn inhumane because it no longer upholds the difference between creator and creation, or, to put it differently, between an infinite being and finite beings, and no longer sees the proper possibilities and limits of philosophical reasoning.

A Self-Referential And Repetitive Philosophy
In addition to the thematic consistency of Spaemann’s thought, his philosophy is also characterized by consistency over time. Spaemann admits in the preface to the 1998 edition of his doctoral dissertation that he has not moved far from his original standpoint. This is not to say that his thought is self-referential and repetitive. Spaemann’s philosophy is rather the continuous examination of an original and self-evident insight about the very nature of reality. The history of philosophy, too, is characterized by such a continuity, according to Spaemann. He subjects philosophy and its continuity neither to the logic of progressive development nor to the anti-logic of discontinuous events, or chains of events, among which communication and mediation seem to be utterly impossible.

In taking this approach he does not dismiss the history of philosophy and the particular form philosophical thought has taken, but rather affirms it as ‘an integral component of philosophy’. This is why Spaemann’s philosophical endeavor recalls the tradition of Western thought with implied approval, while he criticizes Martin Heidegger because Heidegger, in his view, does not ‘appeal to the philosophical and religious tradition of Europe.’ Spaemann shares many of his key ideas with Heidegger, particularly the understanding of philosophy as free philosophizing and important elements of his criticism of modernity, but he follows, as we will see, a different trajectory in that he recalls the philosophical and religious tradition in a more affirmative manner than Heidegger…

A Religious Motif
[T]he final motif of his philosophy, particularly of his criticism of modernity; may well be a religious one. ‘Only a Christianity he points out, ‘that makes explicit the opposition to the modern world on a level with modernity is capable of filling people with enthusiasm.’ This is why the ‘apologetic’ exploration and defense of Christianity — which ‘as an “absolute religion” [is] alien to the modern civilization and cannot be assimilated to it’ is another of the leitmotifs of this philosophy.

Spaemann’s criticism of modernity is therefore ultimately informed by a Christian point of view, though it can also be appreciated in purely philosophical terms. It is, however, important to point out that he would resist the tendency to confuse philosophy with theology, because it leads either to a corrupt theology or to a substandard philosophy. His philosophy appeals to human reason and may well provide Christianity with ‘foundations’ though it does not presuppose Christian theology in any way. It does presuppose an openness in his readers to conversion, in order to understand reality more fully. But ‘to encounter reality’ Spaemann argues, ‘means to encounter the invisible.’


Understanding The Crisis Of Modernity

October 1, 2010

Newton used the Bible’s Book of Daniel to calculate the date for the Apocalypse. "No sooner than 2060" was his conclusion.

Many may be unfamiliar with Robert Spaemann. Spaemann is a conservative philosopher whose focus is on Christian ethics. He is known for his work in bioethics, ecology, and human rights. Although not yet widely translated into languages other than his native German, Spaemann in considered to be one of the most important virtue ethicists alive today, and his work is highly regarded by his native countryman Pope Benedict XVI. I first came across his name in a reading on Benedict XVI’s criticism of Modernity.  Second part here.

This brief tour d’horizon of the crisis of modernity cannot but fail to provide an adequate account of the wide spectrum of responses to the spirit of modernity. Yet this quick sketch, as well as the equally sketchy account of the late modern situation, offers a background against which one can consider an examination of Robert Spaemann’s philosophy that engages in both an explicit and, more often, an implicit conversation with many of the philosophers, writers, and theologians mentioned above, as well as with the dialectical spirit of modernity itself. More selections from Robert Spaemann’s Philosophy of the Human Person by Holger Zaborowski will be coming.

The End Of The Modern World
It is almost a truism to speak of the ‘end of the modern world,’ of the crisis of modernity, or, in a less extreme way, of the critical condition of modern rationality. Modern consciousness, as the German philosopher Robert Spaemann has often argued, ‘nears its end.’ Because of this, he further reasons, we can now describe it and attempt to understand and criticize it. We may also endeavor to go beyond modernity, as have many so-called post-modern philosophers, whose attitude toward modernity, almost by definition, is critical and censorious. Those philosophers, most of whom are inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, argue that modernity has failed irretrievably and needs to be surpassed philosophically. It is therefore time, they think, to announce, more or less triumphantly, the end of modernity and to enter into a new, ‘post-modern’ age.

While some interpret the current crisis as symptomatic of modernity as such, others argue that it is simply a failure of modernity to realize itself. Jurgen Habermas, for instance, who would doubtless not go so far as to associate the crisis with key presuppositions of Enlightenment rationality, characterizes modernity as a yet ‘unfinished project’ that is in need of further attention.

Begging the Question
Whether modernity is considered a failed or an unfinished project, it is plausible to argue that the catastrophic course of the twentieth century has demonstrated the long-disguised implications and ambiguities of many key ideas that constitute modernity, and that human beings are thus, as Romano Guardini argued, in need of a new ‘search for orientation.’ The current crisis of modernity also discloses, Spaemann states, that ‘modernity, as a “scientific Weltanschauung”., does not have arguments; it is based on petitiones principii (the logical fallacy of assuming the conclusion in the premises; begging the question) and thus relies on often well-hidden assumptions that are not sufficiently explicated and proven.

It is particularly these hidden assumptions that have become questionable and problematic and may explain why modernity gives the impression of being subject to a dialectic that progressively undermines it. In the course of this crisis of modernity it has become obvious to some that the modern mind can only shape culture in a human manner as long as it is not merely modern. ‘It cannot be the case that the only essential thing about modernity’, Spaemann points out, ‘is its being modern.’

In this perceived situation of crisis accounts of the legitimacy, genesis, and development of modernity have been produced, as well as numerous critical appreciations of the fundamental principles of modern reason. These latter raise the issue of why modernity has developed signs of a crisis, and what accounts for the dialectical structure of modernity which C. S. Lewis has pointedly called the ‘tragic-comedy of our situation’, in which ‘we continue to clamor for those very qualities we are rendering impossible.’

The Abstract Universality Of Modern Reason
One explanation for the crisis of modernity is that the abstract universality of modern reason is inclined to dismiss nature itself and the particular social and historical context within which reason needs to be positioned (because it is always already positioned in this very context). The enterprise to set aside not only nature but also history and society, however, cannot but fail, for it tends to turn against itself and its own presuppositions. What does this mean? We may try an initial and rather sketchy answer at this point in our argument. Emancipation, for example, only makes sense as long as freedom is not made an absolute and strictly opposed to nature. Otherwise, freedom turns into arbitrariness and, finally, becomes mere nature and is thus annihilated.

The language of rights, therefore, can, in the end, only be spoken as long as the vocabulary of the common good, characteristic of the classical political tradition, maintains some purchase. Otherwise, liberalism may become a totalitarian ideology that is closed to every other view of reality, making real freedom impossible. ‘Empty subjective freedom,’ Spaemann argues with regard to the French Revolution, thus implicitly referring to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, ‘could not but spawn terror.’ The idea of universal and inalienable human rights, furthermore, only makes sense as long as every human being — and not only some groups of human beings — is the subject of those rights, simply by being a member of the natural human species. To put it more precisely, every human being needs to be understood not to have rights that can be attributed or not, but essentially to be a demand for recognition and to disclose a specific dignity, the inalienable dignity of the human person.

Reality Is Fully Explainable In Scientific Terms
A second cause of the crisis of modernity is that very often the natural and social sciences tend not to see the limits of their methods; that is to say, they assert that reality is fully explainable in scientific terms. Modern natural sciences and their technological application have undoubtedly improved the conditions of human life and helped us to understand reality to a previously unimaginable degree; so any unqualified criticism of the natural sciences and modern technology cannot but miss the point. This needs to be said against some radical critics of modern technology who speak of its failure or its demonic character where more moderate language would be much mote appropriate, language as moderate (and realistic) as Heidegger’s ‘“yes” and at the same time “no” toward modern technology.

Yet the natural sciences are based on a methodological reductionism that was initially acknowledged but is now increasingly disregarded. What originated in a deliberate methodological restriction came to be constructed as an epistemological and ontological statement about reality as such, so that scientific hypothesis has become the paradigm for any reality-related predication. A scientific culture of this kind is incapable of understanding not only moral and ontological absolutes or the meaning of human life, but also its own purpose, its nature, the scientist’s desire for knowledge, and his personal subjective involvement in his research. Moreover, science so conceived contradicts itself in not seeing the limits of a paradigm of what is, after all, only hypothetical knowledge.

The Functionalistic Outlook Of Modern Sciences
Modern sciences also have a functionalistic outlook; that is, they tend to understand reality in terms of functional relations. Let us consider this a bit further. Until the rise of the modern sciences and epistemologies, the sciences and epistemology were regarded as being inseparable from ethics and ontology. The search for scientific knowledge and its understanding was thus embedded in the wider context of the search for goodness and truth. This changed notably in modernity.

According to an important, perhaps the predominant, epistemological framework of the modern sciences, all reality, including goodness and truth, is understood with respect to the functional conditions of its genesis and existence. The questions pertaining to how something came about and how it functions have replaced the older, and more fundamental, question of what something essentially, or by its very nature, is and how it is related to the human pursuit of goodness and truth.

We raise no criticism against a methodological functionalism as this is a means to understanding certain dimensions of reality. There is, however, much to be said against functionalism made an absolute; for functionalism turns into a ‘new dogmatism’ if we do not think about those basic truths which cannot be defined from a functionalistic point of view, but in fact serve to justify functions themselves. Given these tendencies of the modern sciences and the desire for objectifiable knowledge, human nature is vulnerable to being set equal to non-human objects.

This conflation has huge implications. Just one maybe briefly mentioned here. The intentional structure of human action and thus the difference between actions and merely natural events (such as a thunderstorm) can no longer adequately be understood.’ Ethics is consequently clothed in quasi-scientific dress — depending on the latest fashion, it may be utilitarianism, futurology, behaviorism, other kinds of psychology, sociobiology, or evolutionary ethics.

Reality Is Ultimately Reduced To Process
Hence, a third element in the crisis of modernity is that reality is ultimately reduced to process. Thomas Hobbes paradigmatically maintained that ‘by Philosophy, is understood the Knowledge acquired by Reasoning, from the Manner of the Generation of any thing, to the Properties; or from the Properties, to some possible Way of Generation of the same; to the end to be able to produce, as far as matter, and humane force permit, such Effects, as humane life requireth.’ Hobbes defines philosophy as genealogy; that is to say, as genetic analysis of reality. This implies that the whole is entirely explainable in terms of its parts and their coming-into-existence. Being, strictly speaking, has been made a by-product of the universal process of becoming. Hobbes, furthermore, transforms philosophy into a practical science, the results of which are supposed to be applicable ‘as humane life requireth.’

Philosophy As An Instrumentalist Viewpoint
Therefore, a fourth explanation of the crisis of modernity is that philosophy is treated as a practical, applied science and thus tends to be valued from an instrumentalist viewpoint. The French philosophes, as Spaemann points out, already defined themselves with reference to their social function within the Enlightenment context. Their nature was their function; that is to say, to enlighten society. A merely theoretical contemplation of reality no longer played the fundamental role that ancient and medieval philosophers would have attributed to it.

God And Religion As The ‘God Meme’
Furthermore, not only philosophy but even God and religion have been interpreted as merely serving a certain function for the individual or for society — a functionalism affirmed by the French counter-revolution, for instance, while being dismissed as an idle projection by nineteenth-century Marxist, Feuerbachian, and Freudian, as well as contemporary sociobiological criticisms of religion. Religion is then entirely understood with respect to its function and not with respect to its truth claim or its own self-understanding, which — in most, if not cases of traditional religion — does not support a merely functionalist view of religion as outlined by Richard Dawkins, for instance.

Dawkins speaks of the ‘god meme’, which exists because of its ‘great psychological appeal’, for ‘it proves a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence.’

However, if religion has been entirely dismissed (which is not a necessary implication of a functionalist view of religion), a ‘functional equivalent’ is required. Political parties or different philosophies have eagerly, and, indeed, often disastrously, taken over the role of religion. What religion essentially is, namely the glorification and love of God for God’s sake alone (an answer that is not only found in Christianity but common to many world religions), has been lost sight of within the functionalistic paradigm for modern reason.

While many modern thinkers still relied heavily upon their pre-modern legacy — and, more often than not, on transformations or secularizations of Christian doctrine, such as the doctrines of original sin, the hypostatic union of divinity and humanity in Christ, or the coming of the kingdom of God — late modern philosophy has attempted to radicalize the thrust of modern thought against its pre-modern predecessors. Friedrich Nietzsche, as Spaemann rightly points out, was aware that modernity still presupposed the Platonic and Christian notion of truth that ‘God is truth and truth is divine.’

Irrationalism And The Crisis Of Modernity
Hence, to become fully modern meant to overthrow this awkward pre-modern inheritance. Enlightenment rationalism, one can argue, turned into the irrationalism of a metaphysics of will, whether the will is ultimately denied in a manner reminiscent of Schopenhauer’s Western Buddhism or affirmed à la Nietzsche This irrationalism may be an important element of the crisis of modernity which has not yet been overcome; it is still apparent in important strands of the ‘post-modern situation’ –which may, after all, better be called a late modern situation.

Given the crisis of late modernity, there seems to be a need for philosophers, who are, as Robert Spaemann states, ‘specialists in the management of intellectual crisis.’ In Spaemann’s interpretation, philosophy is even a very important, if not, indeed, a necessary ‘condition for the public continuity of notions such as “freedom” and “human dignity” in the modern epoch of science — a milieu which has huge implications for our understanding of these notions.

Every Philosophy Becomes Naïve
This is why the end of philosophy, Spaemann further argues, would be the end of free humanity. The crisis of modernity is therefore not only the crisis of philosophy, but also the time when philosophy is most required. Thus, there is a need for philosophy today, and today’s philosophers need to think about their own times, that is about the crisis of our time; for otherwise, Spaemann frequently argues, ‘every philosophy becomes naive and thus does not fulfill what it is supposed to do.’

So-called post-modern philosophy (unless it is very widely conceived) is not the only response to the shortcomings of modern reason. There is also a multifaceted trend to reconnect to a pre-modern knowledge and to bring back into consciousness what has been lost sight of in modernity. The representatives of this tendency are often closely related to one another. While there are some substantial differences, primarily between religiously committed and non-committed thinkers, many differences are rather differences in emphasis. All these writers converge in that they do not share basic presuppositions of modern rationality and recollect an older more primordial view of reality that, as they argue, has not yet been irretrievably lost, but needs to be rediscovered. They vary, however, with respect to their specific presuppositions and with respect to the remedy that they claim to provide. Three different counter-modern tendencies are significant for our purposes.

There is, most prominently, the rediscovery of Platonic, Aristotelian, and Thomist philosophies, and the re-appreciation of natural-law theories, virtue ethics, pit modern political philosophy, and teleological philosophies of nature. One might think of philosophers as diverse as Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Peter Geach, G. E. M. Anscombe, Alasdair MacIntyre, and John Finnis, and also of Leo Strauss, Hans Jonas, Hannah Arendt, Charles Taylor, Joachim Ritter, and their respective schools.

A second group differs from this first one especially in its method. While the philosophers of the first group prefer a strictly philosophical and very often highly technical style, the second group has a greater variety of styles — very often relatively accessible ones — at its disposal. Here one might think of G. K. Chesterton, Charles Péguy, Iris Murdoch, George Grant, C. S. Lewis and many others.

A third group also differs in method, but in a more substantial way. Modernity has found its theological opponents, most of whom do not consider themselves ‘post-modern’ (in the philosophical sense of the term) and cannot appropriately be labelled as such. Their enterprise, too, is characterized by the recollection of ideas that modern reason tends to dismiss. The borders, again, are fluid. One might think of Karl Barth and subsequent post-liberal theologians such as Hans Frei, George Lindbeck, Oliver O’Donovan, John Webster, and Colin Gunton; of Radical Orthodoxy and its exponents, such as John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward; and of Hans Urs von Balthasar and the increasing interest that his theology arouses.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 273 other followers