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  • The Second Great Revolution in Phenomenology
  • Merold Westphal

In the early seventies I heard Bob Fogelin give a lecture to incoming first-year students. It was part of a series on current, cutting-edge developments in various disciplines. He pointed out that for some time philosophers had spent little time and effort trying to determine what was right and what was wrong, what was just and unjust, and so on. Instead they asked whether, when we make moral judgments, we are expressing emotions, evoking emotions, prescribing behavior, asserting some natural facts, asserting some nonnatural facts, and so forth. In short, normative ethics had been largely supplanted by meta-ethics. But that seemed to be changing. A guy named Rawls had written a book in which he tried to articulate principles in terms of which we could distinguish just from unjust social practices and institutions. Fogelin prophesied that Rawls had opened Pandora’s box and that philosophers were likely to return to the challenging tasks of normative ethics.

Without drawing an exact parallel, I want to suggest that ethics and religion have moved from a rather peripheral role then to a more central [End Page 333] role now in Continental philosophy.1 The center of attention then was on the magna opera of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty, and these had little to say about either ethics or religion. One had to look elsewhere, and each of the following elsewheres remained peripheral.

There were, of course, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, who between them had a lot to say about ethics and religion. But one mark of the transition from then to now is the increasing importance given to them in contexts like the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy.

There were also the second- and third-tier existentialists: Marcel, Jaspers, Buber, Shestov, Berdyaev, Unamuno, and so forth. There was Ricoeur’s work in hermeneutical phenomenology of religion (The Symbolism of Evil, 1960) and in the hermeneutics of suspicion (Freud and Philosophy, 1970).2 It is this hermeneutical turn to which I refer as the first revolution in phenomenology. The attempts of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty to find a political alternative to Soviet communism and American capitalism also were of significance for ethics.

Finally, there was Sartre, who along with Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud was one of the great secular theologians of original sin. His analyses of how we are the desire to be God and of concrete relations with others in the light of the Look are important for both ethics and the philosophy of religion. With reference to the latter, Sartre writes, “These considerations do not exclude the possibility of an ethics of deliverance and salvation. But this can be achieved only after a radical conversion which we can not discuss here.”3 Sartre points us toward radical evil only to drop the subject like a hot potato. But he had signaled, without knowing it, the second revolution.

It would be foolish to deny that there are rich resources, especially for philosophy of religion, in these elsewheres. But they remained peripheral insofar as the main task was to clarify the Cartesian and anti-Cartesian dimensions of the phenomenological project and to find its existential import in time, death, and the body rather than, say, in God, the right, and the good. As already indicated, only Sartre’s analysis of the other brought the conversation directly in touch with ethics and religion.


The movement from then to now, so far as ethics and philosophy of religion are concerned, can be largely told in relation to five proper names: Ricoeur, [End Page 334] Levinas, Kierkegaard, Derrida, and Marion. Paul Ricoeur was already part of then, but as he kept writing, so broadly and so deeply, he became more and more an inescapable part of the now. The problem is that he did this in so many different ways that he could easily take up all my time and space and then some. Not just in such collections as Thinking Biblically and Figuring the Sacred but whenever he wrote about virtually anything, be it time and narrative, memory, metaphor, interpretation, translation, ideology, evil, justice, the self (as other), recognition, or whatever, he...


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