The New Rationalism: Albert Schweitzer's Philosophy of Reverence for Life by David K. Goodin (review)
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Reviewed by
David K. Goodin. The New Rationalism: Albert Schweitzer's Philosophy of Reverence for Life. McGill-Queen's University Press 2014. xii, 220. $34.95

A household name in the mid-twentieth century, Albert Schweitzer, Nobel Peace Prize winner, brilliant musician and theologian, and dedicated missionary doctor (as well as comic fodder for The Dick Van Dyke Show), has largely faded from view in contemporary philosophical discourse. David Goodin attempts to rectify this vista in this well-researched, lucid, and thoughtful contextualization of Schweitzer's "New Rationalism."

The study strives to demonstrate that Schweitzer, rather than simply a philanthropic physician with a noble but metaphysically shallow "reverence for life" ethic, was in fact a sophisticated interpreter of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche who used aspects of these two thinkers to undergird his constructive philosophical project. In attempting to combine an ethic of compassion responsive to a post-Holocaust, post-Hiroshima landscape, a terrain also marred by increased ecological despoliation, Schweitzer attempted a new ontology of the human person, striving to find an elemental philosophy of nature compatible with empirical science. This project, which he labelled the "New Rationalism," included a reverence for life ethic and a highly refined notion of ethical mysticism, as Goodin carefully details.

An especially fresh attempt is made here to situate these intellectual currents within contemporary postmodern theory and our global ecological moment, pockmarked by global climate change, rapid species loss, ocean acidification, and the rise of the "anthropocene," in which the human species, for the first time, is a powerful shaper of geological evolution.

Goodin stresses that, ultimately, Schweitzer is attempting to create a philosophy of civilization, not a new religious worldview. In fact, the author points out that in many ways Schweitzer is post-Christian, and establishes an ethic of love that could be accepted universally, by atheists and believers alike. This comingling of philosophy, mysticism, and natural science, Goodin argues, is a defining and distinctive aspect of Schweitzer's work.

The author helpfully shows how Schweitzer borrows the cosmological will-to-live from Schopenhauer, combining it with the Cartesian self-aware ego, leading to an "I + the-will-to-live" formula that helps explain internal consciousness. While anticipating Heidegger's "there-beingness" (Dasein), Schweitzer, Goodin avers, in contrast to Heidegger, presents each person's inner essence "as a unique and complicated nexus consisting of biological factors, cultural historicity, and a single thin thread of the unitary Will that unites all life as life." Schweitzer adds to this Nietzsche's incorporation of evolutionary science, folding them all in a constructive "Reverence for Life" matrix. Goodin shows how Schweitzer's use of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Heidegger reveals an attempt to move early twentieth-century continental philosophy away from certain nihilistic [End Page 126] interpretations of subsequent postmodern theory. One of the greatest contributions of this book, therefore, is to show how Schweitzer provides an alternative reading of certain strands of Continental thought, one that has a place for both metaphysics and social (and environmental) action. Rather than simply providing a galaxy of disconnected subjectivities, Schweitzer's take on early twentieth-century philosophical trajectories leads him to a grounded ethical subject with a secular but mystical connection to all living things. A shared "will to live" is something Schweitzer discerns in earthworms squirming for life across rainy sidewalks to scientists struggling for new cosmological truths. It is this commonality that forms the ethic of reverence for life that he proffers as a metaphysical antidote to a cultural and political thrust leading toward ecological catastrophe, nuclear annihilation, or both.

Stephen Bede Scharper
School of the Environment, University of Toronto
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