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  • How Theology Shaped Twentieth-Century Philosophy by Frank B. Farrell
  • Jude P. Dougherty
FARRELL, Frank B. How Theology Shaped Twentieth-Century Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. ix + 264 pp. Cloth, $87.41

Frank B. Farrell is emeritus professor of philosophy at Purchase College, State University of New York. The thesis of the present book is that medieval theology had an important influence on later philosophy that he finds expressed in the empiricism of Russell, Carnap, and Quine, and to a lesser extent in McDowell, Davidson, and others.

The book presupposes more than average knowledge of the course of twentieth-century philosophy and is written for professional philosophers. It targets Kant's antimetaphysics for introducing a kind of skepticism or subjectivism (given that we cannot know things as they are [End Page 364] in themselves) and Hegel's use of a secularized version of Christianity to establish a theory of knowledge. Hegel finds much that was formerly expressed in religious terms can better be expressed in a secular philosophical manner. Even the idea of the Incarnation, of God becoming man in Jesus, is better expressed from a secular perspective. Strangely, the notion of an external or transcendent being that is self-knowing and self-willing enables Hegel to speak, by analogy, of human identity.

In contrast to the Continental style of thinking (which in the cases of Kant and Hegel is bound to European history), Anglo-American philosophy has been more successful in distancing itself from theology and religion. Nietzsche, says Farrell, may be our guide in overcoming the aberration of the present secular versions of the religion and the theology of grace, both of which devalue the power of the individual to go it alone. Self-determination is better accomplished within a social order that allows us to make ourselves in the light of our own reflection, responsibility, and labor. Nietzsche, in examining his own attitudes, emotions, and psychological tendencies, finds that they have been formed too much by Romanticism, by what he calls the "Wagnerianism," and his own Christian upbringing. For Nietzsche, the universe is not designed for human beings who have no special place within it. Humans are but tiny specks on a tiny speck floating in the vastness of space.

From Hegel's point of view Protestantism transfers the character of religion from communal rituals backed by tradition to internal states and processes by which the individual is related more immediately to God.

On Farrell's reading, medieval theology, voluntarism, and the Reformation place pressure on God and inner states. The metaphysical character of the world is eroded and so are one's shared practices with others.

The dialogue with Hegel on the nature of religion continues in a chapter that addresses the nature of religion as found in the Hebrew scriptures On Hegel's account, Jewish religion is structured in terms of a radical opposition between a sublime, unrepresentable deity and, on the other side, a natural order and the natural course of everyday life. If Christianity is the religion of reconciling the divine and human orders, Judaism, says Hegel, must resist any such porousness between the two realms as idola trous. The key principle of Judaism is the ultimate transcendence of the ineffable God.

In a separate chapter, Farrell examines the work of a number of Jewish scholars who comment on Hegel's interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures, namely, Salomon Formstecher, Samuel Hirsch, Herman Cohen, and Walter Benjamin. Farrell's treatment of Cohen is worthwhile. Cohen plays down the notion of an incompressible, ineffable sublime and attempts to define Judaism through a judicious use of the Hebrew prophets as the religion of reason, of ethical ides, and of liberalism. Cohen seems to be saying that "the deep essence of Judaism turns out to be that of German liberal Protestantism, and the deep essence of the latter turns [End Page 365] out to make it equivalent to Judaism." He adds, "Christianity emerged, not from Judaism so conceived, but from paganism and natural religion."

Farrell is mainly interested Walter Benjamin's interpretation (or rather critique) of Hegel. He devotes a full chapter to Benjamin, two to John McDowell, and another to Derrida.

The reader...


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