The idea guiding my various research interests is an exploration of religion as a resource for moral imagination. Grounded within my long-standing interest in the historical context and inner consistency of Kant’s psychology of “moral religion” or “ethicotheology,” my research aims to clarify the positive potential of religion as a force for social progress and liberation. Acknowledging that there are many resources for this way of thinking, I look at this potential in heterodox Christian traditions ranging from the Pietism that shaped Kant to liberation theology in the current day. Since coming to GW, I have come into conversation with colleagues whose knowledge base and acumen have challenged me to further develop my thoughts on the contemporary relevance of Kant’s ethicotheology for our current political situation. While continuing to work out the details of Kant’s ethicotheology, I have also begun to extend the implications of ethicotheology for Friedrich Schiller and the early German Romantics who philosophized in Kant’s wake, as well as for the critical social thought of Herbert Marcuse in the 20th century, who uses Schiller’s framework to articulate a radically utopian vision. In this way, my research forms a historical arc, stretching from Kant and his predecessors and bending toward twentieth century thinkers who notice a similar potential for traditional ideas to be rearticulated in a way that clarifies the conditions for (and desirability of) a society defined by inclusivity, fairness, and self-determination. I am currently working on a book juxtaposing Kant’s ethicotheology with the approach of Latin American liberation theology. I argue that the instrumentalization of individuals for the progress of the human species in Kant’s philosophy of history betrays Kant’s own best insights about the inviolability of individual dignity in philosophy of religion—and that a more consistent articulation of this moral religion can be found within Latin American liberation theological tradition (in figures such as Gustavo Gutiérrez, Ignacio Ellacuría, Jon Sobrino, and Paulo Freire). This reading of Kant along a decolonial axis in turn rearticulates the neglected utopian potency of Kant’s immortality postulate, underscoring the perpetual vigor and validity of our unfinished moral striving.
Is democracy sacred? Is a king a god of all he surveys? Is God the king of kings? Can secular bureaucracy avoid functioning like a church? For better or worse, we frequently utilize religious language and concepts in our political discourse and even our political philosophy—often without knowing it. Vice-versa, religious people frequently draw from the political sphere for metaphors that will express the majesty, power, immensity, or freedom they discover in their spiritual experience. This course in political theology will philosophically explore this intersection within various strains of Jewish and Christian thought. We will begin with a “magisterial” tradition that sees God as all-powerful, underpinning “the divine right of kings.” Then we will explore the liberation theological tradition that sees God as taking the side of the disempowered and oppressed. Taking the approach of philosophers, we will step beyond whatever we believe or don’t believe, analyzing these familiar ideas for their conceptual coherence or incoherence—and discover the rich multiplicity of ways of looking at politics and religion.
Special courses previously taught:
Thomas Aquinas once argued, “If evil exists, then God exists.” We are surely taken by the counterintuitive boldness of this statement; the existence of evil in the world strikes us as strong evidence against any claim that there exists a God who personally cares for us. Any careful thought on this issue requires that we first think through what we mean by funny little words such as evil and God. Is evil real, and an opposite force to goodness, or is evil only what we label as being less good than something else? Could it be that God benevolently wants to stop evil, but simply lacks enough power to do so—and would such a deity still count as God? What is more central to what people revere: power or goodness?
This class will explore these questions as we wonder whether the idea of God is compatible with the existence of evil, looking both at classical sources as well as philosophical responses to the Holocaust. Significant authors include Plato, Leibniz, Kant, Arendt, Levinas, and Hans Jonas. Our course will also include discussions of philosophical literature, namely parts of Voltaire’s Candide and Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, which both explore the question of what goodness is good for in a world that suffers.
• Spinoza and His Critics: Nihilism, Pantheism, and the Crisis of Reason
Can anything exist apart from everything? This question is central to the thought of Benedict de Spinoza, who (in)famously argued that God and Nature are the same all-encompassing Reality, and all things that we usually suppose to be independent substances—a tree, a rock, the White House, you, me, this syllabus, and so on—are all just fluctuating parts of this one Being whose everlasting power allowed them all to arise in the first place. To some, Spinoza’s system appears to be atheism by another name, for better or for worse; if everything is divine, then nothing is. To others, Spinoza’s system appears to be the most devout affirmation of God possible; if everything is divine, there is nowhere God isn’t.
These conflicting interpretations, and the extent to which they display or distort the essence of Spinoza’s rigorous thinking, will form the subject matter of this Philosophy Proseminar. We will spend the first half of the semester closely studying the entirety of Spinoza’s masterpiece, the Ethics. We will spend the second half of the semester looking at the critical responses Spinoza posthumously provoked in late 18th century Germany, where an intellectual firestorm about the consequences of Spinozism was so intense that it broke up friendships, alarmed the authorities, and was said to have stressed one philosopher to the point of death. In this way, we will see how this controversy set the stage for major currents in 19th century European philosophy, and by extension, our contemporary world.
• Myth as Truth
This course is an experiment in thinking about how a myth can be true. The word myth has come to mean the very opposite of truth; in common parlance, a myth is an untruth that is thoughtlessly accepted and propagated without rational confirmation. In this sense, a myth is “just a story” (mythos), and appears diametrically opposed to its counter-concept of reason (logos). The original meaning of the Greek word mythos is “story”—which is also one of the meanings of logos—and with this a hidden affinity between the two becomes thinkable. What if mythos and logos are two different but compatible ways of telling a story? What if myth is not the lowest form of thoughtlessness, but actually a higher form of thoughtfulness, a poetic way of thinking that deals with realities so deep they cannot be directly analyzed?
Under the contemporary conception of myth as an untruth, a myth could be true only in the event that the story it tells corresponds with facts we can verify through some empirical method. Any story is therefore true by corresponding to those facts. This conception is not half as innocuous and inevitable as it first appears, because it rests upon the unspoken presupposition that all truth consists in the correspondence of thoughts with reality—and in particular, with physical (or more to the point, measurable) reality. There are other theories of truth besides this “correspondence theory”; for example, we could alternatively think of truth as the coherence of various thoughts with one another. What if the human mind is not divorced from what is real by a yawning chasm, but included in reality as its home? Then the activity of truthful thinking would not require removing ourselves from our existential situation to achieve a detached objectivity, but could perhaps invite us to nestle deeper into the subjective aspects of our life, and in so doing, touch upon the wider world encompassing us. In other words, thinking could be oriented toward what is absolute or of ultimate importance—that is, what is sacred. Perhaps this kind of truth lies within our stories about the sacred, our myths.
As students rose up throughout Paris in 1968, a utopian slogan appeared on walls: “Be realistic: demand the impossible!” This seminar on the philosophy of utopianism will go deep into the heart of what informs this paradoxical statement. What if our sense of what counts as realistic is itself unrealistic, that is to say, it ignores what is truly possible? The popular definition of politics as “the art of the possible” begins to edge on metaphysical dimensions when we engage in utopian thinking: what counts as real? What is the status of the ideal that transcends the real? How can idealism be realized, and what does that say about us as “realizers” of the ideal? Whereas some courses treat all utopian visions as dystopian visions in disguise, this course is an experiment in taking utopianism seriously, and exploring the breadth of social possibilities that fit under this approach. From Thomas More’s book that gave utopia its name, to the rejection of utopianism by Freud and Marx, from its rehabilitation by Ernst Bloch and Herbert Marcuse of “the Frankfurt School,” from feminist and queer theory to liberation theology, this course will explore the way that utopia is a world in which many worlds fit. If hope is a rainbow, we are on our way to see the togetherness where it ends.
“Kant, Immanuel,” entry for the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Religion (forthcoming, publication date TBD)”
“The Polymorphous Political Theology of Novalis and Marcuse,” (anti-)classicism & (anti-)idealism, Walter de Gruyter (forthcoming, publication date TBD)
“The Liberating Possibilities of the Sublime for Marcuse’s Project of Aesthetic Education,” to be included in an edited volume, Multidimensional Marcuse: Radical Thought/Radical Action Today (paper accepted, volume under review with Palgrave Macmillan)
“Leisure is Not a Luxury: The Revolutionary Promise of Reverie in Marcuse,” Radical Philosophy Review 19:2 (2016), 1-21
“Kant’s Endorsement of the Fear of God,” in Rethinking Kant, Vol. 4, ed. Pablo Muchnik and Oliver Thorndike, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015.
“Kant’s Neglected Account of the Virtuous Solitary,” International Philosophical Quarterly 55:1 (March 2015), 67-83
“Kant’s Two Touchstones for Conviction: The Incommunicable Dimension of Moral Faith,” The Review of Metaphysics 67.1 (December 2013), 369-403