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Stephen Mulhall's ultimate claim is
that the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Ludwig Wittgenstein
shows that it is possible to take religion seriously. Since many people already consider themselves to be either
religious or at least open-minded, this might not seem to be a conclusion that
needs much argument, but not everyone treats religion as a live option. Perhaps more problematic for Mulhall's
thesis is that it is already well known that these thinkers had religious
inclinations. Part of Nietzsche's point
about the death of God is that this is a momentous (alleged) event and that we
need to find or create some substitute for God or religion. Heidegger, as Mulhall notes, famously said
that only a god can save us now. And
Wittgenstein said that he saw every problem from a religious point of view. So the claim that if we take these philosophers seriously thenwe ought to take religion seriously might not appear to be
controversial at all. But of course
Mulhall wants to suggest more than this.
Christianity, he believes, offers the best solution to the problems he diagnoses
in the work of his chosen authors. He
does not, however, believe that he can prove this, which is why his explicit
claims are so often modest, and why he takes the indirect approach that he
does, addressing other people's texts rather than, say, Being itself.
In the process, he produces short
yet very sophisticated accounts of Nietzsche on the death of God and the
genealogy of morality, Heidegger on authenticity, mortality and animality, and
Wittgenstein on Augustine's picture of language. His criticisms of Nietzsche and Heidegger are original and
insightful, as are his comments on Wittgenstein, which are rather less
critical. He is quite right to observe
that it is hard to see how exactly the slave revolt in morality is supposed to
have got off the ground according to Nietzsche's account, as it would seem to
require that a portion of the master caste subject themselves in a definitively
unmasterly way to the slaves. Mulhall's
critique of Heidegger draws on, and develops, some of his previous work on Being and Time. He finds Heidegger's work not nearly as far
removed from Søren Kierkegaard's, and hence from Christianity, as Heidegger
makes out. (Although it should be noted
that this is a particular kind of Christianity, one according to which
"God is best understood as no thing at all--as nothing" (p.
His argument falls short of being a
proof (as he well knows), but also varies in its plausibility, because of its
dependence on speculation and suggestion.
For instance, on p. 23, discussing Nietzsche's madman on the murder of
God, Mulhall tells us that, "In certain moods, [he finds] that
[Nietzsche's] turns of phrase bring passages and themes from Shakespeare's Macbeth irresistibly to mind." Three pages on Macbeth, more than ten percent of the whole chapter on Nietzsche,
then follow. Doubtless Mulhall is not
alone in thinking of Macbeth in this
connection--his moods are not eccentric--but not every reader in every mood
will feel that the link is relevant.
Similarly, not every reader will agree that it is "striking"
(p. 109) that Wittgenstein uses the letters A and B to refer consistently to a
builder and his assistant, respectively, in the opening sections of Philosophical Investigations. To those that disagree, the invitation will
be illegible "to acknowledge that an inflection of the master-slave model
of human social relations that Hegel made famous" (pp. 109-110) is
implicit in the Augustinian picture that Wittgenstein critiques.
Pointing out his reliance on
debatable inferences is not to say that Mulhall is deluded. The connections, parallels, and similarities
that he points out are there to be seen.
The problem is that others are too, and his selection of which to bring
to the reader's attention is, of course, related to his perspective and agenda. He asks whether Nietzsche's genealogy
amounts to "anything more than the Christian truth in foul disguise?"
(p. 44) But one might, with equal
logical justification, regard Christianity as a foul perversion of the
Nietzschean truth. It might be that
Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein share with Christianity the belief that
human beings are structurally perverse and ultimately unfathomable. It might be that they are right to do
so. It does not follow that
Christianity is true, even if there are irresolvable paradoxes or confusions in
the theories of this or that thinker, or even if Christianity is the only one
of these views that allows for hope.
Perhaps its hope is misplaced.
Perhaps some other similar theory could be developed that would avoid
all these problems. Even if that is not
the case, Christianity of Mulhall's preferred, Kierkegaardian, self-confessedly
paradoxical kind (he calls it, after James Alison's work on René Girard,
"the joy of being wrong") can hardly be taken seriously as the
solution (rather than as an alternative) to philosophical predicaments. Existential Christianity, which is decidedly
not an intellectual theory, is not the kind of thing that could be a solution
to them. Logical difficulties are not
solved by embracing a paradox.
It is sometimes tempting to think
that Mulhall has forgotten this, but I believe that he knows it all along. Which makes one wonder what it is that he
takes himself to be doing. It seems
most likely that he is trying to nudge his readers to the edge of faith in the
hope that they will jump in, knowing all along that only they can make this
leap, and that they must do so for and by themselves. Or it could be that what he is really doing is showing Christian
readers that the works of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein are available
to them too, that a Christian reading of these texts and what they show is
possible. Whether this work will lead
doubting philosophers to Christianity, though, or the faithful to godless
Nietzsche and Heidegger, is uncertain.
© 2005 Duncan Richter
Duncan Richter is
an Associate Professor at the Virginia Military Institute in the Department of
Psychology and Philosophy. He is the author of Ethics
After Anscombe: Post
"Modern Moral Philosophy" (Kluwer,
2000) and several papers on ethics and Wittgenstein.