Kerr, on Cavell and others

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[Posted by BR]

Immortal Longings: Versions of Transcending Humanity

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but until just a few months ago, I was totally unaware of Fergus Kerr’s work. But since learning of him, and beginning to read his writings, I’ve become a big fan. Since I’m probably not the only literary studies person who wasn’t/isn’t aware of Kerr, I wanted to recommend (in addition to his recent book on Wittgenstein and psychology) another work of his that I think readers of this blog will find of great interest: Immortal Longings: Versions of Transcending Humanity. As the subtitle makes clear, Kerr’s book is inspired by Cavell, and indeed, includes an excellent chapter devoted to the role of religion and religious motifs in Cavell’s work. Here is an excerpt from the book’s preface (and below that the table of contents):

Having been invited to give a set of Stanton Lectures in the Philosophy of Religion in the University of Cambridge in the academic year 1994-95, I chose to focus on the religion in some recent philosophy.

As customarily practiced in Anglo-American universities, the philosophy of religion has its own agenda. Philosophers in general seldom show much interest in the philosophy of religion (even when they have religious commitments in private life). For all its thoroughly secular form, however, a good deal of recent philosophical work incorporates religious motifs in a much more important way than might at first appear. The God who has died remains a presence between the lines of many recent texts. The agenda in the philosophy of religion, then, might profitably be extended to include consideration of the religion in recent philosophy.

Uncovering the theological conceptions at work in the projects of these philosophers, as well as sometimes clarifying what they are up to, often reveals the inadequacy of their assumptions about theology — Christian theology in all these cases. (That in itself is a measure of the vaunted pluralism and openness of modern Western culture.) It is chastening for theologians to discover how little many of their contemporaries, in what were related fields of study not so long ago, know about Christianity, and how deeply they sometimes misconceive it.

My starting point was Stanley Cavell’s remark that, for the later Wittgenstein, the metaphysical tradition ‘comes to grief not in denying what we all know to be true, but in its effort to escape those human forms of life which alone provide the coherence of our expression.’ What Wittgenstein wanted, by contrast, was ‘an acknowledgment of human limitation which does not leave us chafed by our own skin, by a sense of powerlessness to penetrate beyond the human conditions of knowledge.’ That is to say, the limitations on our knowledge would no longer feel like ‘barriers to a more perfect apprehension’ — they would simply be accepted as ‘conditions of anything we should call “knowledge”.’

Thus — is there a way, are there ways, of acknowledging the limitations of human existence without regarding them, perhaps with a certain resentment, as barriers, but which, on the other hand, would not simply eliminate our desire to transcend our finitude? ….

Table of Contents:

1. Transcending humanity: Nussbaum’s versions

2. Karl Barth’s Christological metaphysics

3. Heidegger’s cosmogonical myth

4. Back to Plato with Iris Murdoch

5. Irigaray and the sensible transcendental

6. Stanley Cavell and the truth of scepticism

7. Charles Taylor’s moral ontology of the self

8. Natural desire for God

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