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Philosophical Myths of the FallReview - Philosophical Myths of the Fall
by Stephen Mulhall
Princeton University Press, 2005
Review by Duncan Richter, Ph.D.
Sep 10th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 36)

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. 63).)  

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.


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