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The Experience of the Void

  • George Pattison

Abstract

From Hegel to Nietzsche, the philosophy of modernity exploited the Augustinian picture of the divided self as the basis for a new metaphysics that is at one and the same time a metaphysics of subjectivity and a metaphysics of nothingness. Whether that metaphysics constitutes itself as the exposition of absolute knowledge (Hegel) or as the quest of a projected unity that endlessly slips away from completion (Nietzsche — and Sartre: ‘Man is a useless passion’1), being is conceived only as it appears in and through the horizon of nothingness, a horizon within which the mystery of the in-itself can make no further appearances.

Keywords

Religious Experience Christian Theology Pure Intuition Married Love Beatific Vision 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    J.P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness (London: Methuen, 1958) p. 617.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Luce Irigaray, The Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991) p. 31. For further approaches to a feminist appropriation of the language and imagery of nothingnessGoogle Scholar
  3. 2.
    see, e.g. Rosi Braidotti, Patterns of Dissonance (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991) especially Chapter One ‘Images of the Void’; also, Philippa Berry, ‘Sky-dancing at the boundaries of contemporary Western thought: feminist theory and the limits of deconstruction’ in David Long (ed.), Healing Deconstruction: Postmodern Thought in Buddhism and Christianity (Atlanta: AAR Press, 1996). That Nietzsche himself is not unaware of the problematic status of a totally free, totally active self might be inferred from such passages as ‘The Night Song’ in Part Two of Zarathustra.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    M. Heidegger, Beiträge zur Philosophie (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1989) p. 117.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (London: Collins/ Fontana, 1960). James’s lectures give many examples of religious experiences of various kinds — and, of course, there are many works of literature as well as of religious biography that would yield further descriptions.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell (St Albans: Granada, 1977) pp. 15–16.Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    See Chapter 5 ‘Language and Experience’ below. For a critical view of the Jamesian understanding of experience see Nicholas Lash, Easter in Ordinary (London: SCM, 1988).Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    See M. Heidegger, What is Metaphysics? in M. Heidegger (tr. and ed. Krell), Basic Writings (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978) especially pp. 98–104 (’The Elaboration of the Question’).Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    M. Heidegger, Being and Time (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962) p. 492 (n. iv to Division One, Chapter Six).Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    S. Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990) p. 308. Further references are given as UD in the text.Google Scholar
  11. 15.
    In offering this analysis of Kierkegaard’s view of the experience of nothingness I acknowledge that it places Kierkegaard closer to Heidegger’s project of offering a fundamental ontological analysis than Heidegger himself seems to have allowed, while also claiming for it a religious significance that Heidegger would not have claimed for his own work. The proximity between Kierkegaard and Heidegger for which I am arguing could also be explored with regard to Heidegger’s own repudiation of Sartrean existentialism in the 1946– 7 Letter on Humanism and his critique of Nietzsche from the 1930s onwards. However, there does remain the difference that whereas Heidegger seems primarily oriented towards the question as to how what is here being called the ‘experience of nothingness’ can be thought, Kierkegaard’s thrust is to assist his readers in making that experience actual in their own existence. More simply, Heidegger remains a philosopher, Kierkegaard a religious apologist. For a further exploration of this tension see Michael Weston, Kierkegaard and Modern Continental Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1994) especially Chapters 2 and 4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 16.
    S. Kierkegaard (eds Hong and Hong), Journals and Papers Vol. 4 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975) p. 461. Danish edition number II A 110.Google Scholar
  13. 17.
    A striking discussion of Schleiermacher’s relevance to the issues raised by post-structuralism can be found in Andrew Bowie, Aesthetics and Subjectivity (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990) Chapter 6.Google Scholar
  14. 18.
    Friedrich Schleiermacher (tr. Crouter), On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) p. 104. Schleiermacher’s Speeches went through many revisions and Crouter’s translation is of the first, and most ‘Romantic’, edition. Further references are to his translation, given in the text as OR.Google Scholar
  15. 19.
    For a discussion of the problem of reification in theology see Gordon D. Kaufman, In Face of Mystery. A Constructive Theology (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993) pp. 330–1.Google Scholar
  16. 21.
    F.D.E. Schleiermacher, Hermeneutik and Kritik (Frankfurt am Main: 1977) p. 169.Google Scholar
  17. 24.
    S. Kierkegaard, Repetition in Fear and Trembling and Repetition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983) p. 131. Further references are to R in the text.Google Scholar
  18. 25.
    For further comment — in the context of a thorough-going study of the implications of Kierkegaard’s view of time for understanding the self — see Mark C. Taylor, Kierkegaard’s Pseudonymous Authorship. A Study of Time and the Self (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975) especially pp. 81–6 and pp. 122–6.Google Scholar
  19. 26.
    See my discussion in G. Pattison, Kierkegaard: The Aesthetic and the Religious (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992), pp. 49–53.Google Scholar
  20. 27.
    If, at this point, some might argue that it is Nietzsche who gives a more authentically temporal view of the self, it is worth pondering Shestov’s comment that ‘the important thing in “eternal recurrence” is not the word being defined, but the word doing the defining, i.e. not recurrence, but eternity.’ In L. Shestov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Nietzsche (Ohio University Press, 1966) p. 292. However, it is not my intention in saying this to enter into an argument as to whether it is Kierkegaard or Nietzsche who has most honestly confronted the voracity of the temporal flux, since neither of them can evade the ambiguity of all attempts to represent that flux. What both do achieve is precisely to bring that ambiguity into the sharpest possible focus.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© George Pattison 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • George Pattison
    • 1
  1. 1.King’s CollegeCambridgeUK

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