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Phenomenology of the Human Person

by Robert Sokolowski

Cambridge University Press, 360 pages, $26.99 paper

Robert Sokolowski is held in ut­most respect among philosophers working in phenomenology. He is also recognized as an accomplished contributor to philosophical theology in a broad sense. This book, as one would expect, is of the highest quality, full of measured thought and surprising insights and connections. It tries to go as directly as possible to the matter itself, not primarily through other philosophers but by firsthand philosophical engagement with the human person, as revealed through language, and with special attention to syntactic structure. It is not that the strong influence of other philosophers is not evident, especially that of Aristotle and Husserl. But Sokolowski tries to be a phenomenological philosopher rather than just to comment on phenomenology as a philosophy; he wants to do phenomenology rather than make it an object of academic research. The result is a rich and engaging book.

Sokolowski’s primary attention is on the fact that the human person is a being of language. The many dimensions of personhood are shown to emerge by a consideration of the syntactic structure of language. He is especially concerned with the first person declarative form. A person announces himself or herself when he or she speaks. There is much at work in this annunciation that is not confined to the singular self. We speak ourselves, but very importantly, it is in conversation with others that this all makes sense. It is impossible to treat the advent and attainment of language without granting the human community in conversation. This view is also inseparable from our understanding of the human person as a rational being. Further, we cannot show what a person is without also showing how things appear to us. This means that ultimately our powers of reason are inseparable from the showing forth of what things themselves are. Not only our being in community, but our being in the world, and indeed our fidelity to what each of these witnesses, is inseparable from understanding what a person is. This fidelity makes the human person, in Sokolowski’s language, an “agent of truth.”

In four parts, the book successively addresses the form of thinking, the content of thinking, the body and human action, and finally the contrast of the ancients and the moderns. In this last part, Aristotle and Aquinas are discussed, and, interestingly, a conclusion is offered by means of a reflection on Henry James and the role of the narrator in some of his works. One wonders why in a phenomenology of the person so little attention is given to the human being as religious. Nevertheless, this is a book rich in many excellent philosophical explorations. It is highly recommended for its sometimes striking insight into the philosophical depths contained in ordinary words, as well as for refreshing and casting new light on essential insights diversely ex­pressed throughout the philosophical tradition.

”William Desmond

Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin

by Bill Kauffman

ISI, 225 pages

, $25

The Anti-Federalists are often seen as parochial, self-interested dimwits obstructing an epochal achievement. With Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet , Bill Kauffman launches a full assault on this caricature. His hero, Luther Martin, was born in New Jersey, had a brilliant career at Princeton, and then became a lawyer. He settled in Maryland, where he wrote and ­distributed tracts in defense of the rebellious colonists and prosecuted loyalists as attorney general. He also became more reliant on liquor, more incontinently loquacious, and more firmly set in his spendthrift ways.

Then came 1789, when Maryland sent Martin to the fateful convention in Philadelphia. According to Kauffman, this convention, meant to streamline a federal union between thirteen independent polities, was hijacked by ambitious elitists. These men sought to empower, enrich, and glorify themselves by creating a ­centralized, militarized “great na­tion,” operating on supposedly universal principles. The Federalists wanted de facto empire; the Anti-Federalists wanted republican localism”and they, not the conceited universalists, bore the standard of 1776.

Martin became the most powerful spokesman for the Anti-Federalist cause. During and after the convention, he launched a series of incisive (if desultory) critiques of the proposed Constitution, which, Kauffman argues, probably secured the few meaningful checks on federal power contained in the final document. History has repaid him for his efforts by remembering him as a boring drunk.

Kauffman rectifies this injustice. He makes Martin attractive without hiding any of his flaws and inconsistencies. Indeed, a major theme of his book is that men , not all-wise demigods, wrangled over America’s future in the summer of 1789, and he is delightfully enthusiastic in his iconoclasm. (Particularly amusing is his openly malicious treatment of Madison and Hamilton.) More importantly, he raises the unsettling possibility that the overreaching federal government so many constitutionalists abominate is a natural consequence of the Constitution’s Hamiltonian logic. This playfully written, highly entertaining book will probably not inspire a new constitutional convention, but, if it convinces some readers that critical and unsentimental examination of the nation’s founding need not be unpatriotic, it will have performed a valuable service.

”Stefan McDaniel

An Introduction to Medieval Philosophy: Basic Concepts

by Joseph W. Koterski, S.J.

Wiley-Blackwell, 256 pages, $29.95

Fr. Joseph Koterski, a philosophy teacher at Fordham University and editor in chief of International Philosophical Quarterly , has penned a lovely little introduction to the basic themes of medieval philosophy. With chapters devoted to such central concepts as faith and reason, God, transcendentals, and the soul, the book offers students and scholars alike a brief yet sophisticated overview of the philosophical ideas that formed the medieval mind.

While Koterski emphasizes the continuity in medieval thought, he is also careful to remind readers that philosophy in the Middle Ages was hardly monolithic. For instance, he illuminates the various medieval approaches to philosophical questions with his discussion of the problem of universals.

This was a recurring theme in the Middle Ages because of the question’s metaphysical, epistemological, and logical implications. Koterski explains the ways in which philosophers responded by focusing on the priorities of the thinkers themselves. Ockham, for example, did not consider universals to be an epistemological or metaphysical issue, but rather “the logical problem of explaining how general terms are used within propositions.” This helps the reader understand Ockham’s conclusion that “universality can only be the property of a sign.”

While Koterski himself writes that Medieval Philosophy is not intended to be a comprehensive treatment of the subject and that “a good history of medieval philosophy will also be indispensable reading,” anyone interested the basic philosophic concepts of the Middle Ages will find this book a good place to start.

”Ryan Sayre Patrico

Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century

by Craig Detweiler

Baker Academic, 320 pages, $18.99 paper

Craig Detweiler, codirector of the Reel Spirituality Institute and an associate professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, has written a contagious celebration of cinema as both art form and general revelation. Using six contemporary films as his foundation, Detweiler builds an argument for the sacred and redemptive qualities of even profane films. Could Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind be an agent of prevenient grace? You may not agree with every jot and tittle of Detweiler’s analysis (I sometimes found myself wishing the films were as interesting and profound as he makes them out to be), but you will no doubt be spirited away by the playfulness of his prose and the sweep of his film-historical grasp.

”Anthony Sacramone

A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards

by George M. Marsden

Eerdmans, 172 pages, $15

In 2003 George Marsden published his acclaimed Jonathan Edwards: A Life . At 640 pages, the book was less likely to appeal to those with a layman’s interest in the great American preacher. Now Marsden has released the aptly named A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards . For Marsden, Edwards”known for being the great mind behind the Great Awakening”was a man of “God-centered integrity” who brought a deep understanding of the sinfulness of man and the greater power of God’s redeeming love to every undertaking. He paints a vivid and fair picture of the American colonial world, and he shows how to understand Edwards as one both forming and formed by his times. In one instance, Marsden elaborates the history behind the famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” He notes that Ed­wards’ sermon was written in a common style of the time, a style designed to “awaken” the listener from sinful complacency. Edwards had written a conclusion with a moving description of God’s mercy, but, when he delivered the sermon, the hellfire and brimstone elicited such cries of repentance from the crowd that he could not continue speaking. Those interested in Edwards as a historical figure and as a man of traditional faith grappling with the changing world around him will benefit from Marsden’s book.

”Nathaniel Peters

Karl Brandt, The Nazi Doctor: Medicine and Power in the Third Reich

by Ulf Schmidt

Continuum, 480 pages, $21.95


It is well known that the Nazis’ “mercy killing” program was a stepping stone to the Final Solution; less known are the doctors who designed and led it. In Karl Brandt: The Nazi Doctor , Ulf Schmidt, a professor of modern history at the University of Kent, explores the life and legacy of Karl Brandt, Hitler’s personal physician, who was appointed head of the T-4 Euthanasia program, which forcibly took the lives of seventy to a hundred thousand disabled people from 1939 to 1941. Later, he presided over brutal and horrifying medical experiments on helpless victims, for which he was prosecuted and hanged after the war. His upbringing and education gave no indication he was headed for a life of evil. How such an intelligent and gifted young physician could betray everything that medicine”not to mention Western civilization”stood for, is the main theme of Schmidt’s spellbinding book.

Interestingly, Brandt, like many other Nazis, was a man of the left, who was heavily influenced by Friedrich Naumann, a nineteenth-century socialist pastor, who had declared: “As politicians we are national socialists, and as Christians we are searching for an evangelism which is true and alive.” Brandt’s “search” for relevance beyond the traditional gospel ended with his embrace of Hitler’s murderous Weltanschauung , though, perversely, Brandt always saw himself as a minister of compassion. “I do not feel that I am incriminated,” he said defiantly at his post-War trial. “I am convinced that I bear the responsibility for what I did in this connection before my conscience. I was motivated by absolutely humane feelings. I never had any other intention.”

Although Schmidt’s book is historical and cannot be classified as part of the modern-day “culture wars,” its conclusion carries a powerful lesson for medical ethics in our own time: “Whatever may be said by a saturated public, complacent politicians, and a cynical media industry to turn our attention to new and more exciting shores lurking beyond the virtual horizon, we cannot allow this history to be ignored, because we cannot survive its repetition.”

”William Doino Jr.

Believing and Seeing: The Art of Gothic Cathedrals

by Roland Recht

translated by Mary Whittall

University of Chicago Press, 392 pages, $45

While Roland Recht’s intricate reappraisal of the Gothic enterprise is an unquestionably academic work, industrious lay readers will also enjoy the chance to discover the Middle Ages they only thought they knew. Recht has examined the last two centuries of scholarship, from proto-Bauhaus structuralism to the disembodied symbolist interpretations of the postwar period, and discovered that they tell us more about the art-historical preoccupations of their authors’ own times. While Recht concedes it is impossible to reconstruct totally the artistic imagination of medieval man, he succeeds in studiously fleshing out the scholarly, structural, and liturgical context of such great works.

Under his watchful eye, we discover the physics and metaphysics of sight that defined the medieval experience of liturgy, as shown through the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and the life of the eminently visible St. Francis. Through an examination of architectural precedent and contemporary texts, medieval architects and their patrons are transformed from naive Ruskinian builders and close-minded clerics to skilled, self-aware professionals such as the learned “doctor of stones,” Pierre de Montreuil, and intellectual clients and connoisseurs such as the antiquarian bishop Henry of Blois. Gothic architecture itself is released from the straightjacket of stereotype and allowed to stand on its own as a classically self-contained system with its own rules, geometries, and formulae, intellectual as well as liturgical.

At the same time, Gothic sculpture and painting is re-contextualised by the consideration of its various functions within medieval worship and society, re-establishing distinctions between various traditional artistic typologies previously blurred or ignored. We even get a glimpse into some overlooked aspects of the medieval workshop such as the highly paid craftsmen who, with polychromy and gilt, brought life to pale, stony sculpture. Along the way, we are treated to discussions of the interplay between reality and stylization, as well as the use and transmission of types and precedent. While Recht reminds us that the medieval artist was not creative in the modern sense of the word, the results of his labor could still be appreciated spiritually and intellectually on many levels.

What has often been reduced to pious simplicity by the faithful and secular alike is now rediscovered as vibrant, sophisticated, and flexibly intellectual. Whatever viewpoint one brings to Gothic architecture, one’s understanding of medieval art will be challenged and enhanced by Recht’s scholarly, measured panorama.

”Matthew Alderman

All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World

by Stuart B. Schwartz

Yale, 336 pages, $40

This ambitious book sets out to discover the attitudes that undergirded doctrinal aberrations among the faithful in Spain, Portugal, and their New World colonies. The author succeeds, owing principally to his eye for telling details buried in the four-century-old mountains of American and Iberian documentary evidence. In some respects, this book forms a diptych with Henry Kamen’s work on the intellectual and political history of Iberian tolerance, picking up where Kamen’s book left off”the realm of popular or local piety. Avoiding facile antinomies, Schwartz is sensitive to the common strands that united the diverse array of people who ran afoul of the ­Inquisition during its more than three hundred years of operation. He tabulates common themes across racial, economic, and continental divides, bridging centuries in an attempt to understand the roots of religious ­dissidence.

Schwartz identifies a kerygma for popular expressions of heterodoxy in the Iberian-American world, in the refrain “Each can be saved in his own law,” a view rooted in the complex “belligerent intimacy” of the medieval Iberian convivencia be­tween Christianity, Islam and Judaism. But the source of this dissident creed, he implies, is nothing but “common sense””a concept he leaves undefined, accepting it as the result of practical experience coupled with an innate skepticism. Despite the title, readers should look elsewhere for a rich discussion of soteriology in Iberian theologians of the epoch. Nevertheless, both historians of Christian tolerance and of Christian oppression will discern many avenues for future research in this thoughtful and richly documented book.

”Michael Carlin

Conceptions of Parenthood: Ethics and the Family
by Michael W. Austin

Ashgate, 138 pages, $99.95

The subject of parenthood has received limited attention in philosophical literature. For most of human existence there was only one way to make a baby, and it was taken for granted that the adults who sowed the seed were responsible for the fruit. But with the introduction of in vitro fertilization, candidates for parenthood can include the sperm donor, egg donor, cytoplasm donor, and surrogate mother, in addition to the adults who pay for these procedures (and plan on taking the newborn baby home). IVF forces philosophers to consider the once self-evident question of what makes someone a parent. In Conceptions of Parenthood , Michael W. Austin tackles this question.

Austin proceeds in four parts. First, he surveys what he considers inadequate conceptions of parenthood: the proprietarian view (children are the property of the adults who produced them); the biological relationship view (biological relation generates parental rights and obligations); and the best-interest-of-the-child view (the adults most qualified to care for the child become parents). Next, he rehearses the arguments that he thinks work: the custodial relationship view (being in relationship as a child’s custodian makes one a parent prima facie); the consent view (consenting to care for a child generates subsequent obligations); and the causal view (performing the act that generates a new life obliges one to ensure its proper development). Austin combines these successful views into what he calls the stewardship conception of parenthood: A parent has been entrusted with the care of something of great value”a child”that does not belong to him.

The third and fourth sections of the book focus on what the stewardship conception of parenthood has to say about parental rights (against intrusion by the state and civil society) and obligations (to the child and society at large). Austin argues that the parenting enterprise is primarily about meeting the developmental needs of children but also offers the parents important personal fulfillment. As such, parents should have certain liberty in deciding the specific trajectory that their parenting will take. Austin then looks specifically at the rights and obligations parents have with respect to moral formation, education, religious instruction, and medical decision-making, together with the consequent public-policy implications.

While it is a work of rigorous moral philosophy, the book remains remarkably readable. There are, however, some odd omissions. Austen never even mentions marriage, nor does he address the question of same-sex parenting. No discussion, either, of who should become a parent or how children should be conceived. Nonetheless, philosophers defending traditional family structures from within the broadly Judeo-Christian tradition will find much of Austin’s analysis helpful. But they will need to buttress it by stressing the importance of marriage as the institution uniquely apt for the bearing and rearing of children”an institution in which man and woman, coming together as husband and wife, become father and mother by consummating their love, a love which itself provides the best community for a child’s ­development.

”Ryan T. Anderson

Selected Poems

by James Merrill

Knopf, 320 pages, $16

Like Yeats’ “perfection of the life or of the work,” Matthew Arnold’s elevation of art to fill the void of what he saw as the receding tide of faith posed one of the defining questions for poets in the twentieth century. Eliot’s answer”clarion-clear in the Four Quartets ”was, in effect, to obliterate what he saw as a false disjunction. This was an answer James Merrill never could come to. Instead, he perfected his brilliant metaphors, punning wit, virtuoso prosody, arch tone, and occasional preciosity in a poignant attempt to transcend the limits of the art he practiced so well. He should be read for the quality of what he accomplished in that heroic but doomed attempt.

When Merrill did essay a modern metaphysics of his own, the outsized Changing Light at Sandover , the result was a twentieth-century ­cosmology cobbled somewhere out of Dante, Wordsworthian visions of ­reincarnation, and the most exquisitely artful séance sessions ever to manifest via a Ouija board and a broken-teacup planchette. The spirits of Auden and a host of dear dead friends chatted with, and occasionally interrogated, the poet. (Once, he and his partner David Jackson were asked by the presiding spirit, Ephraim, “ARE U XTIANS?” They replied, “We guessed so.”)

Guessing was the best Merrill was ever to do”a limbo-like state of ­spiritual indeterminacy. Meanwhile, his anthology-quality displays of metaphorical subtlety, dazzling puns, and delicate but engrossing narrative skill left us with poems that will stay, or as Frost once put it, that will stick . This collection contains most of his best work. Not every poem is “a hole-in-one at word golf” (his phrase”itself a meta-example if ever there was one), but there are many. They will be read. They will endure.

”Len Krisak

Saving the Holy Sepulchre: How Rival Christians Came Together to Rescue Their Holiest Shrine

by Raymond Cohen

Oxford University Press, 320 pages, $27.95

Go back through the literature of centuries and you find visitors to the Holy Land writing about being scandalized by the unseemly fighting of Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Orthodox over control of the church that contains the sites of the crucifixion and resurrection. In a 1927 earthquake, the building was brought close to collapse. Cohen started out to write the colorful story of intra-religious warfare over the shrine, and discovered a much more interesting story of religious and political cooperation in putting the place into better shape than it has enjoyed for half a millennium. A dramatic account told with zest and backed by careful research.