In Praise of Heteronomy

Making Room for Revelation

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Merold Westphal
Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , May
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


“Something other than myself is the condition of the possibility of my thought. Autonomy presupposes a prior heteronomy” (190). This is one of Merold Westphal’s essential conclusions, derived from an investigation into the philosophical, theological, and hermeneutic aspects of three representative enlightenment figures: Kant, Spinoza, and Hegel. The overarching yet interrelated failures of what he calls the “autonomy project” (184) are reducible to three: (1) It cannot meet its own demands and standards of the universality of reason; (2) theologically, such autonomy projects display a stunning amount of diversity not just in style or method, but also in the concluded content and subsequent truth claims (even its best enlightenment thinkers’ various enlightenments diverge); and (3) autonomy projects, in order to follow from their own presuppositions, inherently contradict themselves because they privilege, a priori, some form of “reason” over other kinds of knowledge, thereby dispelling their neutrality. Thus, the autonomy project is like a snake eating its own tail, with prejudices about prejudice itself that undermine their very supposed presuppositionlessness. With that, we can conclude that there is no ivory tower “view from nowhere” (xix, 189). There is “no epistemic privilege to unbelief” (201) and, in fact “reason is as sectarian as revelation.” (189).

But this is something for which we should be thankful, nay, even shower with praise, for it means that we are not trapped within the prisons, ivory towers, or interior castles of our own making, but have a transcendental connection to the outside world that is fecund with “autonomous” potential. These arguments are worked out with far more detail and nuance than I might here give them credit; however, they lead us to acknowledge that the old project of ”religion within the limits of reason alone”—is not only a Kantian project, but also a generally modern one to which we (even the religious) often are beholden more than we imagine. Deconstructing this principle is not so easy, however, and a simple inversion of it, reason within religion’s limits, is not a viable solution. Necessary then is a turn to the very basic epistemic groundings and presumptions that might furnish a philosophical and lived, everyday, human-all-too-human humility; a hermeneutic presumption and horizon that one always already can be wrong. (The ever-present possibility of self-deception is a recurring theme for Westphal.) 

Thus the title In Praise of Heteronomy. After tackling autonomy, Westphal rustles together and leverages thinkers he associates with postmodernism (which he refers to more in terms of non-chronological ideal types­­­ than as a historical movement) in order to develop a more socially realistic, epistemic founding point for agent/selfhood. He employs the work of thinkers such as Derrida, Foucault, Gadamer, and Heidegger to make his case forheteronomy (a “law” given by/from the other). Heteronomy follows from the hermeneutic situation (“hermeneutics is heteronomy,” 201), which gets described as having three founding elements: “(a) particularity of the a priori, (b) the penultimacy of judgments governed by the a priori, and (c) the exteriority of the a priori” (190). Particularity involves thinking for ourselves, and this necessarily produces different interpretations that make our conclusions original and coherent. Penultimacy allows for a unique conviction that is our very own, derived from a unique perspective that is as freeing as it is inhibitive. And exteriority, thought in terms of language, tradition, and social practice, is evidenced in the genealogical and historical processes that are “exterior” to an individual and her thoughts (195-99).

Autonomy vis-à-vis heteronomy is a dyad originally introduced by Kant inThe Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (“autonomy of the will in contrast with every other, which I accordingly count as heteronomy,” Kant quoted by Westphal, 7) to establish the primacy of self-authorship and self-regulation. Derrida reverses this relation, gives heteronomy privilege, and points to how even before “I” can be, or ever see myself as “I,” I am called-out with a “hey, you!” This “I” then receives its responsibility, its ability to respond and thus have agency. Being looked at without my prior knowledge defines me. It is “on the basis of this gaze that singles me out that my responsibility comes into being” (Derrida quoted by Westphal 200). Not unlike Lacan’s notion that desire is the desire of the other, here Derrida points to how the law is the law of the other. Heteronomy fashions autonomy in the form of responsibility, and this has certain theological consequences. As Westphal puts it, “Heteronomy means relying on a particular revelation rather than on universal reason” (211). 

This is more than simple enlightenment-bashing however, and the works of Kant, Spinoza, and Hegel furnish self-deconstructive possibilities. Further, even though the enlightenment was unable to see its latent prejudices, it still helped fashion a phase of history that has defunded forms of violent oppression of people groups, and deprivileged the anti-rationality of some societies and religions (24). Westphal’s concern is that autonomy ends up being, somewhat ironically, too impersonal (thus the subtitle “Making Room for Revelation”). Thus, he “testifies” to his own “biblical heteronomy, the attempt to give hegemony to divine revelation over human reason” (215). Such “mere Christianity” that finds itself in a heteronomous relation with the “law of God” (one could brave to call it Westphal’s “Postmodern Theonomy”) demonstrates that those who testify to revelation need not try to meet the criteria that speculative philosophy hegemonically demands. The claims of objectivity, scientificity, or neutrality in the end not only suppress divine revelation (183), but also undermine the autonomy project itself. 

Three questions/concerns for the text, however arise: The style of the book takes a defensive stance, but what happens when the plaintiff rests from attacking those who claim to rely on revelation? In what is being deemed today’s “post-secular” society, it seems that (with the exception of some sophisticates, talking-heads, and a microcosm of philosophical circles) religious belief is casted less as socially destructive and more as benign. Next, does heteronomy necessarily end up serving to allow for a more rich faith? Social media for example points to the nightmarish backside of the hermeneutic conflict of interpretations; the world as an “interpretable” oyster also has led to the creation of conspiracy myths, propaganda machines, and a “dark enlightenment.” And finally, what happens when the hermeneutic circle becomes an infinitely-spinning merry-go-round that can leave us pacified and numb to difference by merit of providing too many options from which to choose, and too little room for taking the risk and leap of faith?

These questions by no means count against the merits of this book, in which Westphal dials in to topics with a unique philosophical toolkit in which today only a handful of scholars are in possession. The book not only displays a richness versed in both analytic and continental philosophy of religion, but also German idealism and modern theology. This gives the book a uniquely sharp philosophical edge (that makes distinctions and stakes claims) and when combined with an imaginative and personal verve (via testimonies, poems, and novels) demonstrates for the reader that philosophy of religion need not be banal and abstract, and indeed is best understood as an always operative and lived endeavor—one that is alive and well.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jason W. Alvis is FWF Research Fellow and Lecturer at the Institute for Philosophy, University of Vienna.

Date of Review: 
April 10, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Merold Westphal is distinguished professor emeritus of philosophy, Fordham University and honorary professor, Australian Catholic University. His most recent works include Transcendence and Self-Transcendence (IUP) and Levinas and Kierkegaard in Dialogue (IUP).

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