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II Self-Reflection on the Threshold between the Middle Ages and Modernity

Self-Reflection on the Threshold between the Middle Ages and Modernity A Theological Genealogy of the Birthing of Modernity as the Age of Representation

Self-Reflective Refoundation of Consciousness in Philosophy

“Self-reflection” names the overarching project and central aim of philosophy in the modern period. Can knowledge ground itself in a purely self-reflexive act? This is the ambition driving Descartes’s refounding of the edifice of knowledge on the self-conscious “I think” or cogito in the seventeenth century. This goal is supposedly fulfilled in the nineteenth century by Hegel’s “absolute knowing” (“absolutes Wissen”) as the final attainment of spirit or Geist in its evolution to complete consciousness of itself as its own object in nature and history. Such reflective selfconsciousness is still the aim of Husserl’s phenomenology in its striving to establish a presuppositionless philosophy by means of rigorous, scientific, critical self-reflection focusing purely on what is given to consciousness (Philosophie als strenge Wissenschaft, 1910-11). To achieve total, rational transparency to itself through philosophically adequate reflection is for thought to become self-grounding. It can then account for itself through complete and absolute self-reflection that is not conditioned or limited by anything outside itself. Can human reason, through the discipline of philosophy, perform such a feat? The quest for foundations that drives modern philosophy is a quest for reflection to give itself its own adequate grounds—to make its own self-reflection the foundation of knowledge.

This quest has been pursued throughout modern philosophy most typically in an anti-theological spirit as an assertion of the self-grounding autonomy of human reason. Yet the model for it, ironically, is the selfgrounding, reflective self-sufficiency of God—of divinity as understood in biblical and in other theologies, but particularly in Christianity, with its doctrine of the Trinity. This immense doctrinal field of speculation on the self-reflexive, triune nature of God harbors one of the most sophisticated conceptual apparatuses ever elaborated for examining the range of subtle and intricate philosophical problems concerning self-reflection. Among these problems, the constitution of personhood and of substantial being through mutual relations feature prominently. The relations that constitute the internal life of the Trinity provide a theological archetype for virtually any such structures of self-relation as articulated in Western philosophy.

Hegel was very aware of this. He raised this otherwise largely occulted derivation of reflective philosophy from Christian doctrine to a level of acute self-consciousness. For Hegel, the doctrine of the Trinity was a model prophesying in mythical terms what is actually—or concretely and rationally—realized by human spirit in its achievement of total selfconsciousness in the course of history. For most orthodox theological thinkers, human self-reflection is not itself the highest truth, but only a reflex or an echo. For them, human self-reflection is always deficient and somewhat untrue in comparison with the one absolutely true act of selfreflexivity realized by the Holy Trinity. But actually any such dichotomy between the religious and the secular can be challenged and undermined by the most radical thinking of self-reflection, no matter from which side it is approached. Whether priority is given to its theological model or to its anthropological instantiation, self-reflection, taken most radically, realizes the absolute in a concrete act that embraces humanity and divinity as complimentary constructions. The human and the divine both derive from self-reflection as the underlying reality in relation to which they reveal themselves to be merely abstractions.

Neither God nor humanity can be appropriately conceived except through the concept and the process of self-reflection. Whether this process is viewed as essentially a human activity through an anthropology like Feuerbach’s in The Essence of Christianity (Das Wesen des Christentums, 1841) or as a divine act of consciousness and will through the perspective of a theology of revelation such as Karl Barth’s, the priority of self-reflection itself to any such loaded constructions as “humanity” or “divinity” is paramount. The logic of self-reflection is productive—and not just the product—of all such conceivable substances and persons and realities.

In the evolution of human civilizations, poets are often first to feel out the yet unsuspected possibilities of spirit in a new age of culture. Revolutionary forms of self-reflection were born with Troubadour poetry in the awakening of the modern individual to conscious awareness of self. This awareness of one’s own reflective capacities opened up an unprecedented sphere for contemplation and exploration. Particularly the capacity of self-reflection in language engendered a domain of autoaffection—of self-engendering and self-propagating desire. Discovery of these capacities was grounded in some crucial ways on theology, particularly on the self-knowing and self-loving that constitute the Trinity. Troubadour poetry already evinces some clear traces of conscious awareness of this genealogy (section 5). But it is Dante, both in his poetic and in his theoretical work, who most searchingly elaborates and explores the inextricably theological underpinnings of self-reflection.


Peter Koslowski, “Hegel—‘der Philosoph der Trinität?’ Zur Kontroverse um seine Trinitätslehre,” Theologische Quartalschrift 162 (1982): 105-32,117-21.

Especially in his culminating work, Paradiso, he delivers an incomparable testament of the productive and constructive possibilities of selfreflection (sections 7-13).

By means of this conceptual focus on self-reflexivity, Dante can be written into the history of philosophy in a way that historiographies of philosophy have generally ignored until now. A deeper and broader-based understanding of the history of Western thought becomes possible through this recovery and revaluation of the poetic thinking with which modern thought actually begins. Mythological modes and metaphors—such as “all is water” (Thales), “all is air” (Anaximander), “all is fire” (Heraclitus)— cast the breaking light of day for philosophical thinking in ancient, pre-Socratic philosophy. Analogously, a mythopoeic moment, one which has until now been largely overlooked or suppressed, breaks ground and issues in the birth of modern thought.

We know from our own experience that, most often, we understand things intuitively before we are able to grasp and explain them analytically. Poetic predecessors’ imaginations anticipate the rational work of philosophers in developing the possibilities of self-reflection inhering in the human spirit. These creative impulses can be observed in nuce in their nascent state in poets long before they are fully exploited—and at the same time inevitably betrayed—by further development through systematic thought.

Modernity since Descartes has constituted itself quintessentially as the age of the philosophy of reflection. Being and event come to be experienced as belonging to someone—a subject, one who reflects on them as his or her own experience. Modern philosophy construed experience as founded on the immanence of the subject and its own self-reflection. Such was the basis of knowledge of the real from Descartes and Kant through Hegel and Husserl. Heidegger, returning to ancient Greek thinking, began to break with this modern, humanist paradigm and to make philosophizing pivot, instead, from the transcendence of Being (Sein) as a non-reflexive presence prior to the thinking subject and all its epistemological reflections. Levinas pursued this meditation, breaking through to the transcendence of the ethical Other, which opened a space for a certain kind of postmodern thinking as realized by the likes of Derrida.

Self-reflection and subjectivity itself, in a typical postmodern perspective, is given from the Other. It is not to be understood as an activity only in and from the self operating on and by itself. Instead of having its starting point in itself as self-founding, self-reflection originates in some species of transcendence. This postmodern outlook curiously doubles back in a crucial respect to the premodern perspective of Dante. Dante, too, presents self-reflection as itself already a reflection of transcendence, which he does not hesitate to interpret theologically. By viewing the origin of modern thought from the vantage point of Dante, we bring back into focus the originally theological source and model of the quest for autonomous foundations in self-reflection. In this revisionary historiography of modern thought, theology comes to light as the repressed mediator that returns in our postmodern moment.[1]

  • [1] Johannes Hoff works out such a theological genealogy of postmodern thinking in Spiritualität und Sprachverlust: Theologie nach Foucault und Derrida (Munich: Paderborn, 1999). Graham Ward, Theology and Contemporary Critical Theory (New York: Macmillan, 2000) offers some valuable pointers in this direction, uncovering theological subtexts lurking within postmodern theoretical discourses. 2 Paul Ricoeur, Soi-meme comine un autre (Paris: Seuil, 1990), trans. Kathleen Blarney, Oneself as Another (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992) attempts to rethink selfreflection from such a post-Cartesian standpoint. 3 Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An “Essay on the Trinity" (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) unravels some of the contemporary inflections of traditional Trinitarian thought, especially as they undo rational self-mastery in relation to gender issues.
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