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David Walsh’s The Modern Philosophical Revolution: Brendan Purcell

David Walsh’s The Modern Philosophical Revolution: Brendan Purcell

My first contact with David Walsh was when I was working on my own MA a century ago. One of his big interests then was a love of Beckett who was also dealing with the mystery of human existence. David has a similar linguistic gift, without the obscurity. Not so much Beckett’s “No’s knife to yes’s wound” (as he called one tough piece), what you got from David was yes’s smile to no’s bad hair day. In fact, even though this is a philosophical exploration, David himself is coming out of a very wide embracing meeting with modernity.

I well remember summer courses we were giving together in the States where we sat in on each other’s lectures. So I got to attend his audiovisually based lectures on modern painting and modern music. While from one perspective modernity may seem to be undergoing a dark night of culture, he showed that—like the people who wrote “my night has no darkness” on the walls of their catacombs—the very awareness of night implies a long night’s journey into day. He was the one who helped me see Casper Friedrich’s paintings pointing beyond the spiritual darkness of the Enlightenment, and how that motif continues through Augustus Tack, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clifford Still.

In his review of The Modern Philosophical Revolution, James Schall, Professor of politics at Georgetown University writes: “He is a man whose work I have admired, but it is only with this last work on the ‘luminosity of existence’ that I have fully realized what he has been up to.’“ Because what David has been “up to” these last twenty years is definitely a mystery.

Which is why reading this book is like reading a detective story, minus the dead bodies the history of philosophy is normally littered with—where this or that philosopher is filleted for his (it’s generally a “his”) errors by his successors. I reacted to it with increasing amazement at what was happening to my preconceptions and cast iron convictions regarding the modern European philosophers from Kant to Derrida. Each chapter left me wondering: Hey, I never thought of, say, Hegel or Heidegger that way, but Walsh’s reading persuaded me to dig deeper both into Hegel’s or Heidegger’s questioning of existence and, more to the point, my own. This is because the writing not only unfolds an impelling narrative but it’s in a conversional (It’s also a conversation, but one inviting to conversion, to turning around, to intellectual and spiritual revolution.) key—not in any manipulative fashion, but in a way that’s extraordinarily close to Kierkegaard’s challenge to his readers.

As David points out, The Modern Philosophical Revolution is the third volume of a trilogy. His 1990 After Ideology diagnoses the ideological earthquakes that have shaken Western culture as they worked their way through the history of the second millennium. The dark shadows in this diagnosis are illumined from within the crises by a range of spiritual realists: Dostoevsky, Camus, Solzhenitsyn, and Eric Voegelin. Because they suffered from and struggled against the wounds of ideological disorder, for Walsh these thinkers and writers are signposts leading beyond the cultural dark night. As David said yesterday, a great crisis can give rise to a great human being, someone who’s had to rise to the level of the disaster and try to reach out beyond it, and all these writers experienced that disaster in their bones and in their lives.

The second volume in the trilogy is his 1997 The Growth of the Liberal Soul. Building on the first volume, it assesses the origins, strengths, and inherent weakness of contemporary political culture. As in the first volume, Walsh points towards a renewal of contemporary culture by reaching back to its foundational experiences, which include the political implications of classic Greek philosophy and Judaeo–Christianity—what a Jacques Maritain spoke of as integral humanism. Again yesterday, David mentioned how the soul grows in relationship with events, and this ”growth of the liberal soul” charts how liberal democracy despite all its failures has, up to now, overcome some of the major murderous ideologies of the twentieth century.

The third volume, which we’re launching today, is in many ways the most demanding—not to read, since he writes in unflashy, lucid, yet meditative English—in fact, he’s reinvented an English that can unselfconsciously convey meditative depth. The difficulty lies in the interpretative marathon he’s asking us to run. What he’s done is to discern the single rainbow of light uniting what a Dublin person might call a right shower of philosophers—Kant, Hegel, Schelling, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Levinas, and Derrida. The overarching bow in the clouds, which he names “The Modern Philosophical Revolution,” is revealed in the second part of the book’s title: The Luminosity of Existence.

Each chapter explores how these philosophers related to the question of existence—considered not primarily as a metaphysical datum but as an experience of gradually heightening consciousness of that transcendence within which all of that philosopher’s work can alone be adequately situated. As I said, a detective story with no dead bodies. Instead of the usual oppositions we philosophy teachers make between, say, Kant and Hegel, Hegel and Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Levinas, and Nietzsche agin ‘em all, David has uncovered their common quest. And he shows that that shared search isn’t only an intellectual one, but also ethical; not only ethical, but also spiritual; not only spiritual, but most importantly, translated into the flesh and bones of their lives.

Nietzsche, fed up with the dead hand of German historical research, once wrote an essay called “The Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life.” And David’s book could be retitled The Advantage and Disadvantage of Philosophy for Life. This is because his memorable rereading encapsulates Nietzsche’s recovery of concrete lived [Huh?] existence as central to philosophy, or for that matter, to theology, as one of his quotations from Nietzsche indicates:

“If those glad tidings of your Bible were written in your faces you would not need to insist so obstinately on the authority of that book: your works, your actions ought continually to render the Bible superfluous, through you a new Bible ought to be continually in course of creation.” (Human, All Too Human)

One of the reasons I think David’s recovery of these philosophers is so satisfying is his critical respect for each of them. It reminded me of Thomas Aquinas’ benign but not uncritical interpretation that draws the most out of those he’s dialoguing with—on the principle that it’s far more likely you’ll get to the heart of what a thinker is trying to say if you actively seek out what he’s best at than if you just check him out for errors.

To get just a flavour of how he’s reading these philosophers, on Kierkegaard he writes that “the task for philosophy is therefore the awakening to what it already knows but can never, for that reason, reduce to knowledge. Kierkegaard here joins up the Hegelian recognition of truth as movement with the Derridean insistence on the irreducibility of difference. But he goes beyond them in existential thoroughness. The movement in which philosophy is engaged is not a general condition but the concrete existence of the philosopher himself.”

So, though I have the honour of being one of the more humble midwives of David’s earliest philosophical studies, my encounter with The Modern Philosophical Revolution has been one of the most formative experiences in my life as a philosopher. I’ve no hesitation in placing it along with Bernard Lonergan’s Insight and Eric Voegelin’s Order and Historyas one of the greatest works in contemporary English-language philosophy.

Who’s the book aimed at? I’d say: at all professional and postgraduate philosophers interested in modern European philosophy, students of philosophy of religion, those interested in the interface between revelation and philosophy, and political philosophers too, if they link the third with the other two volumes of Walsh’s trilogy.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, the book is aimed at anyone prepared to work as hard on themselves as on the philosophers David explores. For his final heading of the book’s last chapter he’s coined an aphorism worthy of Kierkegaard which aptly summarizes its program by bringing out the need for a self–examination not ‘lost in translation’ into life: “To be the truth is the only true explanation of what truth is.”  James Schall concludes his review of The Modern Philosophical Revolution by saying: “this is an astonishingly amazing book, truly revolutionary in modern philosophy about what it is really about, namely, in Walsh’s words, ‘the luminosity of existence,’ a wonderfully philosophic expression.”

Eric Voegelin, a famous philosopher of history, on his only visit to Ireland in 1972, ended up on the way out and the way back being driven by David twice along the Vico Road. That jaunt was an enjoyable ricorso, recalling an earlier great philosopher of history, Giambattista Vico, who spoke of historical ricorsi, the profound reliving at a higher level of the central dynamism of the human spirit in its reaching out to the divine.

Let’s push the symbolism in a Joycean way, around the omphalos of Sandycove’s Martello Tower (on his visit to Joyce’s Tower as it’s now called, Voegelin, again in David’s company, looking out on Dublin Bay, and mindful of the first lines of Ulysses, remarked, ‘great place for a shave!’). Since the tower isn’t too far off David’s own part of town, Dun Laoghaire, we can say that all his work has been a rediscovery and recovery of that core dynamic of human existence, an upwardly spiraling circling of and towards the center.

Which allows me to connect him with the Australian poet, Les Murray, in his ‘First Essay of Interest,’ which we can read here as a gloss on The Luminosity of Existence. Murray writes of

Interest . . . that blinks our interests out

and alone permits their survival, by relieving

us of their gravity, for a timeless moment;

that centres where it points, and points to centring,

that centres us where it points, and reflects our centre.

It is a form of love. The everyday shines through it

and patches of time. But it does not mingle with these;

David helps to waken us for each trace in us of our centre, of the Beloved. 


An excerpt of the book is here and other reviews of book are as follows: reviews of book are as follows: James V. Schall, Henrik Syse, Thomas Heilke, Glenn Hughes, and Rouven J. Steeves.

Brendan PurcellBrendan Purcell

Brendan Purcell

Brendan Purcell is a Board Member of VoegelinView and an Adjunct Professor in Philosophy at Notre Dame University in Sydney. He is author of several books, including From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution (New City, 2012).

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