Review: Knox Pedenon Martin Hägglund

Philosophy in Troublous Times

Since its publication in March last year, This Life by Martin Hägglund has achieved a blockbuster status unusual for a work of philosophy. A profile in The New Yorker lauded the book’s ‘moral rectitude’ and called it ‘beautifully liberating,’ anticipating similar reactions in venues ranging from The Guardian to Psychology Today. Words like ‘fresh’ and ‘gripping’ recur in reviews, which is surprising for a volume that begins with nearly two hundred pages devoted to admittedly bravura readings of Saint Augustine, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Søren Kierkegaard before settling in to conceptual analysis. But the public life of This Life speaks to its currency; according to the Boston Globe the book offers ‘a new philosophy for our time.’ It is infused with a sense of urgency focussed on the scarcity of our time in this world and the questions of value that result. The subtitle of the edition published in the UK and Australia – Why Mortality Makes Us Free – overplays this element a bit, giving the volume a gloss more suited to the airport bookstore than the philosophy library. The original subtitle – Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom – speaks more to the substance of the book. Yet such marketing choices haven’t been totally inapposite. As with many publishing coups, the ebullient response to This Life makes manifest a desire it seems to have met. Not coincidentally, correctly identifying desires in order to think about the ways they might be met is central to the book’s vision.

Literally central. Midway through This Life, in a chapter devoted to the difference between natural and spiritual freedom, Hägglund is emphatic that the question, what should I do with my time, is ‘the question that underlies all normative considerations.’

For any norm to matter to me, it has to matter to me what I do with my time. Furthermore, what I do with my time can matter to me only because I grasp my life as finite. If I believed that I had an infinite time to live, the urgency of doing anything would be unintelligible and no normative obligation could have any grip on me.

A number of philosophical theses are compressed in these assertions. Likewise, a number of surprising judgments follow, some of which are expressed elsewhere in the book. For example, early Christian martyrs ought not to be thought of as martyrs exactly, since they believed that they were living on past the destruction of their mortal bodies. And if they believed that they were going to live on, should we really revere them or fear them (whatever response seems appropriate) for their actions? True martyrdom is when someone gives their life for a cause and truly gives it – ends it, terminated. Anything else is delusional or bad faith.

‘Bad faith’ is a notion associated with Jean-Paul Sartre but also implicit in Martin Heidegger’s existentialism, one of the pillars of Hägglund’s effort. It names instances of inauthenticity in life, those moments when you disavow your choices as choices, treating them instead as consequences of necessities beyond your control. In Sartre’s hands, sincerity as a social grace becomes one of his key examples of acting in bad faith. For there is nothing less authentically sincere than desiring to be sincere; if you were actually sincere you wouldn’t have to try. The paradox of bad faith in this case is that, to avoid it, you have to affirm that the run of events could be otherwise, while at the same time denying that you yourself could do anything differently. The moral of the existentialist tradition to which This Life belongs is that one ought to avoid doing anything in bad faith. By contrast, secular faith – the second key notion of Hägglund’s account, alongside spiritual freedom – is the essential precondition of doing anything at all.

Nevertheless, the notions are related; one of the main threads of This Life suggests that the attempt to deny that all faith is at root secular faith is itself an exercise in bad faith. Secular faith is a comportment toward the world, implicit in our actions, that is drawn from a sense of finitude, our sense that everything is fragile, subject to the erosion of time. ‘To have secular faith is to be devoted to a life that will end, to be dedicated to projects that can fail or break down.’ In this, the concept is related to Hägglund’s interpretation of Jacques Derrida’s philosophy as a ‘radical atheism’ in the book of that title published in 2008. An atheist affirms the non-existence of an eternal being, but may well regret it. A radical atheist notes that such an existence is not simply unintelligible, but undesirable. A condition of care – of anything mattering at all – is that the object of care may be lost. Nothing is exempt from this situation, an ‘ultra-transcendental’ condition for all life and duration. In this earlier work and the virtuosic studies of modernist authors such as Woolf, Proust, and Nabokov that followed, Hägglund made clear that the desire for eternity is a red herring. Time is not escapable, not least because the desire for escape doesn’t make sense without it. The only thing desired in an ultimate sense is the desire to keep desiring, to survive, that is, to live on.

The normative element is present in Hägglund’s thinking from the outset, although mere survival never seemed like a very congenial norm. To be sure, Hägglund was and remains clear that this norm is not optional. Even when we die for something greater than ourselves, we die in order that that thing we value might live on. But the normative element in radical atheism becomes much more salient in the discussion of secular faith that occupies the first half of This Life. Secular faith tells us that what we do matters. This sets up the case for spiritual freedom as a capacity to reflect on our commitments and to revise them.

In forging a link between secular faith and spiritual freedom, This Life offers a philosophical justification for democratic socialism as a political project. In Hägglund’s understanding, social democracy aims to correct for the ills of capitalism via legislative means, but leaves capitalist values in place. Democratic socialism, by contrast, involves a revaluation of value itself, one that can only occur because we are the kinds of creatures who can question not only how we pursue our norms, but which norms we ought to be pursuing. In a word, we can re-evaluate – and presumably decide anew upon which rules we ought to follow. This is one meaning of democracy, the idea that the source of legitimacy for the rules of governance is to be found in the demos. The socialism resides in the commitment not to redistribution – the redistributive paradigm still accepts capitalism’s measure of value as wealth accrued in production or speculations on it – but instead to a focus on what Hägglund terms, following Marx, ‘socially available free time’. Secular faith reveals to us that our time is valuable. Spiritual freedom is a matter of using that time wisely. Democratic socialism is the political system that gives us the means to do so. 

Much of the warm reception for This Life has focused on the political arguments for spiritual freedom and their support for democratic socialism, both as Hägglund defines it and as a movement in the US that has gained traction in recent years with the resurgence of the Democratic Socialists of America. With a growing membership nationwide, the movement retains an epicentre in New York, not far from Yale, where Häggland teaches, and home to its most visible congressperson, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Hägglund’s book is remarkably well-timed, which is not to say insincere. In fact its earnestness is one of its most bracing qualities.

Nevertheless, it is an effort that risks preaching to the choir – a choir of atheists and socialists. It’s hard to imagine the book bringing in any converts to these views. Metaphysically, the project presumes the truth of atheism. Its engagement is less designed to show the unintelligibility than the undesirability of alternatives. As for socialism, the book is grounded in a tradition that conceives of history as a process of emancipation achieved by collective means. As ever in such philosophies of history, the question is, emancipation from what? History is composed of countless concrete instances of oppression and emancipation – from slavery, from military occupation, from exploitative conditions. Yet there is a shift of meaning when one speaks of history writ large as a process of emancipation.

On this score, Hägglund’s project is not only the renewal but arguably the pinnacle of a tradition of modern thought that runs from Kant via Hegel to Marx. Historical emancipation is a matter of learning, of growing up, shaking off our self-incurred tutelage, as Kant would have it.  In Hegel, such enlightenment proceeds via the historical vocation of objective spirit as it is expressed and enacted in the human community; a way of achieving freedom through the rationalisation of laws and norms that results from the struggle over their contents. On the fate of religion in this struggle, Hägglund dances around in an effort to be inclusive – what vector of historical emancipation would be worth its salt if it weren’t finally all-inclusive? – but his book amounts to a renewal of Marx’s injunction to recognise that the critique of society begins with the critique of religion. ‘The movement toward democratic socialism,’ Hägglund concludes, ‘is inseparable from the overcoming of political theology and the withering away of religious faith.’ And why is religious faith not just bad but inimical to the project? Because ‘[w]hat ultimately matters from a religious perspective is not freedom but salvation; what ultimately matters is not to lead a life but to be saved from being alive.’

To be sure, Hägglund concedes that many well-meaning people of faith have contributed to the project of emancipation. A case in point is Martin Luther King, Jr., the subject of the final chapter of This Life. Hägglund is emphatic that, despite the Christian language in which King’s message was couched, its practical significance was and is wholly intelligible in terms of the secular faith it expresses. It’s not that there’s an opposition between King’s worldly goals and his spiritual ones; it’s that the latter are superfluous. Religion is to be tolerated insofar as the actions it motivates are re-describable in secular terms. That is the price of admission to the ‘we’ that is frequently invoked throughout This Life. Hägglund’s warrant for reading King in such terms is Hegelian, and we are reminded that King himself studied Hegel at Harvard. And just as Hegel shows us that the truth of the Incarnation lies not in metaphysical mysteries but in the communities of mutual recognition organised to affirm it, so too can King’s faith find its truth in his worldly efforts.

An irony of this is that, even though the book is presented in Hegelian terms, it presents claims that are consonant with various forms of consequentialism in ethics. There is a lot of talk in This Life about what matters, but there’s no account of what mattering means, a subject dear to contemporary consequentialism. Still, what Hägglund shares with this body of work is the notion that reason is the arbiter of what matters. One might think this is simply the definition of the philosopher – one for whom reason decides, and in the case of the moral philosopher, decides which desires are to be permitted and possibly fulfilled. But there are various pictures of this idea, and Hägglund’s portrait is one in which reason does a fair bit of boundary work. The only potentially viable justification one can offer for one’s acts is one that provides reasons that would be universally recognised as reasons, reasons that partake in Reason. This is why justifications that involve appeals to divine authority (such as those based on the sanctity of life) are inadmissible on their own terms. And if they are admitted, it’s only so they can be re-described in such a way as to disclose their truth content in rationalist terms. Reason has its rules, and those rules are constitutively common. Reason is what’s given, what is to be accessed and expressed by all. Yet this route of translation is a one-way street. Would it be possible to translate propositions made in such terms into a theological vocabulary so that they might be intelligible to believers?

Most consequentialists wouldn’t bother. In Hägglund’s case, such a proposal is nonsensical precisely because he believes that the language of faith in eternal things is itself nonsensical, and not in a good, Wittgensteinian way. This is why the first part of This Life is the crucial section. The political claims in favour of accelerating religion’s withering are only plausible if the case made in the first part of the book is as well. So it’s important to get a handle on what ‘secular faith’ really is.

If the difference between radical and mere atheism was one of attitude, secular faith is distinguished from religious faith in terms of the content of the beliefs themselves.

To have secular faith is to acknowledge that the object of our faith is dependent on the practice of faith. I call it secular faith, since the object of devotion does not exist independently of those who believe in its importance and who keep it alive through their fidelity. […] The object of religious faith, by contrast, is taken to be independent of the fidelity of finite beings.

In other words, believers in God believe that God would exist even if they did not believe in him. One might think this an essential feature of any belief one takes to be true. I believe there is a buzzsaw being used in the house next door as I type this sentence. In believing that, I also believe that there would still be a buzzsaw being used next door were I not sitting here at my desk forming the belief.

But Hägglund is not interested in the kinds of objects we encounter in the world through our senses. The kinds of objects at issue, as he specifies, are ‘object(s) of devotion.’ I don’t believe in the buzzsaw; I just believe that it’s there. The things we believe in – the objects of devotion – are only legible via practices of devotion, which is why for Hägglund secular faith is an eminently (also immanently) practical affair. He purports to follow Hegel in seeing the truth of Christianity in the community practices it sustains, practices that would persist, so it is claimed, without the trappings of Christian ritual. But the shift of belief away from religious faith amounts to a shift in attitude toward one’s own activities and practices. So what matters when we cease to believe in God is not so much a shift in judgment about the existence or inexistence of entities, but one about our changing comportment. The believer thinks that if he stops being pious God will notice and frown upon it and that bad things will happen. The non-believer is one who, in ceasing to believe, ceases to fear the consequences of non-belief.

In this, we see how secular faith is not in opposition to religious faith per se, but is shown to be its real truth – the condition of what we take for religious faith. As a believer, you cared for your fate, which is why you believed in an entity to which you outsourced the anxiety such a care caused. As a non-believer, you still care for your fate, but now you are responsible for it. You realise that that care is primary and always was. The secular faith that sustained you in the first place has now become explicit. This is the sense in which secular faith is existentially basic. But Hägglund also sees it at work in the individual projects and sequences our lives comprise. Secular faith is a commitment to a normative ideal that evaporates when the commitment itself evaporates. Paradigm cases are marriages and political movements. Each only persists as long as its participants remain committed. But the key point is that this secular faith is not optional; it is in play whenever we find ourselves committed. And since we always find ourselves committed just in virtue of being alive, it behooves us to get our commitments right.

What’s curious about this argument is that it is built around what transpires in the exit from religious belief. But it’s likely that Hägglund and many of his readers never had that kind of belief to start with. The technique of making explicit what is implicit in religious practice assumes that believers believe what they believe because it works for them. But this leaves aside that large number of believers who believe what they believe even when (perhaps especially when) it doesn’t work for them; that’s why such beliefs require faith, commitment, or better yet, faith in commitment. If the commitment finds itself ill-served by secular faith in time, there remains the profession of faith expressed in the commitment itself, which obtains in force even when the spirit flags. No doubt institutions of various sorts, from marriages to political parties, break apart due to their internal contradictions. But what Hägglund is interested to show us is that commitments only obtain for a particular agent to the extent that the governing norms they impose continue to yield satisfaction. If the values change, so too do the restraints on our conduct. And if norms can no longer be justified, they can only be encumbrances, like marriage vows that no longer serve their purpose.

This brings us to back to the distinction at the heart of the book between natural and spiritual freedom. Many kinds of creatures – including ourselves – are naturally free insofar as we find ourselves physically unencumbered. What makes us spiritually free is that we can reflect on the norms that govern our behaviour. We’re not just responsive to norms. Any animal can know it’s hungry and recognise whether or not it’s free to eat something. Human animals can reflect on when – and, increasingly, what – they should be eating. In this they are spiritually free to decide which grounds for action are best.

The important point is that deciding on grounds is not the same as discovering them. What we ought to do will not be disclosed to us by natural law, much less revelation. Rather, spiritual freedom is a matter of endless negotiation, a play of recognition, assent, and dissent, among creatures able to offer reasons for the norms that guide their actions. The problem is that Hägglund has already decided which reasons are permissible, and they are those which are responsive to the most fundamental desire to have one’s desires fulfilled and thereby to extend one’s capacity to desire anew. Hägglund thinks that redistributive projects remain captive to conceptions of value rooted in capitalism. But it is not coincidental that the vision of the best life to be found in This Life is one in which, however mediated they may be, one’s preferences are met. This is not radical atheism, but radical liberalism.

Even the Stoic or the Buddhist monk who seeks to suspend his attachment to desires will find satisfaction in the suspension. Otherwise, why did he do it? The same critique applies mutatis mutandis to Christian forms of asceticism. As he moves toward his final call for religion’s withering away, Hägglund tells us that there is ‘[n]othing sinful about self-satisfaction.’ Yet the point in describing in such terms the supreme sin of pride – that self-satisfaction from which all the other sins stem – is to dispense with the notion altogether. For there are no sins in This Life, only competing desires.

The metaphysical critique of detachment that runs through This Life gives us a clue to its political significance. Those who aim to detach themselves – be it via the practices of Silicon Valley meditation retreats or Franciscan monasteries – are deluded, because their detachment is grounded in a more fundamental attachment to their own life and desire. This is why they are specimens of bad faith. And it’s also why their reasons aren’t permissible. And what this means is that the community of meta-normative discussion, the one that decides which norms to follow and which to leave aside, need not include such denizens of delusion until they recognise the priority of their secular commitments and above all the sense of attachment to life in which their own misguided desire for detachment is grounded. No religious believer would have qualms with Hägglund’s distinction between natural and spiritual freedom; in fact, they rely on it. It’s the demand for justification in ‘spiritual’ terms that are decided by material preferences and attachments that is difficult to accept. And insofar as they misunderstand their own attempts at detachment, such believers detach themselves from the political community. Perhaps it goes without saying that this means most of humanity.

I started composing this review during the peak of the bushfires in January. I returned to complete it as the coronavirus pandemic settled into its critical phase. The globalising, unifying elements of such crises are palpable, and resonate with Hägglund’s focus on fragility as an ineliminable element of political effort, just as it is for life as such. And yet his universal philosophy betrays a startling parochialism in the way it apportions which routes of anti-capitalism are viable and which aren’t. The world religions are unaided by their implausible origin stories, but it’s unclear why German Idealism and its legacy in sectors of the humanities academy should be any more likely a candidate to give us the total explanation for the world’s depredations.

Hägglund thinks religious belief is disabling to the extent that it turns us away from this world, and redeemable to the extent that it doesn’t. But one wonders in the end what reality this contrast captures, and whether it isn’t best regarded as yet another sectarian view, another voice in the wilderness. (Here I am reminded of the words of the young Indiana Jones alone in the desert, decades before the Last Crusade: ‘Everybody’s lost but me.’) Hägglund locates the uniqueness of his project in its sense of life’s incompletion, the rootedness of our dignity in our finitude and mutual dependence. But this is hardly a unique view, and doesn’t require the machinery Hägglund marshals to justify it. He ends This Life with an homage to King that calls for us to turn away from the New Jerusalem in order to build the New New York. But it bears repeating that these efforts weren’t mutually exclusive for King as they are ultimately – and necessarily – for Hägglund.

Hägglund thinks religious faith offers guarantees and a release from worldly difficulties, a caricature that prevents him from seeing allies in the struggle against consumerism and ethnic divisiveness at a time when they are sorely needed. And yet, alone in North Africa in 1908, near the trading post of Tamanrasset, the French mystic Charles de Foucauld also conceived of a project of evangelisation, in which he would spread the gospel among the Tuareg people of the Sahara. In the years to follow he would learn their language, immersing himself in their culture, even producing a Tuareg-French dictionary. As he considered what lay before him, he wrote a letter to the apostolic prefect for the region:

There is a phrase of holy Scripture that we must, I believe, always remember. It’s that Jerusalem was reconstructed ‘in angustia temporum’ (Daniel). We must work all our life in angustia temporum. Difficulties are not a temporary state that we let pass like a squall so that we can set to work when the weather will be calm. No, these are the normal state. We must count on them being so for our entire life, for all of the good things that we want to do, in angustia temporum.

In angustia temporum – ‘in a troubled time,’ or, in the more melodious King James version, ‘in troublous times.’ In 1916, as the effects of the European war extended to French Algeria, Charles de Foucauld was murdered by a band of tribesmen, shot in the head during a botched kidnapping. Years later the Church recognised him as a martyr. It seems to me that there are better uses for philosophy than to wonder at his sincerity.