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Minimal Theologies

, 760 pages
January 2005



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Minimal Theologies

Critiques of Secular Reason in Adorno and Levinas

What, at this historical moment "after Auschwitz," still remains of the questions traditionally asked by theology? What now is theology's minimal degree? This magisterial study, the first extended comparison of the writings of Theodor W. Adorno and Emmanuel Levinas, explores remnants and echoes of religious forms in these thinkers' critiques of secular reason, finding in the work of both a "theology in pianissimo" constituted by the trace of a transcendent other. The author analyzes, systematizes, and formalizes this idea of an other of reason. In addition, he frames these thinkers' innovative projects within the arguments of such intellectual heirs as Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, defending their work against later accusations of "performative contradiction" (by Habermas) or "empiricism" (by Derrida) and in the process casting important new light on those later writers as well. Attentive to rhetorical and rational features of Adorno's and Levinas's texts, his investigations of the concepts of history, subjectivity, and language in their writings provide a radical interpretation of their paradoxical modes of thought and reveal remarkable and hitherto unsuspected parallels between their philosophical methods, parallels that amount to a plausible way of overcoming certain impasses in contemporary philosophical thinking. In Adorno, this takes the form of a dialectical critique of dialectics; in Levinas, that of a phenomenological critique of phenomenology, each of which sheds new light on ancient and modern questions of metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics. For the English-language publication, the author has extensively revised and updated the prize-winning German version.

Hent de Vries is professor of Modern European Thought in the Humanities Center and the Department of Philosophy at the Johns Hopkins University and professor of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. Among his books are Philosophy and the Turn to Religion and Religion and Violence: Philosophical Perspectives from Kant to Derrida, both available from Johns Hopkins. He is the co-editor, with Samuel Weber, of Violence, Identity, and Self-Determination and Religion and Media, and, with Mieke Bal, of the book series Cultural Memory in the Present.

"This fiercely intricate and intriguing work gestures towards a 'theological' position that avoids the Scylla of false hope and the Charybdis of nihilism... A suggestive, intelligent and erudite (non-linear) journey alongside Habermas, Adorno, Levinas and Derrida."

"A deeply impressive achievement and an important contribution to theological debate in the wake of Critical Theory and deconstruction."

"Is modern or twentieth-century philosophy, as any cursory look would seem to indicate, overwhelmingly secular, or is there perhaps an unacknowledged entanglement with religion that may be constitutive of what the most sophisticated thinking was and continues to be? It is the latter alternative that Hent de Vries has explored in his now substantial body of research on the works of thinkers such as Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Luc Marion, Jacques Derrida and Theodor W. Adorno—all of whom he takes to represent a kind of 'working through' of theological motifs in the register of conceptual, philosophical reflection. De Vries has previously published two acclaimed books on this topic— Philosophy and the Turn to Religion (1999) and Religion and Violence (2001)... Minimal Theologies is an important book that ought to find a wide readership."

"A substantial contribution to the philosophy of religion and to the study of the thought of Adorno and Levinas."

"Very demanding but rewarding book."

"Deserves to be examined with care."

"Truly original. For anyone concerned with the critical theory of the Frankfurt school, deconstruction, and developments in theology, this is obligatory reading. This impressive book is not only a piece of sound, rigorous, and meticulous scholarship, it is also one whose thesis is extraordinarily important."

"Hent de Vries's Philosophy and the Turn to Religion and Religion and Violence were landmarks in the international debate over the ethical and metaphysical implications of philosophy's entanglement with religion. The long-overdue translation of his earliest book, Minimal Theologies, adds a masterful analysis of the encounter between religious faith and secular reason in the work of Adorno and Levinas. As always, de Vries shows himself to be a rigorous, judicious and illuminating guide through the most tangled of theoretical labyrinths, an enlightener who knows the limits of pure enlightenment."

"This bold and brilliantly executed work ventures into new terrain and is simply indispensable reading for anyone interested in the quandaries that arise in contemporary philosophical thinking. By exposing previously unperceived affinities between the philosophies of Adorno and Levinas, de Vries brings to light possibilities for a fundamental reconfiguring of traditional religious, theological, and metaphysical concepts. Clear of confessional form, these thinkers convey jointly what neither could convey individually. Far from positing the reducibility of one to the other, the author recasts both Adorno's negative dialectics and Levinas' idea of the infinite, leading to the emergence of a radically innovative minimal theology, a theology in 'pianissimo' that is anticipated in their work. Habermas's and Derrida's accounts of language and rationality are also explored as they shed light on these matters. This landmark study promises to become a reference point for considering major issues animating current philosophical discussion."

"Hent de Vries's outstanding book presents an absolutely new approach to the question of religious philosophy in our time. It overcomes the classical opposition between Faith and Reason in defining a 'minimal theology'. "

"This volume offers an original exploration of the interactions of philosophy and religion, and is a must read for those interested in theology, critical theory, deconstruction, and dialectics."

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