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Philosophy and the Turn to Religion

, 496 pages
June 1999



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Philosophy and the Turn to Religion

If religion once seemed to have played out its role in the intellectual and political history of Western secular modernity, it has now returned with a vengeance. In this engaging study, Hent de Vries argues that a turn to religion discernible in recent philosophy anticipates and accompanies this development in the contemporary world. Though the book reaches back to Immanuel Kant, Martin Heidegger, and earlier, it takes its inspiration from the tradition of French phenomenology, notably Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Luc Marion, and, especially, Jacques Derrida. Tracing how Derrida probes the discourse on religion, its metaphysical presuppositions, and its transformations, de Vries shows how this author consistently foregrounds the unexpected alliances between a radical interrogation of the history of Western philosophy and the religious inheritance from which that philosophy has increasingly sought to set itself apart.

De Vries goes beyond formal analogies between the textual practices of deconstruction and so-called negative theology to address the necessity for a philosophical thinking that situates itself at once close to and at the farthest remove from traditional manifestations of the religious and the theological. This paradox is captured in the phrase adieu ( à dieu), borrowed from Levinas, which signals at once a turn toward and a leave-taking from God—and which also gestures toward and departs from the other of this divine other, the possibility of radical evil. Only by confronting such uncanny and difficult figures, de Vries claims, can one begin to think and act upon the ethical and political imperatives of our day.

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 Minimal Theologies: Critiques of Secular Reason in Adorno and Levinas 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.

"A quasi-magisterial work, both insofar as its phenomenological rigor gives the reader a comprehension of Derrida's religious writings that transcends their quotability and also insofar as it goes beyond Derrida in its treatment of the relationship between philosophy and religion."

"Where—or where not?—does religion exist in contemporary culture, and in what forms or by what symptoms does its perennial encounter with philosophy now manifest itself? Following the leads of Derrida, Heidegger, and Levinas, and of those whose leads they follow, Hent de Vries proposes these new/old questions as tracing the most sensitive seismograph of the state of our worldwide culture. His extraordinary learning, his sophisticated sympathy with various disciplines and with competing modes of philosophizing, and his patient, engaged, courteous voice, make this book a place of profit not alone for those already convinced of the gravity of its topics, but for those who may well seek a way into matters that they sense they have been keeping at bay."

"Hent de Vries has given us a very comprehensive, thoughtful, and instructive study of the relation between negative theology and its recent analogues in the writings of Levinas, Heidegger and Derrida. Those puzzled by Derrida's discussion of religion in his recent work will find de Vries' book very useful indeed."

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