Conscience: A Philosophical History
Conscience is central to the human condition and our understanding of that condition. What is its origin and purpose? What does it disclose? And how? Historically, it has been conceived in many ways, whether as an innate faculty responsible for the capacity to know right from wrong (the Hebrew Prophets), as voice of divine guidance (Socrates), as ontological hallmark of our individuality (Heidegger), or as internalization of society’s restrictive pressures and prejudices or parental admonishment (Freud). This rich reception raises many issues. It is, first, a matter of individual responsibility and morality. What, for example, does the capacity to draw moral judgments on its basis reveal about what it is to be the unique selves each of us is? It also, second, is a phenomenon of social, communal, and political significance. What, for example, does it mean to have our actions laid bare before others for moral and rational assessment as social and political beings? And, finally, it is a spiritual matter, too, as it discloses us before God. How, then, does conscience lay us bare before ourselves, others, and God? From Plato to Kant and Fichte, from Rousseau, Mill, Nietzsche and Freud, or the Prophets and Apostles to Heidegger, this book traces the history of the concept of conscience’s formation, highlighting how the capacity to hear and heed its voice forms the heart of man.
Continuing the tradition of works such as Kierkegaard’s Upbuilding Discourses and Jean-Louis Chrétien’s Under the Gaze of the Bible and Hand to Hand: Listening to the Work of Art, this book will provide spiritual meditations on both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament letters, exploring the meaning of life through perennial matters of basic human concern as love, hope, suffering, and death. In doing so, constant reference to works of art will be made. The book consists of ten chapters. In it, I advance a deconstruction of modern subjectivity through a phenomenological interpretation of biblical texts and works of art, with particular emphasis on painting. Thus, the work takes its methodological orientation from a thesis we owe most notably to Jean-Louis Chrétien’s treatment of the modern novel in Conscience et Roman, I: la conscience au grand jour and Conscience et Roman II: la conscience à mi-voix: for us today, the most intimate mode of self-existence is thought to be epitomized by the interior monologue of the self with itself, a relationship which in principle veils nothing from the intruding gaze of the author or reader. Nothing is hidden, for all is laid bare. Against this view that removes any hidden dimension from the searching gaze of others, the book highlights an interiority whose intimacy is due to our always already being exposed, not to a human gaze that knows the secrets of the heart, but to a word prior to any human observation: the Word of God. In accounting for this dimension of vulnerability, I shall call upon, among others, the paintings of Bellini, Rembrandt, Osbert, Ossawa Tanner, Pissarro, Caravaggio, Kandinsky, Poussin, Rodin, and Hopper.