God Would Have To Have A Body (Edmund Husserl) (Ideas II)

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Part one of Husserl’s Ideas II is given over to the phenomenological “constitution of material nature.” Of all places, it’s here that Husserl speculates about God and spirits as embodied, about the objectivity of a world saturated by subjectivity (95, 90). In this speculative exercise, slightly tongue in cheek, Husserl toys with the notion that this could include God and spirits entering into the world as possible appearances in consciousness (91). The key words to what I would call “phenomenological theology,” as it were, are “possibility,” “appearance,” “seeing,” “things,” “mutual understanding,” “the other,” “body.”

Of course, God enjoys no ontological status in these speculations. Why not and why should one demand otherwise, either from Husserl or from philosophy in general? In a section devoted to “More precise characteristics of the physicalist thing,” Husserl insists that we cannot attribute actuality to any appearing thing in and of itself. It’s “out of the question” since the appearance of sense qualities is unstable, depending on the disposition of the sense organ.

But what about God, Husserl begins to speculate, what about the way in which things might appear to God? (What follows below are taken from pp.90-1).

[1] “Shall we say that God sees things as they are in themselves, while we see them through  our sense organs, which are a kind of distorting eyeglasses?”

[2] “But should the things which appear to us be the same as the things which appear to God as they appear to God, then a unity of mutual understanding would have to be possible between God and us, just as, between different men, only through mutual understanding is there the possibility of knowing that the things seen by the one are the same as those seen by the other.”

[3] But how would the identification be thinkable if not in the sense that the supposed absolute spirit sees the things precisely also through sensuous appearances, which, likewise, have to be exchangeable in an understanding that is reciprocal…as is the case with appearances we share among us men?”

The CONCLUSION, drawn by Husserl: “Obviously, the absolute spirit would have to have a Body (Leib) for there to be mutual understanding, and thus the dependency on sense organs would have to be there as well.” Nature is understood to be an intersubjective nexus-reality for everyone who “can have dealings with us. This means that, “There is always the possibility that new spirits enter into this nexus; but they do so by means of their Bodies, which are represented through possible appearance in our consciousness and through corresponding ones in theirs.”

(Note, the word Leib is used by Husserl to denote the lived, living animate body. Körper is the word denoting the inanimate, physical body. It’s a distinction that bears the trace of vitalism and Lebensphilosophie in Husserl’s thought).

My own takeaway is that the kind of theological speculation here flies in the face of any kind of theology, rationalist or other, that would insist on God’s absolute alterity, or asks us to think in a more radical way the thought of non-differentiation (about that, more tomorrow in relation to Heidegger). It’s focus on sensation would draw Jewish theology away from Maimonides, Cohen, and Levinas towards (certain readings of) Buber and Rosenzweig. But unlike, Buber and Rosenzweig, it is more tongue in cheek. The idea of God’s thought disappears as soon as it appears in “the constitution of material nature.”

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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15 Responses to God Would Have To Have A Body (Edmund Husserl) (Ideas II)

  1. jethrobravo says:

    Hello Zachary,
    I’ve been following your posts on Husserl with interest. I am part of a university group of study on trascendental phenomenology. We read Husserl in Spanish but also in German.
    What I want to say about this post is that, although Husserl’s interest is not the development of a theology, God or the idea of a supreme being often comes as a thought experiment in Husserl’s arguments. In this sense, God appears as a “supersubject”, in whose consideration we can grasp clearly and distinctly the essential laws of a trascendental subjectivity. Not only in Ideas II does it shows in that context, but also in Ideas I. There is a book of a italian scholar, Angela Ales Bello, called “Husserl, about the problem of God”. I have not read it, but might interest you. I want to say too that there is a place for God in the system of trascendental phenomenology when we consider the problem and sense of mind’s teleology. Why the mind or the conscience has such a marvelous order? Why it constituts a world? This questions are drawn fort by Husserl in Ideas I. Husserl’s first thought about it is the thesis of a supreme being or a new kind of trascendence, which cannot be part (reell) of conscience. In thinking about this I have come to the same questions you pose about the limits of Husserl’s idea of God. Is not here a clear neccessity of seeing God other as a “supersubject”? Kind regards from México.

  2. Michael Fagenblat says:

    Nice quote from Husserl, I hadn’t seen it or else forgotten it. As far as your substantive points at the end go, I’d say two things. First, of course God has a body, probably many of them. Or, what amounts to the same thing, God appears. God is phenomenalized. Sometimes it’s as Kvod Yhwh, sometimes it appears as fire or as a person. Your estwhile colleague at Syracuse the late William Alston wrote a book called Perceiving God which defends this from the pov of analytic epistemology, and I think Jean-Luc Marion’s position is very close from a more Husserlian tradition. Second, I think it’s clear that Levinas belongs more to the tradition you are trying to reclaim than the one from which you are trying to dissociate. (No surprise here; another notch in your anti-Levinasian polemic that is duly recorded!) His point is that the sense of God can’t be totalized in the perceptual event, but it is the perceptual event that brings the sense of God to mind. The “other” – that bastard! – is not an idea or the negation of an idea but a sense (not a meaning) directly seen through a face, the dark glass (of the pupil of the eye?) through which God appears. More sophisticated than Husserl on this point, or less “tongue in cheek,” he regards God’s absoluteness as the absoluteness of a sense appearing in a body, not the absolutness of a body. i.e. body and sense do not coincide, even though they appear as one entity. Husserl seems to understand that the sense of God requires phenomenalization but confuses the appearance of the absolute with an absolute appearance. Marion, Alston, Levinas would all say: the absolute appears, but never absolutely. That seems to me the pshat of the Torah too. B. Sommer’s The Bodies of God is particularly useful for this point.

    • zjb says:

      I like tongue in cheek, and think we’d be all better off with a little less absolute, and a little more Absolut. But thanks, Michael. I’ll mull your insight about Levinas, even though I think his thinking remains aniconic.Let me just say, though, that “of course God has a body” is a jaw-dropper in the history of Jewish philosophy.

    • myronjoshua says:

      Isn’t there a difference between the G~d who “comes to mind” who (seemingly) “appears” as trace via/or behind the Face) and the G~d who actually appears? Doesn’t the G~d who appears (and has ears with which to listen:) do so as part of a religious community-therefore never the Absolute ?

  3. dmf says:

    more of a sort of negative-a/theology perhaps, a kind of limit-concept-ion.
    one might imagine folks like Tillich working against such an insight as they try and reject thinking of their God as a being amongst beings, but than a god out of touch?
    hope that Jack Caputo finally gets around to his theology of flesh

  4. Michael Fagenblat says:

    I also like tongue in cheek. The question is whether that describes the appearing. Tongue in cheek is the “natural attitude” of the liberal ironist. But to take the appearing of God as a genuine phenomenological possibility we might need to bracket that ironic attitude. Otherwise we’ll just misunderstand the sense of God as it appears – which would deprive us of understanding the basis of genuine religious life.

    I’d be happy to argue the Levinas point but I suspect it would be tiresome.

    • zjb says:

      Oh, god, Michael, please don’t bracket liberal irony. How could we live without it? God always appears ironically, at least in the Bavli.

      • Michael Fagenblat says:

        I have the feeling we are speaking at cross purposes. Theological irony is delightful, but it will never explain what’s going on in religion as a driving force in peoples lives. For example, I’m not sure you can seriously pray, or sacrifice, ironically, at least not very often. That’s just what phenomenology, as I understand it, is meant to explain. In that sense it’s a very unironic tool. “Ironic phenomenology” strikes me as a contradiction in terms. And my comments were meant push the usefulness of phenomenology as a tool for taking Jewish theology seriously, not as a personal confession of faith. Phenomenology is not personal.

        The Bavli presents ann interesting case, I agree. But I wouldn’t say it’s always ironic, not at all. Some parts of the aggadah are ironic, but the halakhic ambience surely isn’t.

        If you want irony – see this new comedy called Hayehudim Ba’im https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MyM2tHGz4Rc

      • zjb says:

        Not talking about prayer, although with the rabbis one can almost always find what one wants. The halakhic ambience is very often playful, at least in respect to Talmud Torah as opposed to halakha l’maaseh, which is the special concern of codes, if not of the Bavli per se. I’d point you to disucssion in tractate Sukkot about building sukkot on the top of camels or using elephants to make the wall of a sukka. Re: irony in people’s prayer lives, it would be interesting to see some ethnographic work into the religious practice and mentality of ordinary people. Eisen and Cohen’s The Jew Within would be a good starting point for moderately observant people in liberal communities.

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