June 29, 2007


Category: Theology :: Permalink

Recently, I’ve been reading Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s I Am an Impure Thinker, though when I read it in a coffeeshop, as I have been, I wonder if people who see it think it’s a book about having impure thoughts.  In the opening essay, “Farewell to Descartes,” Rosenstock-Huessy takes on Rene Descartes and the philosophers who strived for “pure thought,” unaffected by emotion or circumstances or the fact that humans don’t always behave strictly rationally.  He writes:

Our attack on Cartesianism is inevitable since “pure” thought encroaches everywhere on the field of social studies.  Historians and economists and psychologists cannot stand the idea of not being “pure” thinkers, real scientists.  What a frustration!

I am an impure thinker.  I am hurt, swayed, shaken, elated, disillusioned, shocked, comforted, and I have to transmit my mental experiences lest I die.  And although I may die.  To write a book is no luxury.  It is a means of survival.  By writing a book, a man frees his mind from an overwhelming impression.  The test for a book is its lack of arbitrariness, the fact that it had to be done in order to clear the road for further life and work (p. 2).

In the course of this essay, Rosenstock-Huessy proposes a new grammar, which doesn’t start with the first person indicative (“I do this or that”) but rather with the second person imperative (“Do this!”):

King Ptolemaeus’ grammarians in Alexandria first invented the table which all of us had to learn in school: “I love, he loves, we love, you love, they love.”  Probably that table of tenses set the keystone into the arch of the wrong psychology.  For in this scheme all persons and forms of action seem to be interchangeable.  This scheme, used as the logic of philosophy from Descartes to Spencer and as the principle of politics from Machiavelli to Marx, is a grammar of human caricatures.

How far, in fact, does the “I” apply to man?  For an answer to this question let us look into the imperative.  A man is commanded from outside for a longer time in his life than he can dispose of the “I.”  Before we can speak or think, the imperative is aiming at us all the time, by mother, nurse, sisters and neighbors: “Eat, come, drink, be quiet!”  The first form and the permanent form under which a man can recognize himself and the unity of his existence is the imperative.  We are called a Man and we are summoned by our name long before we are aware of ourselves as an Ego.  And in all weak and childlike situations later we find ourselves in need of somebody to talk to us, call us by our name and tell us what to do.  We talk to ourselves in hours of dispair, and ask ourselves: How could you?  Where are you?  What will you do next?  There we have the real man, waiting and hoping for his name and his imperative.  There we have the man on whom we build society….  A man who can listen to his imperative is governable, educatable, answerable.  And when we leave the age of childhood behind us we receive our personality once more by love: “It is my soul that calls upon my name,” says Romeo (p. 7).

Baffled yet?  Perhaps.  Rosenstock-Huessy isn’t the easiest writer to read.

But his point is that we aren’t the kind of person that Descartes and his followers claim we are.  We aren’t primarily minds.  We are not the initiators of our own thoughts, as if our minds are isolated from society and the world and thinking independently.  Nor is it the case that we are because we think.

On the contrary, others come before we do.  Before we can think our own thoughts, we have other people addressing us.  Before we say “I,” they are saying “You” to us.  And above all, God addresses us:

We do not exist because we think.  Man is the son of God and not brought into being by thinking.  We are called into society by a mighty entreaty, “Who art thou, man, that I should care for thee?”  And long before our intelligence can help us, the new-born individual survives this tremendous question by his naive faith in his elders.  We grow into society on faith, listening to all kinds of human imperatives.  Later, we stammer and stutter, nations and individuals alike, in the effort to justify our existence by responding to the call (pp. 10-11).

And so, instead of Descartes’ slogan Cogito ergo sum (“I think; therefore I am”), Rosenstock-Huessy proposes this one: Respondeo etsi mutabor (“I respond although I will be changed”).  We are never “pure thinkers,” independent of the world around us, churning out our own ideas.  Rather, we live in the world and in society and are always responding, and called to respond, even though that means that we also are always being changed, moving into new situations, becoming new people.

Again, Rosenstock-Huessy isn’t the easiest writer to read, nor is it always clear (to me, at least) exactly what he’s getting at or what the significance of what he’s saying might be.  I’ve heard that he’s worth reading, and so I’m wrestling my way through him, which is actually a lot more fun than it sounds, even when he baffles me.  (I also am an impure thinker.  I am baffled.  But bafflement is part of how God grows us toward wisdom.)

All of which leads up to this, my thankfulness that there are others who have wrestled with Rosenstock-Huessy and who can point out what I may fail to grasp.  So enough of my few quotations from one essay I probably don’t even understand.  On, if you’re interested, to Peter Leithart’s essay on “The Relevance of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy,” which may whet your appetite more than my comments.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:03 pm | Discuss (2)

2 Responses to “PJL on ERH”

  1. Larson Hicks Says:

    I had the great blessing of taking a class on ERH taught by Dr. Leithart. I feel that the class has had a profound impact on the way I think about a lot of things.
    I’ve posted a paper I wrote that focuses on the chapter you talked about. Not my finest work by any means, but I try to unpack some of ERH’s ideas concerning liturgy and rationalism (I tie in sports at the end as kind of a afterthought).


    Anyways – enjoy.

    Larson Hicks
    Ruminations of Hicks

  2. John Barach Says:

    Thanks, Larson. Just starting to dabble in ERH myself, so I welcome any pointers I can get!

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