living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Paul Tillich and Stages of Rational Reflection

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How did Christianity come to a place where the activity of honest rational inquiry became so threatening to its own foundation? To see how this came to pass we will be helped along by Robert Scharlemann’s analysis of the stages human reason as it has occurred since classical Greek thought.

Scharlemann sketches this history through the lens of Tillich’s philosophy which begins with the statement that “the human self (the subjectival) is constituted by a double relation to the objectival.”[1] This is to say that one’s subjectivity relates to an other in two ways. First, “it grasps the objectivity of the objectival,” and secondly “it responds to the subjectivity of the objectival.” (Scharlemann, 3.) The first activity Scharlemann calls reflection, the second, he calls response. This fundamental statement sets that stage for Tillich’s entire philosophy of religion. Out of these two activities flow philosophy and theology as systems of thought. In seeking to grasp the objectivity of being, one is engaging in the activity of philosophy. In responding to the subjectivity of being, the result is theology. (Scharlemann, 4.)

The next element that must be seen is the presence of a critical element in human reason. At the appropriate level of development, the mind develops the capacity for some measure of critical awareness.[2] Critical awareness introduces an element of the negative into both reflection and response in order to establish the reality of the objectivity and subjectivity of the objectival. This negative element turns reflection into critical reflection, and response into doubting response. (Scharlemann, 4-5.) In each case the subjectival removes the immediate experience of either an object or of the subjective power that is acting upon it. It does this in an attempt to establish what is really there. The salutary nature of this effort should be obvious, but as the history of this dynamic will show, it eventually lands both philosophy and theology in a bind that Scharlemann characterizes as the “absolute” systems of Hegel (reflection, philosophy) and Schleiermacher (response, theology). Let us now have a brief look at these stages of progression.

Bartlemas Chapel, Oxford

We will begin with the stages of critical reflection and return later to the stages of doubting response. Scharlemann sets the scene for us.

Critical reflection establishes objectivity by introducing a form of the negative. It can lay hold upon objectivity when it can distinguish an object from everything that contrasts with it. Thus the form of objectivity and the related form of negativity which are achieved depend upon the sort of object to which critical reflection is directed and this determines its several stages. (Scharlemann, 5.)

The first stage is characterized by reflection’s attempt to grasp the objectivity of any thing or group of things within the entire objectival sphere. The form of the negative suitable to establish objectivity in this realm is the contrast between what a thing is and everything that a thing is not. This, Scharlemann suggests, characterizes Greek thought, and is encapsulated in the philosophical axiom formulated by Aristotle as the rule of noncontradiction.[3] What is not reflected upon at this stage is the whole itself. The whole is a given and thought is directed only at the contrast between “the different beings and kinds of beings.” (Scharlemann, 6.)

The second stage of reflection takes up this contrast that was not yet in view in the first stage. Here the object of reflection is not an object in the first sense at all, but rather the whole realm of being that comprises the world of objects. Scharlemann points out that the law of noncontradiction, which was formerly used in thinking, is now itself reflected upon. The nature of this object of thought cannot be contrasted with other beings, as in the first stage of reflection. Since the object of thought is being-as-such, its objectivity can only be grasped by contrasting it with sheer non-being. This philosophical realization was formulated most famously by Avicenna and Thomas Aquinas in the distinction between esse (being-itself) and entia or essentiae (beings or essences). (Scharlemann, 7.)

In the third stage of reflection “the connection is recognized between the negative, which is introduced in order to objectify an object, and the self who does the introducing.” (Scharlemann, 8.) Thus, the negative becomes identified with subjectivity. The contrast is then no longer between forms of what is and what is not, but rather between subjectivity and objectivity. This way of phrasing the matter should sound the most familiar to most readers since it lies at the heart of modernity, and therefore at the heart of most contemporary thought. Here “[t]he difference between objective and non-objective is not just a difference between ways of being but a difference in how the self is related to the objectival.” (Scharlemann, 9.) Descartes is the thinker associated with this stage of reflection because of his discovery of the “split” between subjects and objects. (Scharlemann, 9.) Scharlemann notes that the supernatural realm as it had been conceived by Medieval theology was dislodged by this Cartesian split. Here the supernatural and God become for the first time, merely ways that the subjectival reflects the objectival.

The fourth stage occurs when reflection “is directed at what is presupposed in the fact that subjectivity reflects objectivity, or toward what Kant called the ‘conditions’ of knowing at all.” (Scharlemann, 10.) The contrast at this stage is between objects as thought by subjects, and “the presuppositions, or conditions, implied in the fact that objects can be thought by subjects at all.” (Scharlemann, 10.) Here objectivity is established at two levels, first, at the level of objects as thought by subjects (which is Kant’s Verstand) and secondly as the objectification of the conditions for thinking at all (which is related to Kant’s Vernunft). (Scharlemann, 10.)

The fifth and final stage of reflection now introduces the decisive problem of the modern age. At this stage critical reflection is directed at the distinction between thinking the conditions of thinking, and the “here and now” act of thinking even those conditions. At this point I can do no better than quote Scharlemann at length.

If the subjectival engages only in trying to reflect its own act, it loses objectival content because it can never catch the here-and-now act. If on the other hand it does introduce content, the content is ultimately arbitrary and unfounded; it is posited but not confirmed as objective content, because the act which posits it had not in turn been reflected. How can any objectivity finally be established if critical reflection cannot reflect the act by which objectivity is established? Yet how can reflection establish itself since there is nothing with which it can be contrasted in the act of reflection? The choice seems to be this. Either I halt reflection at the point where it tries to grasp its own act and simply assume that it does establish objectivity, and then I defeat the purpose of reengaging in it in the first place and fail to achieve what it had promised; or I continue trying to reflect that act of reflecting and lose all content because of the interminable character of self-reflection. (Scharlemann, 11.)

Here we have the final stage that reflection reaches in its quest to arrive at an objective certainty. By all appearances this quest has finally found itself frustrated by the temporal character of all acts of reflection. This is the point, says Scharlemann, that thought becomes historical in the deepest possible sense. The young Tillich we met earlier did not yet have this horizon in view. His doubts at that time likely had more to do with the limitations picked out in the third and forth stages of reflection (the problem of subjectivity and the limited conditions of knowing). However this stage was later to become decisive for him since it was his attempt to correct what he saw to be Hegel’s failed solution to this problem that became the apex of his thinking.

According to Scharlemann, Hegel’s solution amounted to the construction of a system of thought that traversed all possible content and all possible kinds of reflection. In doing so, an absolute whole could be arrived at “whose content could not be, and need not be, further reflected because it already included the here-and-now act of reflecting.” (Scharlemann, 11.) As a consequence, Scharlemann points out, Hegel concluded that in his system thought was fully reconciled with being. History was thought to have ended in the sense that nothing new could emerge that the absolute system had not already contained. It was against this implication that Hegel’s critics reacted, and it was on this point that Tillich would attempt to make his most radical revision.

In the next post we will again be tracing the stages of reason, but this time with respect to response. Where reflection left us at the doorstep of Hegel, response will have us arrive at the stoop of Schleiermacher.


This post is a continuation of a series in which I make use of the blogosphere to motivate my dissertation free-writing. For context, read the short summary of my work here. There you will also find a table of contents with links to all the posts in this series.

[1] The terms subjectival and objectival are technical terms that Scharlemann introduces to avoid a confusion that results from using only the words “subject” and “object.” For there are such things as “objectival subjects” and “subjectival objects.” He intends these technical terms to indicate “poles or elements of thought.” The “subjectival” is “anything that is on the ‘I’ side of the relation implied when I think of something.” Whereas the “objectival” “is anything on the other side of the relation.” (Scharlemann, x-xi.)
[2] Scharlemann does not deal with developmental stages of individuals, but rather is concerned with the stages reason has gone through at a historical and cultural level.
[3] Which in one of its version reads, “It is impossible for the same thing both to be present and not to be present in the same subject and in the same respect.” (Scharlemann, 6.)

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Written by Alex

February 24, 2015 at 1:13 pm

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