John Martis, Subjectivity as Radical Hospitality: Recasting the Self with Augustine, Descartes, Marion and Derrida, Lexington Books, ISBN 9781498543996
Philosophers traditionally worked by commenting on their predecessors’ work and developing it. In his new book Fr John Martis, SJ follows this tradition in commenting particularly on Jean Luc Marion’s own development of texts of St Augustine and Descartes in discussing the self. In doing so he develops his own position.
When reflecting on human beings, St Augustine invited his readers to ask deep questions: Who am I? And, what am I? He teases out how elusive these questions are once we move beyond taking them for granted. As the United States poet Richard Wilbur wrote,
We milk the cow of the world and as we do,
We whisper in her ear, ‘You are not true’.
We all assume that we know who we are, but Augustine shows how mysterious the ‘I’ who knows is. Is the self who knows identical with the self whom I think I know? Is there really a self who knows, or only a process of knowing? Is there a stable self, or is it divided when it knows other beings? Is it possible to know others as they are, or do we trim them so that they will fit the shape of our minds? In more recent thought, people wonder if there is any stable ‘I’ or only a self that is constantly being produced without any continuity?
These are very abstract and dizzying questions. But they can colour the way we see ourselves. If, for example, there is no stable self, it would seem that we can make and remake ourselves at will, and need take no responsibility for our past actions and their consequences. That attitude is not unknown in contemporary society.
Augustine argues that we are divided into the self who knows and the self that is known, and that we find ourselves only in returning to God. Marion and others have developed this thought to say that we can find ourselves only by reaching out to the other in a way that replaces the self. Otherwise we shall turn the other into ourself.
John Martis argues that this is a misreading of Augustine, who says that we can know ourselves, but that our knowing involves reaching out to other things and persons as other. We do not turn them into ourselves or replace our own self. It is possible to know others as others because they reach out to us. Martis speaks of this meeting of selves as hospitality. In good hospitality we are never more ourselves than when we invite others to join us on their own terms. So when we are united with God we are fully ourselves because God reaches out to us. In union with God we do not lose our own self. What is true of our knowledge of God is also true of our knowledge of all reality.
This is not a book to read on the beach between dips. It is closely argued and enters philosophical questions that have been explored over many centuries and have developed their own terminology and lines of argument. But even a reader unacquainted with the discipline will recognise in Martis’ book a writer who is scrupulously fair to writers from whom he differs and pays them the respect that is due by his close examination of their own writing.
Review by Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ.