The Radical Demand in Løgstrup's Ethics

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Robert Stern
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , March
     2019.
     400 pages.
     $85.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198829027.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Robert Stern’s prior book was on the concept of obligation in Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel, and that work led him to the writings of the 20th-century Danish philosopher and theologian, K.E. Logstrup, the subject of his most recent book, The Radical Demand in Logstrup’s Ethics. The University of Notre Dame Press has published translations of some of Logstrup’s works, but Stern often notes in his book why he finds these translations inaccurate, reminding readers constantly that he is retranslating key works that have been, or will be published by Oxford University Press, as of the time of this review’s writing.

Stern’s book is divided into two parts. The first part is a lengthy, careful exposition of Logstrup’s major work on ethics, The Ethical Demand. Stern allows the ordering of topics in the Ethical Demand to structure his exposition of Logstrup’s thought, which he supplements for quotes from other works to provide a broader context. Readers unfamiliar with Logstrup’s writings should read them before Stern’s book so that they will be able to evaluate his interpretation I say this not to criticize Stern or claim is he not a careful reader, but all interpretations involve selective judgements about what is important to the argument of a given text. Even Stern’s long book cannot do a line by line analysis, but his commentary seems fairly comprehensive to this reviewer.

The second section sets Logstrup’s thought in relation to various ways of understanding the complex nature of the “ethical demand” as Logstrup presents it. One key question reoccurs in the text: to what extent can Logstrup’s thought make sense apart from the theological resonances that some of his writings invite? This question especially strikes this reviewer, who like Logstrup has been steeped in the study of Lutheran theological traditions and participates in Lutheran communities of practice. Logstrup claimed that one did not need to believe in God to understand that “life is a gift.” But at the same time, Logstrup was theologically trained and his works engaged numerous theologians. So, for instance, Logstrup’s “sovereign expressions of life” seem a lot like Martin Luther’s concepts of “stations” or “offices.”

The second part of the book attempts to set Logstrup’s work, which is clearly influenced by theology, but claims not to be theological in relation to other methods of ethics and other ethical thinkers. Some, such as Alasdair MacIntyre claim that Logstrup is a natural law thinker, something that  others  claim  he is not. Then, the book explores Logstrup’s thought in relationship to ethical theories that focus on the divine command.

The book also places Logstrup’s thought in relation to other thinkers, both those Logstrup was in dialogue with and those whose later works circle around the themes that Stern has identified as central, including obligation, the notion of the gift, and the rights we have to influence the lives of others. These thinkers include the historical figures Luther and Soren Kierkegaard as well we more modern figures such as Stephen Darwall and Emannuel Levinas. Logstrup discusses Luther and Kierkegaard in his corpus. Levinas is a less obvious figure. Logstrup does not work with Levinas’ texts, and Stern notes that the two men probably never met. Darwall is a contemporary philosopher who writes on obligation but comes at it from a perspective that is different than the one offered by Logstrup. However, the interpretation of each of these four figures is contested among scholars. Stern often makes assertions about what each figure believes without questioning alternative readings. That task would have taken a book on each figure in and of itself, so one cannot fault Stern for his failure to do so. Still, some discussion of alternative readings might have been helpful.

Stern helpfully sets Logstrup’s works within the context of both classical philosophy, Christian theology, and phenomenology. That, of course, is a tall order. In many ways, Stern admits that he can only do partial justice to the figures that he treats, given that their work is subject to their own interpretive controversies. It is an inevitable weakness that Stern’s discussion of Luther is somewhat truncated and simplistic, and it is not clear exactly the complex ways Logstrup both used and modified his ethical inheritance from the Lutheran theological tradition.

In this time of increasing political polarization in the United States, one that also has counterparts elsewhere in the world, Logstrup is perhaps a more relevant thinker than he ever was. Logstrup’s writings ask us to envision the responsibilities we have toward the people around us, as we live lives that Logstrup argues are gifts in and of themselves. While his thought may not be as widely studied in the United States as other figures in European philosophy, Stern’s book and his forthcoming translations of Logstrup’s works will hopefully gain a wider reading, so that others may continue to take up the debate that Stern has begun.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aaron Klink is a Chaplain at Pruitt-Health Hospice in Durham, North Carolina.

Date of Review: 
October 25, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert Stern is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield.

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