What is Ethically Demanded?

K. E. Løgstrup's Philosophy of Moral Life

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Hans Fink, Robert Stern
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , June
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What is Ethically Demanded: K. E. Løgstrup’s Philosophy of Moral Life is an anthology of essays by an international team of leading philosophers and theologians on 20th century Danish Lutheran theologian Knud Ejler Løgstrup. Although largely unknown to Anglophone audiences, Løgstrup was a prominent phenomenological religious thinker and minister, active in the Danish resistance during the Second World War, and contemporary with Emmanuel Levinas, Hannah Arendt, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Influenced by the theology of Martin Luther and the linguistic phenomenology of Hans Lipps, a student of Edmund Husserl, Løgstrup developed an innovative moral philosophy that focuses on what he took to be a “radical ethical demand” inherent in human relations. According to Løgstrup, this “radical ethical demand” is distinct from, yet related to moral reasoning and assertion. For the editors and contributors to this volume, this innovative idea—which is evocative of, yet distinct from Levinas’s idea of the face—makes Løgstrup relevant to ethics in the Kantian, phenomenological, existential, and even Aristotelian and Thomist traditions today. 

The opening selection from Løgstrup’s early writings, the 14 engaging and diverse assessments of Løgstrup’s work, and the editors Hans Fink’s and Robert Stern’s close interweaving of these essays into 4 clear and critical divisions make Løgstrup’s relevance apparent. Indeed, one might argue that it is as much the lively conversation going on between the papers—something facilitated by the authors’s interactions, the thematic interconnections, and the editors’s organization—as it is Løgstrup’s innovative position that draws the reader to this figure. For example, the first section opens with Løgstrup’s early critique of Immanuel Kant, allowing the reader to discern how Løgstrup defined himself in comparison to an important philosophical figure and tradition at the start of his career. As Løgstrup draws the reader into his debate with Kant, by arguing passionately that there is a lack of “ethical conflict in the strong sense” in Kant’s examples of obstacles to the moral law (23), Stephen Darwall’s and Fink’s critical engagement of Løgstrup critiquing Kant only intensifies and modernizes this debate, especially as Fink takes on Darwall. In other words, this conversational effect draws the reader not only into the particular issues at hand—the lack of the existential in Kant (Løgstrup); the problem with the “one-sidedness” of Løgstrup’s “radical demand” (Darwall); and the matter of recognizing the point of Løgstrup’s position as something distinct from, yet related to, contemporary Kantian ethics (Fink). But it also draws the reader into the conversations between the contributors initiated at the two international conferences on Løgstrup (Universities of Sheffield and Aarhus, 2010-2011) from which the essays in the volume are drawn. 

This conversational effect continues through the next 3 divisions, which focus respectively on Løgstrup’s relation to Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, and Levinas; on the development of Løgstrup’s ethics with reference to these three thinkers, Kant, and others; and on themes and problems in Løgstrup’s philosophy. There is a thematic conversation going on between parts 2 and 3, as well as between the first 3 parts, given that Kierkegaard, a reader of Kant, figures prominently in parts 2 and 3, and Løgstrup’s debate with Kant is assumed or referenced. In light of this conversation, it should be noted that several of the contributors are Kierkegaardians or at least close readers of Kierkegaard: George Pattison, Arne Grøn, Svend Andersen, Kees van Kooten Niekerk, and Patrick Stokes. Although David Bugge, a Løgstrup scholar, does not discuss Kierkegaard in his essay, he might also be mentioned in this context, because his focus on Løgstrup’s use of literature, particularly in light of the others’s discussions of Løgstrup’s relation to Kierkegaard, evokes Kierkegaard’s own purposeful and powerful use of the literary to express the existential. This suggests that there is a community of Anglophone Kierkegaardians who might find this anthology of interest. The same can be said of Darwall, Fink, and the other contributors, whose work in various philosophical circles, intersecting with Kierkegaardians, also provide potential audiences.

The last section, however, has the potential of being the best place to enter this volume—after the introduction—for the uninitiated reader who is not a member of any of these scholarly communities, but who is concerned with ethical questions: for example, persons working in religion or constructive theologies. This section contains a lively conversation between Alasdair MacIntyre, a widely-known virtue ethicist, and Stokes, Stern, and Wayne Martin. As in the first section, there is a good deal of debate. However, what makes this section a better introduction to the volume for the reader unfamiliar with Løgstrup and outside of the aforementioned scholarly communities is the way in which McIntyre sets Løgstrup and his ethics in their historical context—which is quite compelling—and then places Løgstrup in conversation with both his French Thomist contemporaries and with the broader Aristotelian tradition. In doing so, McIntyre raises problems and objections that religion scholars and theologians would immediately recognize, problems and objections that also set off the debates between himself and Stokes, Stern, and Martin respectively. These debates also give the general reader access to the broader conversation in the anthology, for Stokes, Stern, and Martin tie their respective debates with McIntyre back into previous parts of the volume by questioning McIntyre’s use of Løgstrup’s phenomenology in light of Levinas and Kierkegaard (Stokes); by re-aligning Løgstrup’s position in a moderate way with aspects of Kant (Stern); and by illuminating the issue of modality that distinguishes Løgstrup’s ethical demand and that runs through every essay in the anthology (Martin). With this, the reader—like this reviewer—might also begin to see the broader implications of Løgstrup’s thought for addressing ethical issues involving race, gender, sexuality, and power, especially in the wake of an anthology such as Stacey Floyd-Thomas’ and Miguel de Torre’s Beyond the Pale (Westminster John Knox, 2011). 

Hence, this volume could easily become a handbook for graduate programs and schools of theology wishing to teach this compelling, but long neglected thinker. All that it is missing—ironically—is a helpful and strategically-placed selection from Løgstrup’s masterwork, the book after which the volume is named, and on which many of the contributors focus.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Marcia C. Robinson teaches the History of Chrisitan Thought and Culture at Syracuse University.

Date of Review: 
March 26, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Hans Fink is professor emeritus of philosophy at Aarhus University.

Robert Stern is professor of philosophy at the University of Sheffield.


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