With the World at Heart

Studies in the Secular Today

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Thomas A. Carlson
  • Chicago: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , May
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


With the World at Heart is a study of love and mortal temporality that, as Thomas A. Carlson suggests in what he calls the preview, also concerns education. While recalling earlier works by the author (Indiscretion: Finitude and the Naming of God [University of Chicago, 1999] and The Indiscrete Image: Infinitude and Creation of the Human [University of Chicago, 2008]) and how they lead to this present text, the lengthy introduction points to some of the thinkers who will be important to this study (Augustine of Hippo and Martin Heidegger in particular, as well as post-Heideggerian thinkers like Jean-Luc Marion and Jacques Derrida) and includes a review of various analyses of the secular. Special attention is paid to Max Weber’s lecture “Science as a Vocation,” though the reason for that attention will not become clear until the last chapter of the book.

The first two chapters focus largely on Augustine and his reflections on love, time, and mourning as they emerge in his Confessions. The first chapter concerns the way in which, for Augustine, “love is fundamental to human dwelling, and thus to the opening of those places where we dwell” (36), as well as the ways in which Augustine’s account of our human dwelling reverberates in Heidegger’s analyses of authentic and inauthentic being-in-the world and being-toward-death. Attempting to illustrate the kind of disruption Augustine and Heidegger think is necessary to awaken us to the world in which we dwell, the chapter concludes with a discussion of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road (Knopf, 2006). This seems like an unnecessary and unhelpful digression, especially since it interrupts the exploration of Augustine’s reflections on love and temporality that is otherwise carried out in the first two chapters.

The second chapter returns to Augustine, unfolding how—in the context of mourning the death of a friend—Augustine comes to understand the ways in which love and its time open and sustain the worldly places in which we dwell. We also see how Augustine eventually finds such grief the result of misdirected love, because it is a love of a mortal, something transient. The goal of love, Augustine believes, is perfect happiness, which is achieved only in and through loving the eternal God. This leads Carlson, at the end of the chapter, to ask: “But if, from this perspective, loving life means willing that it be eternal, can we still speak, and how, of time’s affirmation in Augustine?” (74)

To answer this question, and to answer the charge that Augustinian thought amounts to an ontotheological metaphysics (76), the next chapter reads Augustine with the French philosopher-theologian Jean-Luc Marion. Marion reads Augustine according to the logic of confession, which does not make claims (and therefore is not ontotheological) so much as perform a response to the other, such that the self is understood “as given to itself most fundamentally in being given over to that which precedes the self and gives itself to the self—which in the case of Augustine means God and his love” (79–80).

Even as he finds Marion’s theological reading of Augustine convincing, Carlson perceptively calls into question Marion’s reading of Heidegger’s existential phenomenology as “idolatrous,” and wonders whether Marion’s reading is still hampered by “Augustine’s concern withe assurance of eternity” (92). To sharpen these doubts about Marion’s interpretation of Heidegger and continue the effort of making Augustine’s reflections relevant for understanding love in a secular world, Carlson turns in chapter 4 to Jacques Derrida and his engagement with Augustine in Derrida’s “Circumfession.” This is a reading which reads “Augustine at least in part against Augustine” (96), where the truth of his confession “concerns an alteration of the self through referral to the other” (106), but in a mortal-temporal register, such that the joys of living and loving are conditioned by the sorrow of death.

Having in many ways successfully repositioned and “deconstructed” Augustine’s thinking in the previous two chapters, chapters 5 and 6 return to the themes of love, time, and mourning discussed in the first two chapters, this time in a Heideggerian register. In chapter 5, Carlson thinks about love and mortality with Heidegger. Contrary to the many criticisms that have been leveled against Heidegger regarding his inattentiveness to love, Carlson convincingly argues “that the mortality Heidegger elucidates is integral to a love that his writing does in fact repeatedly reference” throughout his career (116–117). The chapter will be a revelation to anyone who thought they knew Heidegger. Chapter 6 follows two different ways—that of Robert Harrison and Jean-Luc Nancy—of inheriting Heidegger on the question of heart, nature, and their relation to the experience of technoscience (141). The discussion of Nancy, in particular, allows Carlson to bring “religious” themes (e.g., the death of God, myth, the divine) back into this study of the secular.

Chapter 7 then tries to pull everything together and examine the meaning of love (and education) in a secular age through Ralph Waldo Emerson, with Friedrich Nietzsche’s admiration of Emerson and the resonance that the American philosopher Stanley Cavell hears between Heidegger and Emerson serving as bridges from these “continental” thinkers to Emerson. Here Carlson shows us how Emerson, in his thinking, weaves together all these themes of love, mourning, and education in a secular age that have been central to this study. A brief “Last Look,” which returns to Augustine and Heidegger and ties up some loose ends, completes the work.

Carlson generally does an excellent job of explaining the notoriously difficult thinkers that he reads in this meditation on the meaning of love in a secular age.  However, the book is difficult to read at times, since Carlson has the unfortunate habit of writing run-on sentences full of subordinate clauses and parenthetical phrases that extend for up to ten lines of text. Nonetheless, those who persevere in reading this wide-ranging work of philosophy and religious thinking will be richly rewarded by its novel insights and the thought-provoking connections it makes between postmodern thought and our religious traditions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert S. Gall is professor of philosophy and religion in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at West Liberty University.

Date of Review: 
June 30, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas A. Carlson is professor of religious studies and founding director of the Humanities and Social Change Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of Indiscretion: Finitude and the Naming of God and The Indiscrete Image: Infinitude and Creation of the Human, both also published by the University of Chicago Press.


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