This book attempts to articulate some of the inadequacies of the 20th century Western theological anthropologies and pursue the possibility of one that is more attentive to the conditions of life that still dictate the non-Western world. As professor Seo points out the question of theological and philosophical anthropology has characteristically been framed as the question of the self rather than the question of the other. The radicality and creativity of this project can be seen in the attempt to lay the groundwork for just such a reversal of the most basic and seemingly self-evident character of philosophical and theological anthropology. What would it mean if the most basic question were that of the other rather than that of the self?The impetus for raising this sort of fundamental question is the realization that the basic categories for reflection upon the self have also been implicated in the West's project of colonial expansion and domination in the modern period. The notions of subjectivity and responsibility, of freedom and temporality have all been bound up not only in the way of thinking about the "subject" but also in the global project of subjection.
Thus European enlightenment is not only a subjective accomplishment, and modernization not only an achievement, but also something done to others or to the other of the West, who become thereby what Professor Seo calls "othered selves". What would it mean to think of the human, as human, from the position not of the triumphant self but that of the othered self, the one made other and constructed as other? This is the daring and provocative question which this treatise raises for the reader. One of the most remarkable features of this essay is that it does not begin with a simple repudiation of the Western tradition, or in simple characterizations of that tradition, or indulge in caricature. The author is one who is deeply steeped in the philosophical and theological traditions of the West. Indeed the breadth and depth of his sympathetic reading of this tradition is evident on every page.
Never resorting to simple dismissal of the multitude of thinkers who enter into his argument, Seo's discussions of thinkers as diverse as Hegel and Kant, Husserl and Heidegger, Sartre and Wittgenstein, Rahner and Pannenberg, Rosenzweig and Buber, reveals a generous and probing intelligence that goes to the heart of the positions and perspectives that are to be engaged. At the same time, positions with which he is deeply sympathetic like those of Anselm Min, Enrique Dussel, Walter Benjamin or, especially, Emmanuel Levinas, are not simply offered as models to be emulated but are carefully and critically engaged. The first chapters of the book offer what may be termed, following Foucault, a genealogy of several of the most basic concepts of philosophical and theological anthropology. The emphasis upon the freedom as constitutive of the subject opens the discussion. Moving from the theological perspective on the bondage of the will in Augustine and Luther Seo shows how the modern conception of the rational freedom of the will was constructed in the work of Kant and Hegel.
But this freedom of the will, he also shows, has become the will to power that can make reason the instrument of genocide. The theological tradition has taken up, in Rahner and Pannenberg, the idea of freedom as an essential openness to the world, or in Tillich and Niebuhr the idea of a finite freedom. But what has not been fundamentally interrogated is the very character of this supposedly self-grounded freedom, a freedom that strains against the limits posed by the other and regards the world to which it is open as the field of its own expansive operation. Similarly the idea of history or of the subject as embedded in and as productive of history is subjected to a close genealogical investigation. These investigations are not unrelated since the openness to the world is at the same time openness to the future, and history becomes the name of the extension of control over both space and time. One of the most remarkable of the insights of this chapter is the recognition that the idea of history is itself determined by a certain privileged location in the present and toward the future.
This makes it possible to describe the others of this western conception as backward looking, or bound to the past. The Western self is, in contrast, turned confidently toward a future that extends its own control of the present. Theology, for its part has taken the notion of eschatology as itself a kind of orientation toward the future as the goal toward which our efforts approximate. Yet professor Seo shows that the biblical eschatology seems to entail not a continuation but a radical disruption of the present, a reversal with which Western notions of progress and openness to the future can scarcely contend. He finds the perspectives of Walter Benjamin helpful in suggesting what this might mean within the domain of thought. What has been shown to this point is that the philosophical and theological anthropologies of the West have both exalted the human subject and also served to legitimate or at least acquiesce in the Western project of domination. Thus it is important to ask what a liberative anthropology might look like. Here he will argue both for the importance as well as the limitations of liberation theology.
In discussion with Gutierrez he shows how deeply dependent such proposals are upon the very categories that have served as foundational for the Western privileging of the subject. He proposes that a third world perspective might better begin with what it means to be "third" in the sense of marginal and with the reality of pain, as that which seems least amenable to rational analysis and notions of freedom but which may more concretely anchor thought in the bodily reality of those who are "othered". He will return to this suggestion at the end of the essay. The last half of the book is an engagement with the idea or the question of the other as this has been developed in 20th century Western thought. The point here is to uncover both the main impediments to a thinking of the other and the resources available for rethinking this theme. Seo first points to the challenge faced by thinking in coming to terms with the other, whether in terms of Husserl's alter ego, Heidegger's mitten or even Sartre's reflections on the gaze of the other. He does not simply reference the philosophical tradition however.
As is true throughout this fine study he is equally at home in the theological attempts to think the other, whether in Brunner and Gogarten or in the Jewish reflections of Buber and Rosenzweig. The thinker who offers the most promise for breaking out of the Western fixation on the self, however, is Emmanuel Levinas. As the thinker par excellence of the other Levinas is the thinker who is most helpful to Seo's project of thinking through the question of the other. Among the many useful insights of his discussion of Levinas is the suggestion that Levinas has recourse to quasi religious categories (face, infinite, height, widows and orphans, and so on) precisely because the philosophical tradition has so occluded the question of the other as to make recourse to the "alien" traditions of biblical thought necessary to break out of the impasses in which this tradition finds itself. Yet, as Seo points out, with help from Enrique Dussel, Levinas does not yet think from the standpoint of the other. This is the result of attempting to remain faithful to the phenomenological method which Levinas also seeks to overturn.
Accordingly Seo concludes by wondering whether there is a possibility of moving toward a consideration that goes beyond the self-other dichotomy to embrace a sense of the "we". Can this be thought in such a way as not to fall back into what Levinas has rightly characterized as the tendency to think the other as the same with the self? Can the common sense of being made other open up a new form of thinking that begins with solidarity rather than the assimilation of the other to the self? What role might attention to the experience of pain, the other's and one's own play in such a turn to the other, as the other?It is with provocative questions such as these that the reader is left to ponder the magnitude of the revolution in thought that is opened up by the question of the other. This is an essay in philosophical theology that takes seriously the best features of what might be termed a post-modern style. Deeply immersed in the literature of what has often called itself the theological and philosophical tradition, it nonetheless clearly underlines the particularity of this tradition as decidedly implicated in the specific cultural and political projects of the West.
That is, this tradition is clearly seen to be particular rather than universal. Its particularity is highlighted precisely by way of the question of the other that is put from the standpoint of the othered selves of the "third world" whose urgent questions are often brushed aside by the dominant tradition which is also a tradition implicated in the history of domination. Among its many virtues is the bringing together of philosophical and theological discourses, its attention not only to Christian but also especially Jewish religious and philosophical discourse, In fact it is the reflection that is positioned self-consciously after the holocaust that offers the most help in thinking about the situation of the other and of those who are constructed as other. Moreover Seo is unafraid to engage in the reading of biblical texts, not as an exegete but precisely as a thinker, as one who uses the texts to think with. It is the further merit of this essay that it does not offer facile solutions to the questions it poses.
Rather it stands in the best tradition of philosophical inquiry that is more concerned with the specification of profound questions rather than with the construction of impervious and imperious systems. Readers of this text will find Seo not only a sure-footed guide to some of the most important thinkers of Western modernity but also one who patiently and persistently opens up the horizon of the profound and provocative question of the other that is also the question from the other.