An Interview with Martin Shuster
Interviewed by J. Aaron Simmons
- As a philosopher, what interests you about religion?
Is ‘everything’ a possible answer? More seriously, likely because I spent significant time around Hent de Vries, I often tend to think of knowledge in terms of archives. And religion is so interesting, at least to me, because its ‘archive’ is actually far deeper, more dense, and significantly older than the archive of philosophy. Furthermore, I think it is no secret that at times (all times?) the two archives comes to be intertwined (one thinks here quite recently of the variety of work from Charles Taylor to Hent de Vries to Carl Schmitt, as well as something like Anscombe’s wonderful essay, “Modern Moral Philosophy”). The issues animating how philosophy (taken here broadly and stressing especially ethics and social/political philosophy) and religion are and ought to be understood in relation to each other are still very much alive, and if we take a global view of them, they play out, often in dangerous and sad ways across the globe. So, what interests me most about religion as a philosopher is how the religious archive both informs and deforms our projects as agents, whether political, social, aesthetic, or ethical.
- How do you think that religious identity should impact one’s identity as a philosopher?
Well, let me give a shout out here to my colleague, Leslie Dorrough Smith, and her collective, Culture on the Edge, who all do spectacular work on identity. My answer, though, is largely pragmatic or perhaps even aesthetic — I don’t think there is a definitive normative answer here (that, say, philosophy ought never be impacted by religious identity or vice versa). Instead, I think, much of this depends on the actual work one aims to produce. I tend to look at works of philosophy in an almost aesthetic (and likely for some, naïve) way : every piece of work (i.e. finished product–book or article or performance piece or whatever) demands something of you, involving you in certain methods and themes. These methods and themes are, I think, in the end likely structured by issues in historical identity formation, but they are not reducible to them, and can be understood apart from them. So, I just tend to think that it is possible to see particular works of philosophy (say, for example, Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature) as structured by a particular problem (for Rorty here, the problem of representation that comes to a head owing to modern conceptualizations of the mind). Now, that problem, of course, is motivated by, important for, and ultimately connects to a host of deep, divisive, and powerful issues in identity formation (one thinks here simply of Rorty’s status as a philosopher in the Anglophone world after that book), but it is not reducible to them and can be understood, without violence to Rorty’s deepest intentions, apart from them. My point above all is not to minimize the importance of identity issues to philosophy, a field which is one of the least cognizant and most egregiously dismissive of such issues, but just to stress that there are different modes to and scopes for philosophical problems, where different works accomplish different tasks.
- Do you think that philosophers should see their task as including some responsibility to speak to a general public?
Absolutely. Although, to be fair to philosophers, I think that it is important for there to be a ‘general public,’ something that I think is increasingly under threat of disappearing. I think that the biggest challenge philosophers face is as much (in light of increasing professionalization) speaking to a general public, as it is figuring out how to bring together or make more likely or possible something like a general public–part of this involves being able to speak to a variety of folks and in a variety of ways, but part of it also involves resisting and, doing so forcefully, the attacks on public spaces, notions of a common good, and rational discourse more broadly. I think the best way to do this is to conceive of philosophy as itself something that is concerned with contemporary life — to speak with Hegel (and those that follow him, importantly Adorno), as “its own moment grasped in time.”
- What does philosophy have to offer to religious studies?
In my opinion: texts. More texts. Philosophy offers religious studies a tradition of texts that may or may not be helpful for getting more out of the texts in currency in religious studies. (And I should note that this likely goes both ways.)
- How does the current project relate to your previous work?
My first book, Autonomy after Auschwitz, explored Adorno’s critique of and also subsequent modification and attempted rescue of the notion of autonomy in the tradition of German Idealism beginning with Kant. This current project explores the connections between Adorno’s reworked notion and religion and theology (both, broadly conceived). I am especially interested in how Adorno’s thought borrows from and also influences contemporaries like Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem, as well as how the debates and positions between these three might be mapped onto debates surrounding religious and theological topics in Kant and German Idealism (especially Salomon Maimon, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel), and how all of these conceptual issues connect to what Emil Fackenheim called an “epoch-making event,” namely the Nazi genocide. That is, I am concerned as much with the textual and historical traditions in Jewish philosophy and philosophy as much as the raw existential issues that the Nazi genocide raises in the context of philosophy and philosophy of religion.
- Why do you think that a project such as this one (cross-cultural approaches to religious understanding) is needed? What is currently lacking in the scholarship such that this project can speak into the existing debates?
I have to admit that I don’t have enough of a sense of the scholarship across all of these cultural/religious traditions to say what’s lacking, but I certainly recognize that, within philosophy, any broad, non-Western-centric understanding is surely lacking. I don’t know if our project–with its strong stress on European philosophical traditions in light of non-Western traditions–will ultimately open enough possibilities, but it is a start, and it’s the best I can presently do.
- What main thing do you hope you discover, figure out, achieve in your research related to this project?
Above all, I think my interests are ethical in nature — I want to work my through another element of how we might learn to ‘go on’ (referenced exactly in a Wittgenstein-ian sense) in light of the horrors of the last (and sadly, this) century; at the same time, though, I have a strong enough interest in the history of philosophy that I also just really want to get a firm grasp on how the Adorno-Scholem-Benjamin triad maps onto and connects to the prior era of Kantian/post-Kantian philosophy.
- Interdisciplinary engagement is notoriously difficult due to the specifics of disciplinary approaches and methodologies. Given the interdisciplinary components of the current project, what do you take to be the main challenges and main possibilities that accompany it in this regard?
I don’t have a good answer to this question because I honestly have frequently not felt at home in any one discipline or tradition. Part of this, I’m sure, has to do with my own training at the Johns Hopkins Humanities Center, but part of it is also the fact that I think that the best scholarship orients itself around problems and a problem need not be limited to a discipline (although, of course, they frequently arise within particular disciplines and due to particular disciplinary assumptions); in fact, one can get creative in figuring out how to respond to a problem, so much so that disciplinary boundaries become fuzzy. I see this as the biggest upshot to our project: we have the possibility of doing something interesting because of how we are approaching the problem of religious understanding across these traditions…
This interview was conducted over several rounds of e-mail.