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On Thinking the Human: Resolutions of Difficult Notions [Paperback]

Robert W. Jenson


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Book Description

1 July 2003
Since Socrates, the effort to understand ourselves precisely as human has been the central occupation of Western thought. In this profound treatise Robert Jenson shows that all philosophical attempts to accurately think the self are doomed to failure and that the category "human" is itself unthinkable without reference to God. As Jenson says at the outset of his book, the problem of anthropology is that the very concepts we need to use when we talk about ourselves as human resist being thought. On Thinking the Human explains why this is so. Under chapter titles that reflect the problem's different facets - "Thinking Death," "Thinking Consciousness," "Thinking Freedom," "Thinking Reality," "Thinking Wickedness," and "Thinking Love" - Jenson limns the difficulty inherent in each concept and then shows how the unthinkable becomes thinkable in light of the triune God of Scripture. Carefully constructed and skillfully worded, On Thinking the Human will be valued by anyone reflecting deeply on what it means to be human.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 100 pages
  • Publisher: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (1 July 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802821146
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802821140
  • Product Dimensions: 21 x 15 x 1 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,481,740 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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A theologian must of course sooner and later have something to say about death, and so I have been compelled to invoke the fact of death in many verbal and written contexts. Read the first page
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The heaviest little book you will read 3 Feb 2006
By Derrick A. Peterson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Quite frankly, this is the most original collection of essays I have ever read. In full agreement with Halden (the other reviewer below) this book is a true testament to the learning and wisdom of Robert Jenson, a senior scholar for research at Princeton.

Dealing with philosophers like Hegel, Heidegger, Plato, Aristotle, Sartre, and theologians like Augustine and Luther, Jenson creates an illuminating world of reflection on various topics including: Death, Consciousness, Reality, Love, Wickedness, and Freedom. All of these topics are adressed in a specifically trinitarian manner, meaning not only are they related to the Triune God, but, through Jenson's awe-inspiring thought processes, we see that the Trinity is not some puzzle to be solved, but indeed, "the framework through which all Christian puzzles may be worked out."

For example, the problem of attempting to think about ones own death seems quite impossible. In the third person it is more simple, we can, for example, see that "Mark is dead," and our evidence would be Mark's lifeless body, lack of heartbeat, and so on... However when one comes to thinking one's own death, the only way to think about it is some form of extended life (e.g. sleep, or perpetual darkness) Hence (borrowing the German terms from Hegel) our death is a begriff (that is an understanding) which has no vorstellung (roughly speaking, without an object or reflection that may be fitted to it.) Indeed, truly the evidence for me of my death would be the cessation of consciousness, which is impossible as this again presupposes a consciousness to be conscious of the lack of consciousness, which is precisely the thing that is not suppose to be there. This, Robert Jenson points out, is part of the seduction of idealism, as it seems the cessation of my consciousness for me means that the world dissapears and never was (he mentions too that we even have to drop the "for me," because it is precisely "I" that am missing for such reflection.) Hence the nonbeing of consciousness is as such the nonbeing of everything.

And the solution? In short, Jenson turns to an explanation derived from the Trinitarian perichoretic life. He says that it is the nature of the SOn to submit to the will of the Father, and in so doing, He is the Son (and conversly, the Spirit and the Father are defined in this way as well) Just so this type of submission and mutual reciprocation is the very ground of God's inner Triune life, and just so is the basis also for the lives we live. Hence, Jenson sees in Christ's subordination to the Cross the ultimate expression of Christ's submission to the Father, and so Christ's death, in which He enters into nonbeing, is an extension of the very basis of the life of God (in their mutual reciprocity and distinction) so that Christ's death is the foundation of our life. In this way, Jenson sees the Christian material of a Trinitarian explanation as the basis for seeing death not as the nihilation of consciousness, but rather a movement that stems in the very nature of our relationship to God. (Obviously this raises some tough questions, as in, if death grounds our life, what would have happened if Adam and Eve, or anyone, had never sinned? That question, Jenson remarks in his systematic theology, is quite beside the point because God has tied His character to this history, and so any questions of abstract speculation are simply that--speculation. This is a point that I struggle with, but one that is treated fuller in his systematics.)

Another example I found intriguing is how consciousness relates to community. I wont go into an explanation, so as to not ruin the surprises awaiting. But I will mention an interesting critique of the Cartesian conception of the self-contained cogito that serves as an indubitable foundation for knowledge (a critique familiar to anyone who has read Sartre's Being and Nothingness) That is namely, that when we think, there is a sheer focus of consciousness IN which our thoughts are percieved. Whenever this sheer focus (which Jenson likens to Kant's "transcendental unity of apperception,") reflexively attempts to turn back and notice itself, it creates and posits an I (ego). The problem with this is that Descarte then took this I to be self evident that he existed rather than what Jenson sees as the more appropriate conclusion: "consciousness happens". Sartre and Jenson's criticism is that the "I" is always found WITHIN the focus of consciousness that thinks, and so is derivative and secondary, never actually being the thinker that thinks, but a composite of secondary self reflection. Just so the "I" that we may find of ourselves has no gaurantee of its authenticity. I'll leave you with that little piece to hopefully spurn you on to buy, or at least check out, this incredibly lucid book.

This is, again, one of the most fantastic books you could ever read on philosophical theology regarding these topics, especially considering how condensed and short the essays are (for the many of us who have somewhat truncated attention spans.)

Highly recommended.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Difficult Notions Resolved 12 Nov 2007
By Eric Meyer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Robert Jenson's On Thinking the Human is at 86 pages, a deceptively short book for the depth it contains. Yet even given the density of its insight, the text itself is not laboriously terse or overwrought. The concept of the book is simple: take six concepts concerning human experience about which thought is notoriously contradictory, intractably ambiguous, or frought with persistent dispute, and consider each by transporting the conversation from one that is thought "in" the human experience, to one that is thought outside being human. The perspective outside being-human from which these concepts receive critical light is, time and again that of the relation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as one God.

After this introduction, the volume's subtitle is strikingly ambitious, if not arrogant, but Jenson does not shy from the task. And in this, Jenson hopes to be no less arrogant than the New Testament itself (85), which is to say confident enough to assert his beliefs about the way that the universe reflects the Trinity. Indeed, by the denouement of each of the six chapters he has worked his way to a resolution. I am reading Robert Jenson for the first time, and am enormously impressed. It may be naÔvely provincial affection for a fellow Lutheran with Barthian sensibilities, but both his statements of the "difficult notions" and the "resolutions" are strikingly elegant.

For example, in the initial chapter concerning death. Jenson points out that we seem to be incapable of imagining our own death without thinking about some continuation of consciousness in darkness, sleep, nothingness--but that continuation is precisely what death excludes. There is no perspective from which one's own state of being-dead might be observed. After making the connection between this nothingness and the nothingness of the universe's non-existence, Jenson turns to consider the Father and the Son's death by crucifixion. In the divine thinking of that death, we find the possibility that our deaths too might be thought, and in Christ, might be thought through nothingness.

Other "difficult notions" resolved include consciousness, freedom, reality, wickedness, and love.

The greatest concentration of disagreements with Jenson came, for me, in the chapter on wickedness. Interacting with Aristotle, Jenson questions whether human sinfulness is an accident or substance of human nature. In other words, is it fair game to speak of a "wicked person" or ought we only speak of "persons acting wickedly"? Jenson spends several pages in defense of Flacius, a Lutheran who argued that original sin is the whole nature (i.e. substance) of the unredeemed person. Against Flacius, the Lutheran tradition insisted that sin is an accident of fallen humanity (albeit a very grave one) and not its substance.

Flacius' view grates against all my theological sensibilities. No human being is unambiguously good or evil, and the notion that humans might be differentiated along those lines is always disastrous--leading to everything from pharasaism to genocide. Ultimately, Jenson resolves the issue by demonstrating the limitations of Aristotle's distinction, and argues after all, that human beings participate in both good and evil, and that these forces shape our very being. The tenor of this conclusion reveals the interaction with Flacius as an attack on what Jenson sees as the late-modern minimizing of evil as something solvable by socio-economic reconfiguration, therapy, or meditation. Yet, I hear Flacius' voice with some regularity these days; many can point to the people who are wicked all the way down. Questions put to this confidence, even if they are late modern liberal sorts of questions, are to be welcomed rather than silenced. I should repeat myself to be clear, I agree wholeheartedly with Jenson's conclusion in this chapter, but we arrived at the same point from different directions.

For all that, Jenson's book is a phenomenal piece of writing, one that merits emulation as much as careful reading. He is clear, uses no more space than necessary, and deals with monumental issues with insight, wit, and creativity.
5.0 out of 5 stars Get It! 20 Dec 2012
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
You must read this book. Robert Jenson takes on some tough thoughts and thinks them through! It's amazing to me how little I have thought about so many things. I live so much of my life at a surface level barely dipping my finger below the surface of the rich, complex and elegant world we live in. I'm not talking about just the physical universe that allows life including human life to exist - that is fascinating enough - but I'm talking about the things that make life meaningful. "On Thinking the Human" is a book that, if you'll work at it, will give you a chance at emersion is some of the deep richness of being human.
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