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Mjaaland, Marius T., Rasmussen, Ulrik H., and Philipp Stoellger[Eds.]
Impossible Time. Past and Future in the Philosophy of Religion.
Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2013. VII, 253 S. = Religion in Philosophy and Theology, 68. Kart. EUR 64,00. ISBN 978-3-16-151956-7.
Benedikt Paul Göcke
»Impossible Time« contains an introduction and 13 original papers, which were delivered at first at The Third Nordic Conference for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Copenhagen in June 2011. Frankly, there is a problem with the conception of the book as a whole: the title »Impossible Time« suggests that the main theme of the book is about the impossibility of time. Whereas one thus might expect a clarification of what it means to assert that time is impos-sible as well as arguments for or against the impossibility of time, the reader finds herself disappointed: apart from the first pages of the introduction, the impossibility of time is rarely a topic of investigation. Even worse: although there is a huge discussion particularly about the impossibility of time in the analytic tradition of philo-sophy, not a single reference to this tradition is found in the book. Instead, the papers in the volume deal with questions concerning phenomenological time as opposed to vulgar time and some of the papers discuss the application of such a notion of time to the philosophy of religion. Apart from some primarily systematic articles, main figures discussed are continental philosophers like Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Stein and Ricœur. In this respect, the book is well-worth reading as an anthology of high-level reflections on the phenomenology of time. Although each paper would deserve in-length discussion, space only permits a brief discussion of the two papers that – myself coming from a more analytic tradition of philosophy – appeared the most difficult to me.
The first difficult article is the very introduction written by Mjaaland, Rasmussen and Stoellger. It starts by way of taking the following Augustinian puzzlement about time as a point of departure: »What is time, then? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.« (1) In a tentative reflection on this dictum, the editors conclude, firstly, that from an epistemological point of view no one can be sure about the existence of future things and, secondly, that no one can be sure that the »past actually exists« (cf. 1). Furthermore, we cannot even be sure that the present exists (cf. 1). Apart from the fact that they do no present an argument for these assertions, the editors continue to draw the following ontological conclusion: »(T)ime is the condition of possibility for speaking about any phenomenon or fact to be observed in the world, yet time itself cannot be shown to exist. The possibility of time being past, future, or present is itself impossible. Impossible time.« (1) This is baffling. Granted that time is the condition of possibility for speaking about any phenomenon in the world and granted that time itself cannot be shown to exist, there is no way that based on their premises one obtains the conclusion that the possibility of time being past, future, or present is itself ›impossible‹ and that therefore time is »impossible«. In fact, if time is the condition of pos-sibility for speaking about any phenomenon or fact to be observed in the world, and if it is true that we can speak about phenomena in the world, one might expect the conclusion that far from being impossible, time is very actual. If time did not exist, then you could not even read this review. Therefore, instead of emphasizing the alleged »impossibility« of time, it would have been more appropriate to the volume as a whole if the editors only stated, as they also do, that time is difficult to grasp from a phenomenological point of view.
The second difficult paper is Stoellger’s article »Philosophy of Religion – and its Sense for ›the Impossible‹«. The main thesis of this paper is that philosophy of religion should deal with impossibilities. The problem with this article, though, is similar to the problem of the introduction: whereas it is obvious that the author likes to use the word »impossible« as a qualifier for many things, and whereas he apparently does not like analytic approaches to the philosophy of religion (cf. 89.92) there is not a single illuminating qualification of what he actually means by the word or concept of the impossible. According to Stoellger, »›impossibility‹ is the predicate of exclusio n– of what cannot be, cannot exist, cannot be real. But this exclusion always depends on preconditions, the so-called conditions of pos-sibility, be they epistemic, ethical, scientific or technical. These conditions exclude certain impossibilities […] These exclusions are ›symptoms‹ of the narrowness of the horizon of the relevant preconditions« (93). Now that something is impossible relative to a system S if and only if it is not possible in S is a common definition of impossibility. Keeping this definition in mind, Stoellger con-tinues to argue that throughout the course of history the border between the possible and the impossible changed: »What has been impossible (or unimaginable or unthinkable) at one time, becomes possible and real as time goes by« (95). There are two problems with this view on the impossible: firstly, Stoellger does not state clearly how he conceives about the relation between the modal notion of impossibility and the epistemological notion of conceivability. One gets the impression that he uses these terms interchangeably and thereby mixes up metaphysical and epistemological issues: one might argue that it is one thing to be able to think or not to think about something and quite another thing whether something is possible or impossible. Secondly, it is unclear whether he actually means that something which was impossible became possible, or whether he means that in the course of history different systems S, …, S* evolved in which the conditions of possibility and consequently the conditions of something’s being impossible are framed differently. The first option only demands a philosophically uninteresting notion of factual impossibility at a time. For instance, twenty years ago it was impossible for me to use an iPhone, whereas now this is possible. The second option only allows to state that what is impossible in S may be possible in S*. Anyhow, neither interpretation supports his further and surprising claims that »the really real things are not the possibilities, but the impossibilities« (95) and that philosophy of religion is not »about ›real possibilities‹ but rather about possible impossibilities (and impossible ones as well), or even about ›real impossibilities‹« (97). To be honest, I fail to see what this could mean because based on what Stoellger says in his paper it is hard to make sense of the assertion that the ›really real things‹ are the impossibilities and that philosophy of religion is about real, possible and impossible impossibilities. There is no conceptual clarity in respect to these crucial terms. Although Stoellger is aware that »it sounds like nonsense to try to make sense of impossibilities« (97) and although he is aware that the reader »could expect a methodology and ›taxonomy‹ of impossibilities like logical, grammatical, semantic, practical, and moral impossibilities« (101), he does not deliver such a methodology but rather presents an interesting iconographic analysis of, amongst others, Hieronymus Bosch’s Seven Deadly Sins and Four Last Things. This, though, does not help in order to answer the many questions his paper provokes in respect to its use of the notion of impossibility.