Schleiermacher’s Consciousness

D. Seiple 

Delivered to the Philosophy Forum
The Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center
New York City



(1)      Background

Friedrich Enrst Daniel Schleiermacher!  The name itself already sounds like an interminable German sentence! This is the name of the man generally regarded as the founder of liberal Protestant theology.  What am I talking about when I say this?  I’m basically saying that Schleiermacher, at the cusp of the transition between the Enlightenment and Romanticism, brought together three cultural influences,[i] and fundamentally transformed the way many Protestant Christians began thinking about “the meaning of life.” 

But any postmodernist (and even certain “liberals”) might immediately see trouble here.  From a purely philosophical point of view, this very notion --  “the meaning of life” – seems highly problematic.  Is there just one “meaning” to anyone’s life?  And if Schleiermacher has found his, can his meaning be a non-disciplinary, non-hegemonic, non-Eurocentric model for any of us?  As a conceptual expression, “meaning of life” has the look of an abstract speculation.  Perhaps it’s out “there” somewhere in the philosophical universe, but (we might want to say): “Hey, I live my life one day at a time, and sometimes I have trouble just figuring out the ‘meaning’ of yesterday’s challenging episode at work.  Forget about the meaning of my whole life!” 

That’s an understandable reaction.  But one thing Schleiermacher is surely saying is that meaning, even of momentary episodes, is broadly narratological. The various episodes we experience have meanings only from their place within the larger narratives we tell about ourselves, whereby our past experiences don’t just get repressed or left hanging uncomfortably as pains unresolved, poking us in daily neuroses and free-floating anxieties.  Rather, for Schleiermacher, the power of those moments fits together into a momentum that intersects the here and now, and carries it onto somewhere.[ii]

So this idea of “life’s meaning” is not necessarily a mere abstraction.  Schleiermacher famously insisted that we can’t know anything very much about this kind of question unless we find ourselves living real lives within real communities that reflect this meaning back to us, in very concrete everyday circumstances.  (He would say: we don’t know anything about religious experience if we stick to “neutral” philosophical speculation about it.[iii]) Right away, we can see here that such a discussion has a different feel to it than pure philosophical speculation does. 

(1) Here I think is where we need to start with Schleiermacher.  The first point (out of five I will mention here) concerns his Romanticist emphasis upon feeling (German: Gefühl), inwardness, subjectivity, a “sense and taste for the infinite.”[iv] Later in his mature career as an establishment academic, Schleiermacher would characterize this as the “feeling of absolute dependence.”[v]  I would suggest however that we just omit this latter “dependency” formulation, because it’s so much a part of Schleiermacher’s own Calvinist heritage and may not speak to us.  Instead, some of us might recognize our own affinities with him, especially the young Schleiermacher represented in the Speeches, if we delve into our own most mystical or grandly poetic or fantastically erotic moments.   Schleiermacher brought “feeling” into the mainstream of the Calvinist tradition and began the route to Christian liberalism.

So again, what is Christian liberalism?   At its best, I would say that Christian liberalism nowadays (or at least the version we can call “neoliberalism”) holds a number of other positions that are already familiar to us. 

(2) There is a high Foucauldian regard for the effects of discourse upon our subjectivity and the indispensable place we give to the value of personal freedom.  Now right away, here is another complication. For, just from reading all the philosophers we know about, we can’t be entirely sure what those nice-sounding terms -- subjectivity, freedom -- really mean these days.  This is an important question.  But it’s a different philosophical project from ours here today.  So let’s put that question to the side. I think we all have a rough idea of both.

(3) Importantly however the third claim by religious liberals is one we’re not likely to find too objectionable, at least at first.  There are a potentially healthy diversity of cultural form which speak, in different ways, about our shared human situation.  Schleiermacher himself was too much a child of his own age to go the whole route on this one; he still held to the superiority of specifically Christian doctrinal formulations.  But Christian liberals these days tend to bend over backwards to engage in interfaith dialogue – which I take to be a good thing, as long as it leaves us still with something to say, and not just a guilt-ridden obsession over not being offensive, just because one happens to be white or male or heterosexual or whatever.  (Even members of the most politically incorrect groupings might actually have a surprising amount of insight -- if they are in the appropriate frame of awareness and not utterly driven by their own sense of patriarchal privilege or, for that matter, by their own sense of marginalized victimization.  But this is a side comment, which we needn’t consider further.  I would suggest however that Democrats planning on running for President in the near future give some heed to this.)

(4) This suggests one overriding principle directly from Schleiermacher.  Whatever insights a might be captured by various culturally diverse formulations, these would have to turn out to refer to human biology.  All the virtues of communal life are, literally, embodied  by those who practice them.  In other words, the moral state of any person – is he or she the kind of person you’d like to have as a friend?! -- is somehow reflected in the state of a person’s brain and hormones and whatever else goes into organic functioning.  (Who would deny this?  Emotions have we know a physical correlate, and there is no so-called “mind-body” connection for healing or whatnot if this is not true.)

Schleiermacher himself puts this in quaint Protestant discourse: There must, he says, be “an eternal covenant between the living Christian faith and completely free, independent scientific inquiry, so that faith does not hinder science and science does not exclude faith.”[vi]  This is just a way of saying that there are no supernatural events.  Even paranormal or astrological effects would, if real, have to be physical – though of course this changes our ideas of what “physicality” involves.  (And I don’t know of anything that follows from Schleiermacher, one way or the other, regarding such questions.)  But the important point is this: even if everything does have a causal explanation, this does not mean that there is no immanent source of spiritually empowered, natural intelligence for discerning one’s way in the world.  This special power would simply have to be physical as well – maybe involving that famous 90% or so of the brain we don’t commonly utilize.  If this has a deliciously sci-fi aspect to it, well so much the better perhaps. 

People these days often think of religious experience as involving some contact with the supernatural order – heaven or God-out-there-somewhere or whatever.  But this need not be the case.  What it often does involve is a transformed way of looking at the world.  When so transformed, the experience of everyday life at least seems richer somehow, in ways that people in their teens and twenties still understand full well: there is an enchantment and power to being in the world.  And insofar as these nice moments do happen, they are real biophysical events.   

Unfortunately, of course, this energetic sense of enchantment-in-the-world can easily run out of control– as some of us also know from our own personal experience, and as any parent of a teenager knows and fears.  But the mere fact that something is dangerous if misused does not mean that it’s not powerfully focused if well-trained, nor that it’s not surprisingly efficacious in real life.  I leave it to your own experience to resonate with this.




But this is only part of the story regarding Christianity, and this is where Schleiermacher is so important.  For admittedly, such a naturalistic notion of spirituality as I have just sketched has usually not been the governing trope of Christian theology, which (especially at the turn of the 19th century, and no less so today in Crawford, Texas) has been stuck in antiquarian categories.  What’s important about Schleiermacher, to my mind, is that he begins to show a way out of this.[vii] 

It will take a little explaining to lay this all out here…. To begin with, we have the obvious fact of what religious people call “evil.”  Christians since Hellenistic times have been talking about God’s created world as a moral order,[viii] but this is complicated by the fact that the world doesn’t always seem anything like this.  For one thing, so many of the people we actually meet are much more as Hobbes might see them (“nasty…”) than as Christians might see the image of Jesus.  And for another thing, we have all of the natural disasters to consider – earthquakes in Lisbon and AIDS in New York – and we wonder, quite naturally as Job and the Hebrew prophets often did: Just where has this so-called moral order has hidden itself?! 

Schleiermacher’s answer, in very general terms, is that the actualization of the moral order in the world depends on the occurrence of “higher consciousness”[ix] – a term well-known to us, and one that Schleiermacher is partly responsible for bringing into popular jargon.

This philosophical move to higher consciousness is not hard to appreciate, especially for us who are the inheritors of a similar moment in culture, from the 1960s and 70s.  At that time (in the very memories of some still living!) the “consciousness-raising” of the gay liberation movement was (not always very happily) consorting with the “higher consciousness” of the New Age movement.  Any younger person today who thinks he’s missed out on this era can still get a fair smattering of some of it – probably as good as any of us got at the time – with the right series of weekend meditation teachings in some idyllic setting in the Catskills, introduced by a promo night at Soho’s Open Center.[x]

These kinds of teachings may not be just illusions of pop psychology – though of course there’s plenty of that around too – for we have some good evidence that spiritual disciplines like yoga do have clinically beneficial effects.  We at least hear that the mind-body connection really does work to help us heal even “purely physical” diseases – and it would be all the more in the spirit of Schleiermacher[xi] to suspect, as we well might nowadays, that faith-healings really are placebos and that one’s (perhaps unconscious) self-image really does have something to do with the immune function under stress.  In that case, this would be a discursive event of self-representation on the part of the one who seeks to be healed (think here of Foucault again).  It would be, in some sense, ontogenetic: by the power of the discursive word, we are reborn into health.  And it would be a power of higher consciousness, immanent in our relation to the world because it would be a natural event within it.

Now as an event of medical science, this kind of power, if it exists, would have to be a somewhat limited power, since we obviously don’t have control over our eventual mortality nor, apparently, over certain fatal illnesses that strike the young as well as the elderly. But this is not an all-or-nothing proposition.  Just because we don’t have the power to invest ourselves with immortality and perfect health in the meantime, we should not conclude from that that we have no more power, at least latently, than we occurrently experience.[xii]  Such additional capability would (once again) have to be made available to us as a natural event in the natural world.  And such an experience would no doubt incite amazement in the experiencer, at such an unexpected healing turn --  some mix of disorientation, grand relief, and perhaps determination to use one’s remaining time to best effect.  (Use your imagination, or borrow from your own experience of this, if you have that.)  Insofar as we are inheritors of this outlook on the world, we are the cultural children of Schleiermacher.

(5) The fifth and last feature I’ll mention from Schleiermacher is the idea, not always noticed by Schleiermacher scholars, that this kind of experience -- what he also called “piety” or “God-consciousness” -- would not be best regarded as an isolated moments, like some foundationalist epistemological achievement.  This is not the experience of the meditator on the mountaintop, awaiting that single culminating moment of Nirvana. Rather, these are variously felt moments enfolded within the larger self-narrative of one’s own life, telling the story leading to and following upon such a remarkable physical healing (or, more Calvinistically, of “conversion” and “redemption” – which is an emotional/spiritual healing).  This is a standard Christian story, of course: “Once I was lost, and now I’m found” and “my life remains transformed as a result.”  Such a larger story would depict characteristic features of social relations, specifically (for the Christian)  agapic[xiii] virtues which (I would want to argue) other cultures call by various other names.  For the Christian, these get expressed in acts of witness and service to others, and they proceed, as action does from mental representation,[xiv] from the narratological self-representations which comprise our motivational psychology and give “a meaning to one’s life.”

So I like to think of Schleiermacher as the father of the higher-consciousness movement, and this I think places some of us closer than we might otherwise feel to the “father of liberal Protestant theology.” 


(2) For Discussion

 Now from our own experience, we know perhaps better what it means when we don’t experience this higher consciousness ourselves, than when we actually do.  I know that when I’m sick, I generally feel pretty forsaken.  (Even a common cold is enough to do this sometimes.)  However, many of us do perhaps have an inkling about what so-called higher consciousness (if it really exists) might accomplish in a person’s life.  We have all probably heard, for example, touching stories of people who, through debilitating illness, reach a peace of mind that only some remarkably elevated level of consciousness could provide.  (Now of course, some may say, with great psychoanalytical plausibility, that these poor folks are just in blissful denial.  But who’s really to say that this is not in fact a “higher consciousness” – if what we include here is the ability to focus contextually on what’s really important, in the face of possible death?  What’s not “higher” about that?[xv])  

So, let’s now ask: what more (if anything) can we here say about all this, as philosophers?  As a philosophical matter, the biological and cultural world actually might contain within it certain even larger patterns of “salvation” – as Christians rather quaintly (and, frankly, rather tiresomely) tend to put it.  Our genetic endowments might actually contain encodings for whatever it is that makes for the exhilarated, supportive, entirely enhanced community life that some of us, in the heyday of our very committed youth, might recall – as long as we haven’t let our cynicism block us from the vivid memory of that.   Our pluralistic global culture might contain the discursive resources sufficient to save the planet and raise human community, to a better approximate of the postmillennialist[xvi] vision of the Kingdom of God on earth.[xvii]

As a philosophical matter, all this does indeed seem to leave at least an open question, and given the anecdotal evidence, there seems to be something to it, at least at the level of efficacious placebo and perhaps in other respects as well.  Can this be made into a truly plausible philosophical story?  Or is it just the wishful thinking of a pietistic Romantic with a flair for philosophical jargon?


[i] Enlightenment rationalism, pietism, and philosophical idealism.

[ii] This has a rather Quinean tone to it: individual moments of experience are describable only within webs of belief -- except perhaps for the fact that Quine has some rather deconstructive things to say about “meaning.”  See his famous “Two Dogmas of Empiricism Essay,” immediately following the essay we have already read (“On What There Is”) in his From a Logical Point of View.

[iii] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, translated by H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), §20.1.

[iv] Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, edited and translated by Richard Crouter (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[v] Schleiermacher, CF, §4.

[vi] Friedrich D. E. Schleiermacher, On the Glaubenslehre: Two Letters to Dr. Lücke, translated by James Duke,   and Francis Fiorenza (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1981), 64.

[vii] Though he does not, especially in his Christology, follow this out consistently. 

[viii] One of the early decisions made for Christian orthodoxy was the proviso that the world was God’s and not some Manichean deity’s creation.

[ix] Schleiermacher, CF, §5.


[xi] Schleiermacher however was equivocal on this: his Christology seems to require a kind of special divine intervention that is inconsistent with the eternal covenant he elsewhere proclaims.  It is hard for me to read this as anything but a rationalization for Christian uniqueness and superiority, and I pass over it here in embarrassed silence.

[xii] I might have the latent talent for superb performance on the piano, but if I don’t practice, I’m not going to manage even “Chopsticks.”  This illustrates the distinction between “latent” and “occurrent” power.

[xiii] “Agapē” is the Greek word for “love,” and occurs prominently in the New Testament.

[xiv] Arthur C. Danto, "Basic Actions and Basic Concepts," 1979, in The Body/Body Problem (Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 1999), 45-62.

[xv] Perhaps the choice is: narcissistic complaint vs. a quasi-Aristotelian “greatness of soul.”

[xvi] There is a famous dispute in Christian theology, going “way back,” between premillennialists and postmillennialists.  The postmillennialists believe that the Second Coming of Christ follows the millennial Kingdom of God on earth (the so-called thousand years of peace).  This utopian ideal is an image of human perfection in personal and social terms, and the more romantic evolutionists and social liberals thought this might be the culmination of the story of Human Progress.  (Some still think this secretly.)  Conservative evangelicals (of the “Left-Behind” variety) take the view that only Christ’s apocalyptic intervention will transform human history into such a happy state.

[xvii] This was a standard ideal of high liberal Protestantism in Germany and elsewhere in the generations immediately following Schleiermacher.  Of course, there’s still that matter of what the Christians call “Original Sin” and what a Hobbesian might call a “realistic assessment of human nature” (reflected in lives nasty, brutish, and short).  And high German liberalism did after all lead right into the Kaiser’s declaration of war in 1914 – a complication I discuss elsewhere.  See D. Seiple, "Schleiermacher and Barth: Self-Transcendence and Neoliberalism," in Reading Schleiermacher: Essays in Honor of Michael Ryan, ed. C. Jeffrey Kinlaw and Edwina Lawler ( Lewiston NY : Edwin Mellen Press, 2004).