On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig

On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig

by Eric L. Santner

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In On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life, Eric Santner puts Sigmund Freud in dialogue with his contemporary Franz Rosenzweig in the service of reimagining ethical and political life. By exploring the theological dimensions of Freud's writings and revealing unexpected psychoanalytic implications in the religious philosophy of Rosenzweig's masterwork, The


In On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life, Eric Santner puts Sigmund Freud in dialogue with his contemporary Franz Rosenzweig in the service of reimagining ethical and political life. By exploring the theological dimensions of Freud's writings and revealing unexpected psychoanalytic implications in the religious philosophy of Rosenzweig's masterwork, The Star of Redemption, Santner makes an original argument for understanding religions of revelation in therapeutic terms, and offers a penetrating look at how this understanding suggests fruitful ways of reconceiving political community.

Santner's crucial innovation in this new study is to bring the theological notion of revelation into a broadly psychoanalytic field, where it can be understood as a force that opens the self to everyday life and encourages accountability within the larger world. Revelation itself becomes redefined as an openness toward what is singular, enigmatic, even uncanny about the Other, whether neighbor or stranger, thereby linking a theory of drives and desire to a critical account of sociality. Santner illuminates what it means to be genuinely open to another human being or culture and to share and take responsibility for one's implication in the dilemmas of difference.

By bringing Freud and Rosenzweig together, Santner not only clarifies in new and surprising ways the profound connections between psychoanalysis and the Judeo-Christian tradition, he makes the resources of both available to contemporary efforts to rethink concepts of community and cross-cultural communication.

Editorial Reviews

A study of the relationship between the work of Sigmund Freud and Franz Rosenzweig, one of the crucial figures in the renaissance of German-Jewish culture in the early 20th century. Rosenzweig's is of interest because it challenges the vision of cultural and religious pluralism in recent philosophical writing on globalization. Santer (Germanic Studies, Committee on Jewish Studies, University of Chicago) argues that both Freud and Rosenzweig offer a radically different vision of Old Testament cultural distinction. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig

By Eric L. Santner

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2001 Eric L. Santner
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226734889

Chapter One

In the Midst of Life


In his short story, "The End of the World," Robert Walser tells of a child's search for the outer limits of the space of human habitation we call the world: "A child who had neither father and mother nor brother and sister, was member of no family and utterly homeless, hit on the idea of running off, all the way to the end of the world." Possessing no belongings, the child simply picks up and begins its single-minded pursuit:

On and on it ran, past many sights [Erscheinungen], but took no notice of the sights it passed. On and on it ran, past many people, but took no notice of anyone. On and on it ran, until nightfall, but the child took no notice of the night. It gave heed neither to day nor night, neither to objects nor people, gave no heed to the sun and none to the moon and every bit as little to the stars. Further and further it ran, neither frightened nor hungry, always with the one thought in mind, the one notion-- the notion, that is, of looking for the end of the world and running till it got there. (101)
In the course of its wanderings, the child entertains various fantasies as to the nature ofits goal:

On and on the child ran, imagining the end of the world first as a high wall, then as a deep abyss, then as a beautiful green meadow, then as a lake, then as a polka-dotted cloth, then as a thick, wide paste, then simply as pure air, then as a clean white plain, then as a sea of bliss in which it could rock forever, then as a brownish path, then as nothing at all or as something the child itself, alas, couldn't quite identify. (101)
As we might expect, the project doesn't go well. But after much searching, the child comes upon a farmer who, knowing that a farmhouse nearby is called "End of the World," informs the child that its goal lies only a half-hour's walk away. Exhausted from its travels, the child finally arrives at what the farmer's wife confirms to be "the end of the world." Upon awaking from much needed sleep, the child, who we now learn is a young girl, asks if she might stay at the farm and be of service to the family. She is taken into the home of the farmer's family, at first as a maid but with the promise of a future as a genuine member of the clan: "It set heartily about its chores and went diligently to work [Es fing an fieissig zu werken und wacker zu dienen], and so was soon liked by everyone, and never did the child run off again, for it felt at home" (102).

Franz Kafka, who was a great admirer of Walser's work, left among his papers a short prose sketch, not longer than a paragraph, to which Max Brod gave the title "The Top" ["Der Kreisel" ]. It tells the story of a philosopher who sought after groups of children playingwith a top, imagining that were he to seize the toy in the midst of its rotation he would discover universal truths. "For he believed that the understanding of any detail, that of a spinningtop, for instance, was sufficient for the understanding of all things [genuge zur Erkenntnis des Allgemeinen]." Unlike the child in Walser's story who seeks out the limits of the macrocosm, Kafka's philosopher is obsessed with the microcosm: "Once the smallest detail was understood, then everything was understood, which was why he busied himself only with the spinning top" (444). The philosopher's project assumes, more visibly perhaps than was the case with the child of Walser's story, the aspect of an interminable repetition compulsion:

And whenever preparations were being made for the spinning of the top, he hoped that this time it would succeed: as soon as the top began to spin and he was running breathlessly after it, the hope would turn to certainty, but when he held the silly piece of wood in his hand, he felt nauseated. (444)
The project's repeated failures generate a quasi-psychotic state in the philosopher whereby he begins to assimilate to the properties of the object of his fixation: "The screaming of the children, which hitherto he had not heard and which now suddenly pierced his ears, chased him away, and he tottered like a top under a clumsy whip" (444).

I cite these two disarmingly simple prose texts, both written within a few years of one another--Walser's was published in 1917, Kafka's likely dates from 1920--because they introduce us into what I take to be one of the central preoccupations of the two German-Jewish thinkers I discuss in this book, Sigmund Freud and Franz Rosenzweig. The problem is that of inhabiting the midst, the middle of life. In the case of Walser's young girl we witness something on the order of a flight from the middle (in her case, of course, this middle is a radically impoverished one; nonetheless, neither of these stories are conceived as psychological narratives). The pursuit of the end of the world, of the outer limit of the space of meaningful life, is, as Walser indicates in the list of the various ways the girl imagines the nature of this limit, fundamentally fantasmatic. The structure of this fantasy corresponds here to the ways in which Kant defined metaphysics in his critical writings. It is the search for some sort of "beyond" of the space of meaningthat would nonetheless be a possible object of (meaningful) experience. The girl appears, in other words, to subscribe to the metaphysical fantasy that the world is itself a container-like something, a possible object of experience with properties like those of other objects in the world. A more mundane and common analogy would be the fantasy of witnessing one's own conception (or funeral), that is, of occupyingthe place of an impossible gaze at the outer limits of one's being-in-the-world.

In Kafka's text the metaphysical dimension of the activity in question is explicitly marked as such: a philosopher is in search of the Universal, the General, the Concept. The philosopher's mistake is homologous to that of the girl in Walser's text. The philosopher appears to be in the thrall of a fantasy that the universal principle he seeks can be attained from a position outside the everyday activities that make up a human life, in this case, the children's play with the top. Like the girl, the philosopher seeks to occupy a place outside of life, beyond the limits of meaningful activity; from there he seeks to grasp what underlies that life in the form of a universal principle of motion informingit and, indeed, the All.


In a now famous letter written to his cousin Rudolf Ehrenbergin November 1917, Franz Rosenzweig explicitly distinguishes his understandingof being-in-the-midst-of-life from what he takes to be the concept of the human subject, its life, and world found in philosophy. "The concept of order of this world," he writes, "is thus not the universal, neither the arche nor the telos, neither the natural nor the historical unity, but rather the singular, the event, not beginning or end, but center of the world." And in language that seems to span the idioms of Walser's and Kafka's narratives, Rosenzweig further distinguishes his conception of this "revealed" world from the "conceived" or "conceptualized" world of the philosophers:

From the beginning as well as from the end the world is "infinite," from the beginning infinite in space, toward the end infinite in time. Only from the center does there arise a bounded home in the unbounded world, a patch of ground between four tent pegs, that can be posted further and further out. ("Germ Cell," 57)
Rosenzweig's decision, in 1920, to turn down the possibility of an academic career as a professional historian--he had written a brilliant dissertation on Hegel's political philosophy under the supervision of Friedrich Meinecke--represents the existential dimension of these philosophical concerns with the difficulties and complexities of opening to the middle of life--of, as it were, avoiding the temptations to which Walser's little girl and Kafka's philosopher succumb. Rosenzweig clearly began to experience the entire academic enterprise as a kind of defense against the exigencies of being in the midst of life, the forms of answer ability he was coming to associate with it. In the letter he wrote to Meinecke who had offered him a lectureship in Berlin, Rosenzweig explains the "dark drive" that now, as it were, binds him to a patch of ground between four tent pegs (Rosenzweig had, by this time, decided to dedicate his life to the project of Jewish adult education in the context of the new Judisches Lehrhaus in Frankfurt). As Rosenzweig tells it, this drive emerged in the context of a breakdown: "In 1913 something happened to me for which collapse [Zusammenbruch] is the only fitting name. I suddenly found myself on a heap of wreckage, or rather I realized that the road I was then pursuing was flanked by unrealities." Of the academic road he had been traveling, Rosenzweig writes that it "was the very road defined for me by my talent, and my talent only. I began to sense how meaningless such a subjection to the rule of one's talent was and what abject servitude of the self it involved."

What made it possible for Rosenzweig to become the master of his talents rather than being mastered by them was his discovery of the persistent vitality of the Judaism he had earlier decided to leave behind as a moribund form of life, one that had been definitively superseded by Christianity. The story is well known: before converting to Christianity, as had so many of his close friends and relatives, Rosenzweighad decided to enter more deeply into his Judaism so that he could "enter Christianity as did its founders, as a Jew, not as a 'pagan.'" In the course of his preparations he underwent a change of heart that very likely only became fully clear to Rosenzweig himself--only fully became "for itself"--after attending Yom Kippur services at a small, orthodox synagogue in Berlin in October of 1913. A few days after this experience he wrote to his cousin Rudolf Ehrenberg, who had already converted, the following" confession":

I must tell you something that will grieve you and may at first appear incomprehensible to you: after prolonged, and I believe thorough, self-examination, I have reversed my decision. It no longer seems necessary to me, and therefore, being what I am, no longer possible. I will remain a Jew.
Against this background, we can better understand the terms in which Rosenzweig, in his letter to Meinecke, relates the story of his 1913 collapse and recovery, which is the story of a breakdown that became a life-defining breakthrough. At first, Rosenzweig employs an extended metaphor, that of contracting into himself, of withdrawing, as he puts it, to "a place whither talents could not follow" and where an "ancient treasure chest" whose existence he had never forgotten but which he had never fully explored was found to contain his "most personal possessions, things inherited, not borrowed...." For Rosenzweig, the upshot of this self-contraction was the impossibility of pursuing an academic career as an intellectual historian: "The one thing I wish to make clear is that scholarship [Wissenschaft] no longer holds the center of my attention, and that my life has fallen under the rule of a 'dark drive' which I'm aware that I merely name by calling it 'my Judaism.'" One of the effects of this "rule" was, as Rosenzweig put it, that he was now "more firmly rooted in the earth" than he had been when he wrote Hegel and the State under Meinecke's supervision. One aspect of this new rootedness (correlative to the "rule of a 'dark drive'") was an enhanced capacity to find value in the mundane details of everyday life: "The small--at times exceedingly small--thing called [by Goethe] 'demand of the day' [Forderung des Tages] which is made upon me in my position at Frankfurt, I mean the nerve-wracking, picayune, and at the same time very necessary struggles with people and conditions, have now become the real core of my existence--and I love this form of existence despite the inevitable annoyance that goes with it." And in language that recalls the conclusion of Walser's story, Rosenzweig writes, "Cognition [Erkennen] no longer appears to me as an end in itself. It has turned into service [Dienst], a service to human beings...."


Excerpted from On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig by Eric L. Santner Copyright © 2001 by Eric L. Santner. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Eric L. Santner is the Philip and Ida Romberg Professor in Modern Germanic Studies, professor of Germanic studies, and a member of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago. He is the author of several books, most recently On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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