Aug 042016

Dwayne A. Tunstall, Doing Philosophy Personally: Thinking about Metaphysics, Theism, and Antiblack Racism. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013; 176 pages. ISBN: 978-0823251605.

Reviewed by Patrick Anderson, Texas A&M University

In the opening pages of Doing Philosophy Personally: Thinking about Metaphysics, Theism, and Antiblack Racism, author Dwayne A. Tunstall poses the question that guides the book: “How can we adequately conserve the phenomenological distinction between [on the one hand] viewing ourselves and our environing world as a collection of physical objects and events and [on the other hand] viewing ourselves as meaning-bestowing and meaning-appreciating subjects (particularly as ethical and religious persons) in a way that affirms the personal nature of human existence, but without negating our occasional experiences of ourselves as objects?” (5) In order to answer this question, Tunstall draws upon existential phenomenologist Gabriel Marcel, Africana existentialist Lewis R. Gordon, and Black theologian William R. Jones in order to construct a phenomenological method appropriate for addressing the myriad forms of dehumanization in twenty-first century Western society, especially antiblack racism. Tunstall describes Doing Philosophy Personally as a work of “phenomenological metaphysics,” which is “a metaphysics in which one refuses to investigate the essential structures of a mind-independent reality and concentrates, instead, on examining those ethical and religious values…that enable persons to be closer to one another in a spiritual sense.” (113) While the term phenomenological metaphysics signals to the reader Tunstall’s basic philosophical orientation, he situates his project in the discipline more broadly, devoting some space to explaining why his approach should be considered at least one alternative to the dominant trends in analytic philosophy.

In many ways, Doing Philosophy Personally is a philosophical sequel to Tunstall’s first book, Yes, But Not Quite: Encountering Josiah Royce’s Ethico-Religious Insight (New York: Fordham Press, 2009), not because a monograph on Marcel is necessarily the natural sequel to a monograph on Royce, but because Doing Philosophy Personally represents an extension of Tunstall’s personal philosophical journey, which, as he explains in the Preface, consists of three paths. First, he is engaged in “a reimagining of metaphysics” and has tentatively concluded that axiology, the study of value, is first philosophy. In order to achieve such a study of value, Tunstall argues that an axiologically-based metaphysics “transcends philosophy proper; it involves performing a teleological suspension of philosophy.” (113) Second, drawing on American (Royce) and European (Marcel) philosophy, he seeks to revisit past thinkers in order to revive their best and most useful insights. However, Tunstall is clear that he is not interested in saving philosophers of the past from either their own shortcomings or general obscurity; instead, he is interested in seeing “what lessons past philosophers can teach us presently.” (xii) Third, he seeks to explore racial identity and antiblack racism though Africana philosophy, especially Gordon’s philosophy of existence and Jones’s humanocentric theism. Ultimately, Tunstall argues that “Marcel’s reflective method can be fruitfully interpreted in terms of Gordon’s teleological suspension of philosophy; and by modifying Marcel’s reflective method to account for the persistence of antiblack racism in contemporary US society, it can effectively criticize and oppose antiblack racism in late Western modernity.” (xiv)

The first three chapters offer a concise, lucid exegesis of Marcel’s phenomenology, particularly its method and its politics. Readers familiar with Marcel should be pleased with the clarity and novelty of Tunstall’s exegesis, and newcomers to Marcel are sure to learn a great deal. In Chapter One, “Marcel’s Reflective Method,” Tunstall seeks “to unearth the origins of Marcel’s reflective method in his attempt to preserve the most important insights of the Kantian transcendental tradition in a nonidealist milieu,” especially “the distinction between phenomenon and noumenon.” (20) Tunstall translates the phenomenon/noumenon distinction from an ontological conception into an epistemological conception in order to show how Marcel’s reflective method consists of two forms of reflection: primary reflection, which considers the human as an empirically observable and measurable object, and secondary reflection, which considers the human as a meaning-bestowing being with personal experiences. For Tunstall, Marcel’s conceptions of incarnation, our experience as an embodied creature, and mystery, the elusive nature of meaning, cannot be known through the quantitative orientation of primary reflection; incarnation and mystery can only be known through the axiological orientation of secondary reflection.

In the next two chapters, Tunstall develops his Marcelian axiology in two directions: on the one hand, toward the metaproblematic, which is one way to conceive of and remember the importance of secondary reflection; on the other hand, toward dehumanization, which results from our tendency to forget or ignore secondary reflection. In Chapter Two, “Transcending Philosophy by Teleologically Suspending Philosophy,” Tunstall uses Lewis R. Gordon’s notion of a teleological suspension of philosophy to explain Marcel’s notion of the metaproblematic, which refers to the type of problems or questions that arise when we consider the human in relation to being. Because Marcel believes that philosophical inquiry is motivated by extra-philosophical values, goals, and commitments, Tunstall argues that a Marcelian investigation of metaproblematic questions regarding values and commitments entails a suspension of philosophy. (55) Tunstall suggests that philosophy is not, therefore, composed merely of arguments against others; it requires us to remember the individuality of our interlocutors, including their extra-philosophical commitments. In Chapter Three, “Living in a Broken World,” Tunstall turns to Marcel’s political philosophy, identifying two modes of dehumanization within the Marcelian paradigm: “techniques of degradation,” which include both extreme and mundane forms of bureaucracy, regulation, and measurement, and “the spirit of abstraction,” which refers to ideological political concepts, such as “the colonizer” and “the bourgeoisie,” that foster justifications of violence. On the one hand, through unrestrained technological imposition, humans are gradually stripped of their selfhood, the part of them that is understood through secondary reflection; on the other hand, “ill-conceived sociopolitical abstractions” subsume individuals under distorting labels, depriving them of their personhood. Only through vigilance and a commitment to secondary reflection can we critically assess technological developments and political concepts and mitigate instances and processes of dehumanization. Teleologically suspending philosophy allows us to investigate the convergences and divergences between the value systems that we all rely upon to inspire our philosophical inquiries.

In the last two chapters, Tunstall begins his critique of Marcel’s religious existentialism and introduces the concept of antiblack racism, “the originating telos of modern Western thought.” (79) In Chapter Four, “Lewis Gordon on Antiblack Racism,” Tunstall turns to Gordon’s Africana existentialism to illuminate Marcel’s failure to address antiblack racism, and as Tunstall explains, “A Gordon-inspired existential phenomenological account of antiblack racism is not only compatible with Marcel’s reflective method, but also a welcome addition to it.” (81) On Gordon’s account, antiblack racism is a form of bad faith: the antiblack racist must deceive him or herself regarding the humanity individuals who have been categorized as “Black.” While antiblack racism participates in the spirit of abstraction, Tunstall rejects the racial eliminativist position, which argues that racial categorization is itself the problem, for he believes that African Americans can adopt a racial identity for positive reasons (culture) and practical reasons (legal protections) without doing so in bad faith.

In Chapter Five, “Criticizing Marcel’s Reflective Method,” Tunstall argues that Marcel, while expressing distaste for racism in general, never confronted the problem of antiblack racism specifically. “I think Marcel neglected how antiblack racism depersonalizes Africana persons,” Tunstall explains, “because he unwittingly accepted what one could call a colonialist logic with respect to Africana persons.” (102) According to Tunstall, antiblack racism is “a species of colonialism,” and because one finds in Marcel casual, passing comments expressing a colonialist logic–the simplest of which is the idea that colonization does something good for the colonized–he often prioritized the protection of the moral status of Europe and its citizens over the condemnation of racial colonialism and the oppression of Africana persons. One could very well either defend Marcel, arguing that his statements were symptoms of ignorance rather than intentional racism, or dismiss him completely as merely racist. Tunstall, however, chose to make an example of Marcel, since the disparity between his professed anti-racism and his colonialist comments demonstrate that “even someone who is committed to battling racism can fall into the trap of colonialist logic.” (107) This observation is just one example of how we can, as Tunstall says, learn important lessons from past philosophers, namely, that our extra-philosophical commitments can undermine our explicit philosophical positions.

Having articulated both Marcel’s reflective method and corrected for its inability to grapple with the pervasive antiblack racism of contemporary society, Tunstall insists that the “theologico-political imperative” of Marcel’s project requires theological reflection in addition to metaphysical reflection. (115) Just as Marcel’s political disposition is mired in colonialist logic, his theological orientation is a product of what William R. Jones calls “Whiteanity,” that is, the white supremacist form of Christianity. In the Conclusion, Tunstall turns to Jones’s articulation of “humanocentric theism” in Is God a White Racist?, arguing that Jones’s theological paradigm is the most appropriate – or even the only appropriate – theological position for an antiblack world because it wrests from the hands of God the destiny of Black people and places it in their own hands. Because it replaces God’s causal power over human history with humanity’s existential freedom over its own destiny, Tunstall suggests that humanocentric theism and its causally-neutral God provides space for human agency to play the central role in the struggle for social justice, especially in the struggle against antiblack racism.

But the final gesture of the book is Tunstall’s own contribution to this theological and existential problem, and it reveals a new layer of meaning in the book’s title, Doing Philosophy Personally. For Tunstall, Jones’s humanocentric theism misses the importance of interpersonal relationships, and this needs correction because, if human destiny is in human hands and not God’s hands, then divinity is not a characteristic of a transcendental deity but a product of nurturing human interactions. As Tunstall states, “when we act divinely…we are embodying God; or, in cruder terms, when we act divinely we are God. In more theological terms, God is an evaluative ideal that we actualize whenever we act in a divine manner.” (120) Thus, Doing Philosophy Personally is both a snapshot in the development of the author’s engagement with the history of philosophy and the problems of contemporary Western society and a call for us to remember that interpersonal relationships are the site at which we can actualize our highest human potential through our freedom to enrich each other’s lives and liberate each other’s being. While Tunstall is doing philosophy personally in this book, he urges us to remember the axiological aspect of human life, the side of our being that cannot be captured by the quantitative, bureaucratic methods of primary reflection. Tunstall concedes that more thinking needs to be done (as it always does), but any reader working within the phenomenological tradition specifically or the Kantian tradition broadly will find Tunstall’s contributions the fight against dehumanization valuable. And of course, for the reader who concludes that Tunstall may not have succeeded in constructing an existential phenomenology capable of confronting the problems of Western society, Tunstall provides a final recommendation: “If I have failed in my endeavor, then I hope that readers will be motivated to correct the errors in my metaphysical ‘story’ while preserving what is worthwhile in it.” (18)