Pinsent and Stump – The Second-Personal in the Philosophy of Religion



Pinsent, A., and Stump, E. (eds.), The Second-Personal in the Philosophy of Religion. Special edition of the European Journal of the Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 5, No. 4, Winter 2013.

A compilation of papers based on presentations from the Ian Ramsey Centre conference, “The Second-Person Perspective in Science and the Humanities,” 17-20 July 2013.


The second-person perspective is familiar to anyone who says ‘you’ to someone else, but the implications of this mode of interpersonal relatedness have received comparatively little attention until recently. One reason for this neglect may be the inherent difficulty of articulating what this perspective means. As an example, Augustine would be unlikely to think that the famous prayer from his Confessions, “Late have I loved you”, could be considered equivalent to, “There is a person, ‘I’, who has been late in loving another person, ‘you’”. Nevertheless, to explain precisely what is wrong with this description can challenging using those tools of intellectual enquiry developed principally to describe the world in objective or third-person terms. As another example, Jerome might say, “Late have I loved Paula”, if Paula is absent, but if Paula is present he would properly say to her, “Late have I loved you”. Hence ‘you’ as well as ‘I’ cannot be treated as an ordinary designator or name like ‘Jerome’ or ‘Paula’, since ‘I’ only address someone as ‘you’ in a situation of some kind of mutual personal presence. These examples show that the second-person perspective shares in common with the first-person perspective a peculiar irreducibility to third-person terms, what Thomas Nagel might call a ‘view from nowhere’. Indeed, a line of thought inaugurated especially by Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas has proposed that the first and second-person perspective are symbiotic.

As these examples show, research into the second-person perspective has obvious relevance to the philosophy of language, but in recent years there has been a growing appreciation of its importance to a wide range of other fields especially connected with ethics, human development and flourishing. A motivation and means for such research has been the study of conditions under which second-person relatedness is atypical, as seems to be the case for autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) and Williams Syndrome. As a result, many disciplines such as experimental psychology and social neuroscience are now able to provide a wealth of empirical data pertinent to the second-person perspective.

These developments, together with the prevalence of second-person modes of address to God in many religious texts, such as Augustine’s Confessions cited above, serve as preliminary indications of the potential fruitfulness of the study of the second-person perspective for the philosophy of religion. Moreover, there has been a growing body of work in recent years that has brought new insights from second-person research to bear on a range of perennial questions in this field. For these reasons, we have welcomed the generous opportunity provided by the European Journal for Philosophy of Religion to dedicate this issue specifically to the second-personal in the philosophy of religion.

The papers presented in this issue are based on presentations from a conference at Oxford University, The Second-Person Perspective in Science and the Humanities, 17-20 July 2013, together with a paper on a similar theme presented at a conference the preceding year, Persons and their Brains, 11-14 July 2012. Both conferences were organised by the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, part of the Theology and Religion Faculty at Oxford, and benefited from sponsorship from the John Templeton Foundation. From the many presentations, we invited a selection of speakers who were willing and able to offer contributions of particular relevance to the philosophy of religion, especially knowledge of persons and interpretations of special divine action in various second-person modes.

The selected papers have grouped thematically as follows. Tim Chappell, Eleonore Stump, and Stina Bäckström examine what it is like to perceive and know persons, exploring specific differences from other kinds of perception and knowledge. The first two papers extend this theme to knowing God and the indwelling of personal, maximally present God. Papers by Joshua Johnson and Andrew Pinsent then examine the implications of the second-person perspective for issues regarding language and the virtue of truth. A paper by Eva Buddeberg also explores how attempts to ground morality on the second-person perspective still need to be balanced with other perspectives. The next two papers present example applications of the second-person perspective to the interpretation of specific texts of scripture and tradition. Susan Eastman examines the second-person concept of sin in Paul’s Letter to the Romans and Andrea Hollingsworth re-interprets an influential text of Nicholas of Cusa. The final two papers examine questions of spirituality. Helen de Cruz and Johan de Smedt explore what is second-personal in the phenomenology of nature aesthetics, and Donald Bungum examines the so-called ‘dark night of the soul’ in the light of purported second-person relatedness to God. Aside from their intrinsic merits, we hope the diverse themes addressed by these papers illustrate some of fruitfulness and expanding potential of the second-personal in the philosophy of religion.




Knowledge of Persons

Abstract. What is knowledge of persons, and what is knowing persons like? My answer combines (a bit of) Wittgenstein's epistemology with (a bit of) Levinas's phenomenology. It says that our knowledge of persons is a hinge proposition for us (as in: 'I am not of the opinion that he has a soul', PI ii, iv). And it says that what this knowledge consists in is the experience that Levinas calls 'the face to face': direct and unmediated encounter between persons. As Levinas says, for there to be persons at all there has, first, to be a relationship, language, and this same encounter: 'the face to face' comes first, the existence of individual persons only second. I explore some consequences of this conception for how we think about personhood, and also for how we read Descartes and Augustine.

Eleonore STUMP

Omnipresence, Indwelling, and the Second-Personal

Abstract. The claim that God is maximally present is characteristic of all three major monotheisms. In this paper, I explore this claim with regard to Christianity. First, God's omnipresence is a matter of God's relations to all space at all times at once, because omnipresence is an attribute of an eternal God. In addition, God is also present with and to a person. The assumption of a human nature ensures that God is never without the ability to be present with human persons in the way mind-reading enables; and, in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, God is present in love.


Seeing People and Knowing You: Perception, Shared Knowledge, and Acknowledgment

Abstract. This article takes up the proposal that action and expression enable perceptual knowledge of other minds, a proposal that runs counter to a tradition of thinking that other minds are special in that they are essentially unobservable. I argue that even if we accept this proposal regarding perceptual knowledge, there is still a difference between knowing another person and knowing other things. I articulate this difference by pointing out that I can know another person by sharing knowledge with her. Such sharing is expressed in the use of the second-person pronoun. Thus, I argue, other minds are indeed special as objects of knowledge, but not in the way the tradition has supposed.


The Private Language Argument and a Second-Person Approach to Mindreading

Abstract. I argue that if Wittgenstein's Private Language Argument is correct, then both Theory-Theory and Simulation Theory are inadequate accounts of how we come to know other minds since both theories assume the reality of a private language. Further, following the work of a number of philosophers and psychologists, I defend a 'Second-Person Approach' to mindreading according to which it is possible for us to be directly aware of at least some of the mental states of others. Because it is not necessary to assume a private language within the Second-Person Approach, I argue that this account of social cognition is superior to Theory-Theory and Simulation Theory since it avoids the objections of the PLA.


The Non-Aristotelian Virtue of Truth from the Second-Person Perspective

Abstract. The claim has been made that when Aquinas speaks about the virtue of truth and its opposing vices in the Summa theologiae (ST) 2-2.109.113, he regards himself as speaking of the same virtue of truth as found in the Nicomachean Ethics 4.7. In this paper, I dispute this claim, showing how Aquinas’s account cannot be Aristotelian and, in particular, that the possibility of forfeiting the virtue of truth by one serious lie cannot be explained by habituation. I argue instead that Aquinas’s account can be better understood by reference to the kind of embodied experience most commonly encountered in joint attention or second-person relatedness, an approach that may offer new ways to address broader moral questions regarding truth.


Morality, the Other and Third Persons

Abstract. This paper seeks to defend the thesis that a justification of morality has to underline the role of the second person in addition to a perpetual and on-going change of perspective that likewise includes the third and first person. To support this argument, the paper conceptualises responsibility as a moral relationship whose core constitutes the encounter with the other whom we recognise as a second-person authority. It then sketches how this pre-cognitive dimension must be supplemented by a cognitive insight which implies a dissociation from the second person and a consideration of third persons. On this basis, it finally provides an outline of how a possible tension between these different but all-together necessary perspectives could best be resolved.

Susan Grove EASTMAN

The Shadow Side of Second-Person Engagement: Sin in Paul's Letter to the Romans

Abstract. This paper explores the characteristics of debilitating versus beneficial intersubjective engagements, by discussing the role of sin in the relational constitution of the self in Paul's letter to the Romans. Paul narrates 'sin' as both a destructive holding environment and an interpersonal agent in a lethal embrace with human beings. The system of self-in-relation-to-sin is transactional, competitive, unidirectional, and domineering, operating implicitly within an economy of lack. Conversely, Paul's account in Romans of the divine action that moves persons into a new identity of self-in-relationship demonstrates genuinely second-personal qualities: it is loving, non-transactional, noncompetitive, mutual, and constitutive of personal agency.


The Second-Person Perspective in the Preface of Nicholas of Cusa's 'De Visione Dei'

Abstract. In De visione Dei's preface, a multidimensional, embodied experience of the second-person perspective becomes the medium by which Nicholas of Cusa's audience, the Benedictine brothers of Tegernsee, receive answers to questions regarding whether and in what sense mystical theology's divine term is an object of contemplation, and whether union with God is a matter of knowledge or love. The experience of joint attention that is described in this text is enigmatic (paradoxical, resisting objectification), dynamic (enactive, participatory), integrative (cognitive and affective), and transformative (selfcreative). As such, it instantiates the coincidentia oppositorum and docta ignorantia which, for Cusa, alone can give rise to a vision of the infinite.

Johan DE SMEDT and Helen DE CRUZ

Delighting in Natural Beauty: Joint Attention and the Phenomenology of Nature Aesthetics

Abstract. Empirical research in the psychology of nature appreciation suggests that humans across cultures tend to evaluate nature in positive aesthetic terms, including a sense of beauty and awe. They also frequently engage in joint attention with other persons, whereby they are jointly aware of sharing attention to the same event or object. This paper examines how, from a natural theological perspective, delight in natural beauty can be conceptualized as a way of joining attention to creation. Drawing an analogy between art and creation, we propose that aesthetic appreciation of nature may provide theists with a unique phenomenological insight into God's creative intentions, which are embodied in the physical beauty of creation. We suggest two directions in which this way of looking at the natural world can be fleshed out: in a spontaneous way, that does not take into account background information, and with the help of science.


Joint Attention, Union with God, and the Dark Night of the Soul

Abstract. Eleonore Stump has argued that the fulfilment of union between God and human beings requires a mode of relatedness that can be compared to joint attention, a phenomenon studied in contemporary experimental psychology. Stump's account of union, however, is challenged by the fact that Mother Teresa, despite her apparent manifestation of the love of God to others, herself experienced an interior 'dark night of the soul' during which God seemed to be absent and to have rejected her completely. The dark night of the soul poses a problem for Stump's account, since, if anyone had a union of divine love with God, it would seem that Mother Teresa did. Nevertheless, I argue that the isolation and abandonment of Mother Teresa's dark night are contrary to the conditions assumed to be required for joint attention with God. As an alternative to Stump's account, I suggest that the dark night of the soul might be better understood by reference to a combination of joint attention and blindsight, according to which interpersonal closeness might be realized through a consistent pattern of external actions without, however, a direct awareness of one person by the other.


Additional Information

Authors Andrew Pinsent and Eleonore Stump
Year 2013

Pinsent and Stump – The Second-Personal in the Philosophy of Religion