The Tragic and the Metaphysical

The first Western philosopher to examine systematically the relationship between the tragedy of human finitude and the ubiquity of metaphysical illusion was Wilhelm Dilthey. Dilthey's life's work can be seen as an effort to replace the Kantian a priori -- the timeless forms of perception and categories of cognition through which the world becomes intelligible to us -- with "life categories" that are historically contingent and constituted over the course of a living historical process. There is a tragic dimension to Dilthey's historical consciousness, in that it brings out the tragic contradiction between the philosophical desire for universal validity (the metaphysical impulse) and the realization of the fundamental finitude of every attempt to satisfy that desire."

Dilthey's historical reconstruction of the development of metaphysics aims at no less than its "euthanasia." Although he holds that metaphysical desire is inherent to human nature, what he seeks to unmask are the illusions that this ubiquitous desire creates. Metaphysical illusion, according to Dilthey, transforms historically contingent nexuses of intelligibility -- worldviews, as he eventually calls them -- into timeless forms of reality. Anticipating Heidegger, Dilthey holds that every worldview is grounded in a mood regarding the tragic realization of the finitude of life. The metaphysicalization of worldviews transforms the unbearable fragility and transience of all things human into an enduring, permanent, changeless reality, an illusory world of eternal truths.

The later Heidegger, following Dilthey, gives a powerful account of the historicity of metaphysics, in which he seeks to illuminate the great metaphysical systems of Western philosophy as objectifications of epochs in the historical unfolding of Being, of how entities are intelligible to human beings as the entities they are. The metaphysical impulse is grasped by the later Heidegger as a relentless tendency to transform the experience of the real into a reified vision of the REALLY real. Yet Heidegger himself seems to succumb to a form of metaphysical illusion in the face of radical finitude when he formulates "Being as such" as an inexhaustible and unknowable source of all intelligibility. Atwood and I have illuminated a similar reifying and absolutizing tendency at work in the creation of the various metapsychological systems in psychoanalysis.

It is my view that the lamentable, endlessly recurring cycle of atrocity and counter-atrocity that has been so characteristic of human history derives significantly from the turning to metaphysical illusion in the effort to evade the traumatizing impact of human finitude. A vivid contemporary example is provided by post-9/11 America and its "rhetoric of evil."

The seeds of the rhetoric of evil can be found in the ancient religious metaphysics, originating in Persia and pervasive in contemporary religious fundamentalism, known as "Manichaeism" -- the idea that the movement of history is explained by an eternal struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. In the rhetoric of evil, Manichaeism is harnessed for political purposes - -one's own group is claimed to embody the forces of good, and the opposing group, the forces of evil. Through such attributions, which are inherently nationalistic or ethnocentric, one's political aims are justified as being in the service of the good.

The experience of collective trauma makes us particularly receptive to the lure of the rhetoric of evil, as was seen following the tragedy of 9/11. In my book, Trauma and Human Existence (Routledge, 2007), I contended that the essence of emotional trauma lies in the shattering of what I called the "absolutisms of everyday life," the system of illusory beliefs that allow us to function in the world, experienced as stable, predictable, and safe. Such shattering is a massive loss of innocence exposing the inescapable contingency of existence on a universe that is chaotic and unpredictable and in which no safety or continuity of being can be assured. Emotional trauma brings us face to face with our finitude and existential vulnerability and with death and loss as possibilities that define our existence and that loom as constant threats. Often traumatized people try to restore the lost illusions shattered by trauma through some form of what I have called "resurrective ideology."

The terrorist attack of 9/11 was a devastating collective trauma that inflicted a rip in the fabric of the American psyche. In horrifyingly demonstrating that even America can be assaulted on its native soil, the attack of 9/11 shattered Americans' collective illusions of safety, inviolability, and grandiose invincibility, illusions that had long been mainstays of the American historical identity. In the wake of such shattering, Americans became much more susceptible to resurrective ideologies that promised to restore the grandiose illusions that have been lost.

Following 9/11, the Bush administration declared war on global terrorism and drew America into a grandiose, holy crusade that enabled Americans to feel delivered from trauma, chosen by God to rid the world of evil and to bring their way of life (= goodness) to every people on earth. Through such resurrective ideology and its rhetoric of evil, Americans could evade the excruciating existential vulnerability that had been exposed by the attack and once again feel great, powerful, and godlike. A similar evasion can be seen at work when the man-made deadly threats of climate change are attributed to benign metaphysical entities such as God or Nature.

Is there an alternative to metaphysical illusion and destructive resurrective ideology? Yes, we must dwell with one another in our common human finitude so that our shared existential vulnerabilities can be brought into dialogue where they can be held and better borne.


de Mul, J. (2004). The Tragedy of Finitude: Dilthey's Hermeneutics of Life. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Atwood, G. E. & Stolorow, R. D. (1993). Faces in a Cloud: Intersubjectivity in Personality Theory, 2nd Ed. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.

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