Kevin Hart’s most significant contribution to philosophy in Australia came in the form of his highly acclaimed Cambridge University Press monograph of 1989, Trespass of the Sign (reprinted by Fordham University Press in 2000). Hart graduated with a doctorate from the Department of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne in 1986, having completed a B.A. at the Australian National University. He left Australia for the U.S. in 2002 and is currently Edwin B. Kyle Professor of Christian Studies at the University of Virginia. His publishing career is marked by an equal commitment to poetry and philosophy, and this is so despite the fact that his philosophical writing is committed to explaining philosophical ideas historically (with references going back to the ancient sources) and formally, with an emphasis on the internal consistency of positions. His philosophical work also inflects the content, if not the form, of his poetry which focusses intently on the enigmas of experience. (His early literary-critical work described the Australian poet A. D. Hope as ‘orphic’, a word that might be used in relation to Hart’s own writing.)
From his early monograph on Jacques Derrida and Martin Heidegger to his recent work on Maurice Blanchot (The Dark Gaze, 2004) and Jean-Luc Marion (Counter-Experiences, 2007), Hart emphasises the philosophical rigour of intellectual figures often deemed to be mystical, hermetic or irrational. His monograph and edited collection on Maurice Blanchot (The Power of Contestation, 2004), for example, at once places Blanchot in the line of influence from Heidegger and Bataille, the former emphasising God’s absence, the latter the inherently exorbitant nature of the sacred; at the same time as Hart explains this experience of God’s absence in highly logical terms. After the French Revolution and the destruction of any worldly figure of God’s presence, the sacred and divine are experienced as having departed and yet, in their very absence, as requiring all the more thought and philosophical responsibility. These themes—of the importance of philosophy, of responsibility, of God’s absence, and the modes of writing required by the modern departure of any figure of authority within the world—are announced in The Trespass of the Sign. This book’s major achievement was its linking together of Jacques Derrida’s criticism of the linguistics of the signifier with the tradition of negative theology. Unlike those appropriations of Derridean deconstruction that dominated the U.S. and the U.K. and which were frequently literary or ‘playful’, Hart argues that Derrida’s deconstruction is best understood as a highly cogent response to the tradition of the absence of God, a tradition that begins well before Augustine and Christian theology but which reaches an intensity in the French enlightenment. Placing Derrida after Heidegger’s argument that Being cannot be defined or exhausted by the understanding of any entity that is an object of experience or predication, Hart argues that Derrida’s deconstruction is a highly rigorous and necessary response to the absence of God. Whereas many hostile commentators (most notably Jürgen Habermas in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity) have read French philosophy after Nietzsche as a form of anti-philosophical and overly literary irrationalism, Hart makes a case for deconstruction as a highly responsible, philosophical and post-Kantian response to anti-foundationalism. Even though Hart was educated in the highly Wittgensteinian and Aristotelian atmosphere of the University of Melbourne in the late 1980s, he rejects those readings of Derrida as a pragmatist who argues for the absence of stable meanings in the face of merely contextual determinations of language. On the contrary, just as it is the case that any attempt to grant a definition, ultimate predication or definitive experience of God (or Being or Presence) would be at odds with the essentially infinite nature of that which it seeks to describe, so we can say that any attempt to delimit or exhaust the sense of certain concepts (such as justice or democracy) would belie the infinite potentiality of those concepts.
Following Derrida, Hart ties the Kantian structure of the Idea—that we can think a series beyond possible experience—to an understanding of the concept that is opposed to any structuralist understanding of language as ‘signification’. Far from being a philosopher who abandons meaning, or any possibility of experience outside language, Derrida insists that the linguistic possibilities of concepts open experience up to an infinite or exorbitance beyond any present. We can experience a present or ‘now’ as this or that determined sense only because the present is marked or traced by a repeatable or ‘iterable’ potential; a concept can only mean or intend a sense if it can be repeated beyond its context. Thus justice cannot be defined ostensively, for the concept intends ‘justice in general’, and this, in turn, allows us to think ethically of a possibility of justice beyond any of its instances. For Hart, in The Trespass of the Sign, it is this structure and potentiality of language, conceptuality and presence that ties Derrida’s work on the conditions for the possibility of experience to negative theology. Although we can have any number of names that allow us to think a God beyond finite, worldly, general and iterable being, those names only serve to open language and experience beyond its limits. Hart’s reading of Derrida is unique in several respects for it ties a rigorous philosophy of linguistic and conceptual possibility of experience to a tradition of thinking God, beyond experience.
This way of approaching Derrida becomes a philosophy in its own right in Hart’s later work on Blanchot. Derrida’s work was already indebted to, and in dialogue with, Blanchot. It is this curious structure of experience—an experience of that which cannot be presented in experience, or an ‘experience without experience’—that unifies Hart’s work and characterises his singularity as a philosopher, critic and poet. If one wishes to remain committed to the integrity of the philosophical enterprise by attending to fundamental questions of existence, experience, presence and the infinite, then one can neither pursue an analytic commitment to ordinary language, nor adopt a merely literary approach to language as the constitutive condition for experience. Instead, drawing upon Heidegger, Derrida, Blanchot and contemporary co-authors such as Geoffrey Hartman and Jean-Luc Marion, Hart has formulated a unique synthesis of theological, phenomenological and poststructuralist philosophical arguments to formulate a theory of the ways in which finite experience—including the experience of language as an event within the world—intimates or allows us to experience that which would lie beyond the finite, but could not be conceptualised or grasped as a logical infinite or (as Hegel would have termed it) a ‘bad infinity’ simply posited in opposition to the finite. It is this philosophical trajectory that works at once on the structures and possibilities of linguistic experience, while at the same time recognising language’s intentional structure, which has been enriched by Hart’s work as a poet and literary critic. In his work on Samuel Johnson (Samuel Johnson and the Culture of Property, 1999) Hart explores the relation between produced works, historical and textual circulation and the sense or meaning of texts. Working against the dominant ‘cultural studies’ paradigm that a work has sense only insofar as it is circulated, read and valued, Hart puts forward a complex and sophisticated case for the sense and worth of cultural objects beyond their material conditions of production, circulation and recognition.
Today Hart is recognised primarily for his contribution to a reading of poststructuralism as an extension of the tradition of negative theology, and for his work on the concept of experience, a concept which at once requires and goes beyond the parameters of analytical philosophical inquiry.
Rosalind Hursthouse spent her childhood in New Zealand, taught for many years at the Open University in England, and is now professor of philosophy at the University of Auckland, where she was also Head of the Department of Philosophy from 2002 to 2005. Hursthouse is best known as a virtue ethicist, and most of her work, both theoretical and applied, has exemplified that approach. Her thinking has been steadfastly Aristotelian, and indeed much of her work, even her work in applied ethics, has in some way or other involved Aristotle.
Although she had written a substantial amount previously, she burst upon the international philosophical scene for the first time in 1990–91, with three remarkable articles published within a year of each other. One of these, ‘Arational Actions’ (Journal of Philosophy), made an important break with familiar models of human voluntary action. Davidson’s influential account had seen intentional actions as based in desires and beliefs and as done for some purpose; but Hursthouse’s article mentions a variety of actions that don’t fit that model: e.g. jumping for joy or scratching the eyes out of a photograph of a hated rival. These are not things that one does with any purpose in mind, and one doesn’t do them for a reason (which is not to say that they can’t be explained in humanly understandable terms). Philosophers had to think again about what human actions really are.
Another of the three articles, perhaps the most influential and important among them, was entitled ‘Virtue Theory and Abortion’ and appeared in Philosophy and Public Affairs. Combining her interests in theoretical and applied ethics, Hursthouse outlined an account of the structure of a new version of Aristotelian virtue ethics, defended it against various potential objections, and then applied it to the issue of abortion. Rather than seeing the moral issues surrounding abortion as depending on questions about the rights of the fetus or the mother, Hursthouse argued that the rightness of obtaining an abortion depends on the attitude or motivation of the mother in doing so. If the mother seeks an abortion for frivolous reasons (e.g. she can’t be bothered raising a child), she acts wrongly; but if she already has six children and is very poor, her motives for seeking the abortion may be morally more weighty, and it may not at all be wrong for her to do so.
The third article in the trio was called ‘After Hume’s Justice’ and appeared in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. It offered an account of social justice in mainly Aristotelian terms and demonstrated that talk of certain human or individual rights can be accommodated by virtue ethics. (But Hursthouse did not seek to justify democratic institutions.)
These articles led people to expect important further work from Hursthouse, and she didn’t disappoint them. Her 1999 book On Virtue Ethics has had a great influence on current developments in virtue ethics and on the field of ethics as a whole. But in order to explain why, we need to backtrack a bit. We need to understand how virtue ethics emerged during the last half of the twentieth century as a major alternative to consequentialism and Kantianism, after having been dormant for about three-hundred years. But for reasons of space I have to be brief.
In 1958 Elizabeth Anscombe wrote an article called ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ that strongly criticised Kantianism and consequentialism (she actually at the same time invented that term) and that urged a return to Aristotle. This, as we now see, marked the beginning of a revival of interest in virtue ethics, and although in the earlier years that revival mostly took the form of criticisms directed at other moral views, virtue ethics eventually began to see and advance itself in a more positive light, as an overall theoretical or philosophical approach to the problems of moral philosophy that disagreed with other such approaches. Hursthouse was an advocate of this more systematically positive—and in her case Aristotelian—way of doing or defending virtue ethics, and since most, though by no means all, work in virtue ethics over the past few decades has been modelled to some extent on Aristotle, Hursthouse’s book lies at the very centre of recent developments. In fact, given the current emphasis on Aristotelianism, Hursthouse herself is arguably the most important figure now working in the field. And since virtue ethics has now taken its place, along with consequentialism and Kantian ethics, as one of the three major theoretical approaches to ethics, Hursthouse’s work has had more general implications and influence.
Her book On Virtue Ethics goes beyond the article ‘Virtue Theory and Abortion’ in a number of ways. The earlier article had seen virtue ethics as involving, essentially, a three-tiered structure. Roughly speaking, actions were to be evaluated in terms of whether they exhibit or fail to exhibit certain virtuous character traits, and character traits were to be regarded as virtues if they promoted the (rational) happiness of the agent who possessed them. This scheme is eudaimonistic in character: it makes virtue status depend on what is good for the agent. But Hursthouse moved away from eudaimonism to a substantial extent in On Virtue Ethics. There she treated the good of the agent, the good of his or her group, the good of the human species, and certain hedonistic factors as all relevant to status as a virtue (or vice). She was somewhat unclear about how these factors are to be weighed against one another in deciding what counts as a virtue, but she had in effect abandoned eudaimonism (which is rejected by most modern moral philosophers). On the other hand, she had retained the three-tiered structure of the earlier article. (However, in a recent reply to criticisms by Brad Hooker in the journal Utilitas she expresses doubts about whether her work should be thought of as having such a definite structure.)
Hursthouse’s work in applied ethics is not some sort of afterthought in relation to more theoretical work, but actually antedates the (full) development of her theoretical views. Her first published book, Beginning Lives: A Philosophical Study of Abortion and Related Issues, investigated various practical issues independently of the three-tiered framework she eventually developed; but the book already showed her tendency to reject liberal, Kantian, and utilitarian views on issues like abortion. A later book on applied ethics, Ethics, Humans and Other Animals, did reflect her more developed theoretical ideas, and it applied those ideas, among other things, to issues about our treatment of animals. (Some of her other work does this as well.)
More recently, Hursthouse has also done important applied work on questions of environmental ethics. During the past decades of the virtue ethics revival, it hasn’t been at all clear how or even whether virtue ethics can deal with moral issues concerning the environment, but in her recent article ‘Environmental Virtue Ethics’ (in P. J. Ivanhoe and R. Walker, eds, Working Virtue), Hursthouse argues that (Aristotelian) virtue ethics is not too human-centred to provide an environmental ethics. What she does in this article certainly expands the previous limits of virtue ethics and gives us reason to think that virtue ethics may really be able to deal in a general way with moral issues about the environment.
Hursthouse’s most important ideas developed relatively late in her career, but they have certainly been riveting for moral philosophers, and they represent a very substantial contribution to the field of ethics as a whole.