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Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, published in 2019, has already become a minor academic sensation – being reviewed in the New Yorker and Guardian as well as being the subject of a day-long conference at Harvard. I recently had a chance to read the book. There is much that I disagree with in it, but I see what all the fuss is about. I think the book is worthy of several posts, and will examine it in detail in the coming weeks.

I will begin with what I appreciate about the book. Above all, I appreciate that Hägglund is a philosopher in the true sense: he is a genuine lover of wisdom, and a seeker of it. Hägglund is asking questions that Socrates and Plato and Aristotle asked, about what a good human life is. I am not sure how much wisdom he has actually found, but just seeking it is rare enough in this age of technical specialization. It is a sad but unsurprising irony that this most deeply philosophical author – like the subjects of Examined Life – teaches in a department of literature and not philosophy. This Life is not a work of analytic philosophy, and I do not think it could have been. Hägglund’s arguments are not perfectly rigorous, nor are his definitions exactingly precise; one could find logical holes in them, and many will. But it seems to me that these lacks are necessary for a book like Hägglund’s, which is so wide-ranging in scope. Analytic philosophers typically make careful, exacting refutations of their foes – who tend to be other analytic philosophers. Hägglund, by contrast, is engaging with a wide swath of the Western philosophical tradition, from Augustine to Adorno, and he reads the philosophers of the tradition in careful depth, trying to understand them in their own terms even when he disagrees.

All of this would suggest that Hägglund is what is typically called a “continental” philosopher, and that characterization would not be so far from the truth. (Leave aside the geographical referent of the term – “continental philosophy” has been practised outside continental Europe for many decades – because I think the term does point to important questions about what it means to do philosophy well.) But Hägglund studiously avoids the two key weaknesses of “continental philosophy” as it is most commonly practised. First and foremost, he is constructive. “Continental” philosophers often hide behind exegesis: they will explain what Hegel or Kierkegaard thought without taking a stand on what Hegel or Kierkegaard got right or wrong. Hägglund, by contrast, develops his expositions in ways that make it explicit which side he’s on – against Augustine, with Marx. Second, he writes in admirably clear prose. Startlingly for someone whose early writing was on Jacques Derrida, Hägglund imitates none of Derrida’s deliberately obtuse writing style. His discussions of Marxist economic theory can bog down a bit, but they do so less than do many others’ discussions of the same topics.

Not only that: Hägglund’s work is cross-cultural, in a way that very few philosophers of the 20th century ever were, whether analytic or “continental”. He engages with Buddhist thought at considerable length in the book, and does so in an informed way: while he gets his view of Buddhism largely from one author, if one must do that, one could do a lot worse than Hägglund’s chosen author, namely the late Steven Collins. I find Hägglund’s characterizations of traditional Theravāda Buddhism to be, on the whole, accurate enough. In many respects I find it more accurate than are those of some engaged Buddhist scholars who have been studying Buddhism their whole professional lives.

Hägglund’s engagement with Buddhism is particularly helpful for my own thought because his own position is so deeply Nussbaumian. He cites Martha Nussbaum explicitly several times, and more generally the position he advocates is very much like the view that Nussbaum takes on external goods, which I juxtapose directly against Śāntideva’s in my dissertation. That is, Hägglund claims that the cares that constitute a good life are constituted by the possibility of susceptibility to suffering – and he takes this to be a good thing. He affirms the value of the finite, transient, tragic worldly life that is vulnerable to losses.

My own philosophical goal, in many respects, is to find a synthesis between traditional Buddhism and a position like Hägglund’s or Nussbaum’s. For although I consider myself a Buddhist, there is a great deal I agree with in Hägglund’s view. Especially, Hägglund is very much a qualitative individualist, advocating that “we should not be defined once and for all by a given social role (family, profession, religion, nationality, ethnicity, gender). Rather, we should be free to transform the normative conception of ourselves and our institutions should reflect that freedom.” (225) Such a view is dear to my heart.

That qualitative individualism also informs the vision of a political state that Hägglund sketches, which I’m in deep sympathy with. I will expand on that point next time.