Scheler's Argument for God's Existence from Religious Acts

By White, John R. | Philosophy Today, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Scheler's Argument for God's Existence from Religious Acts


White, John R., Philosophy Today


In spite of a growing literature on Scheler's philosophy of religion, one of its most interesting elements has produced more controversy than clarity, namely, Scheler's argument for God's existence based on religious acts. Indeed, a survey of recent literature on Scheler's argument might suggest that commentators are far more clear on what this argument is not than on what it is.1

This state of affairs in part arises from the unusual nature of the argument itself. For rather than premising its claims either on the structure of (infinite or finite) being or on morality, the argument is based on the nature of a specific kind of personal act. And the structure of an act seems an unlikely candidate for the basis of an argument for God's existence, since it is a basic principle of philosophy that one cannot prove the existence of an object from the existence of its correlating act. Thus the argument poses significant difficulties for interpretation, because it seems to fall wholly outside what typically counts as a philosophical argument for God's existence and indeed seems on the face of it to be destined for circularity or absurdity.

In spite of these difficulties, I believe one can make sense of Scheler's argument and give a plausible interpretation of it. I begin by examining the anthropological conditions of the argument, namely, Scheler's notions of person and act, as well as his central concept of revelation as the basis for knowing other persons, whether human or divine. Second, I formulate the argument and show why, according to Scheler, it is not circular. Finally, I interpret Scheler's argument as a transcendental argument, contending that this fact significantly strengthens the argument and buttresses Scheler's claim that the argument is not circular.

Religious Acts

Person and Revelation. One of the basic principles characteristic of early phenomenology was that, for any potential object of experience there has to be an appropriate act, and vice versa. Just as tones can only be heard but not smelled, and essences can be known intellectually but not sensuously, so in general: experience is a function of a meaningful correlation between act and object. This basic principle was conceived to apply as much to the knowledge of God as to every other kind of knowledge. Thus what counts as a religious act is, for Scheler, a unique modality of conscious experience, a modality which needs to be distinguished from others in terms both of its intrinsic nature and the manner in which the object is given.

By terming these experiences a conscious "modality," I express Scheler's assumption that conscious experiences are not all of a piece. Rather, conscious experiences in general tend to exist in specific forms, which can be characterized both in terms of their potential objects and the originality of their structure. Thus referring to religious consciousness as a unique modality underlines the point that religious activity has its own irreducible structure. What then determines this structure?

First of all, religious acts, like all acts properly speaking, are in part determined by their object. And it might seem obvious at the outset that God is the only real candidate as an object of religious acts. But this is not exactly correct. For example, the metaphysician attempting to prove God's existence does not thereby perform an act of religion in Scheler's sense, though God is clearly the object of her acts. Rather it is God as revealed who is the object of the religious act.3

Hence revelation is an important concept for Scheler, and not only in philosophy of religion but more generally in philosophy of the person. Scheler maintains that revelation pertains not only to our relation to God but in fact is the manner by which we come to know other persons as such, human or divine. The reason for this is bound up with his conception of the person. For the person in its most constitutive dimension (spirit) is not known simply as an example of a general nature-the way, say, we would know a spider-but as a unique personality. …

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