Knud Ejler Løgstrup: The sovereign expressions of life

Knud Ejler Løgstrup (1905-1981) was a Professor of Ethics and Philosophy of Religion at the University of Aarhus in Denmark.  He is probably the most important Danish philosopher since Kierkegaard.  Løgstrup’s best known book, Den etiske fordring (The Ethical Demand), was published in 1956 (translations: German, 1959; English, 1971, 1997; Swedish, 1994; Norwegian, 1999).  Reviewed or discussed in over 100 articles, the book has been something of a lightning rod ever since its publication: in some quarters, it elicits extravagant praise; in others, it provokes bewilderment or even harsh criticism.  Løgstrup described it as an attempt “to characterize in purely human terms the attitude to the other person contained in the proclamation of Jesus, quite apart from any consideration of its religious setting” (p. 114 of the 1971 English translation).  I think the book can be seen as a phenomenological unpacking of this saying of Løgstrup’s: “We never have anything to do with another human being without holding some portion of his life in our hands.”

Unusually, Løgstrup sought to ground his conception of “the ethical demand” – which, per Kees van Kooten Niekerk, he characterized as tacit, radical, one-sided, and not susceptible of fulfillment – at the ontological level: “Its distinction between good and evil is assumed to be fixed: eternal, metaphysical, or however one may wish to express it” (p. 103 of the 1997 English translation, cited by Niekerk in his excellent review article in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 2: 415-426, 1999).  Løgstrup’s ontological emphasis strikes many ethicists as odd.  They think he did not sufficiently stress the importance of social norms and morality.  But, as the following passage from his book illustrates, Løgstrup was mindful of socially-constructed morality, and if he didn’t emphasize it in Den etiske fordring, it was probably because he felt it had already received its due share of attention, whereas what he was talking about had gone virtually unnoticed:

Why do we seem to have a natural antipathy toward the radical demand while at the same time we accept the legal, moral, and conventional norms?  After all, their purpose or function is at least to a certain degree the same.  Entirely apart from questions concerning their origin, the social norms actually protect the other person.  And for that matter one might say that in their own way they represent an appeal to us to have consideration for him.

The answer lies in the difference between the radical demand and the social norms.  The radical demand says that we are to care for the other person in a way that best serves his interest.  It says that but nothing more.  What this means in a given situation a person must discover for himself in terms of his own unselfishness and in the light of his own understanding of life.  This is why in the very nature of things it is impossible to obey the radical demand on the basis of motives which are foreign to the demand.  We might say that in order to obey the radical demand one must have the same purpose as it has.

The social norms, on the other hand, give comparatively precise directives about what we shall do and what we shall refrain from doing.  We are usually able to conform to these directives without even having to consider the other person, much less take care of his life.  We may very well live in harmony with at least many of the social norms even though we may have an entirely different purpose in doing so.  We may do so, for example, as a matter of habit, or because we are afraid that the social order might otherwise disintegrate or become unstable, or out of fear of sanctions, or in order to make ourselves meritorious in our own and other people’s estimation.  (p. 58 of the 1971 English translation)

Den etiske fordring was hardly the last word from Løgstrup on the subject.  His ethical philosophy continued to evolve in the following years.  Unfortunately, his later works were not as widely translated as Den etiske fordring, and so his international audience has, in general, been less aware of the whole range of his thought than his Danish audience.  Happily, this deficiency has been partially remedied by the publication in 2007 of two books by the University of Notre Dame Press: Beyond the Ethical Demand and Concern for the Other: Perspectives on the Ethics of K. E. Løgstrup.  Both books were outgrowths of an international workshop in 2002 titled “The Significance of K. E. Løgstrup’s Ethics.”  The first book contains representative selections from Løgstrup’s ethical writing after Den etiske fordring.  The second book contains articles by scholars who discuss his ethical philosophy in toto.

Løgstrup’s conception of the “sovereign expressions of life” is the most important refinement in his later ethical thought.  I believe it is his greatest achievement as a philosopher.  In their introduction in Concern for the Other, Svend Andersen and Kees van Kooten Niekerk wrote that Løgstrup gradually realized that expressions of life such as trust, mercy, and openness of speech were not just interpersonal features, but ethical phenomena in their own right, and that

As ways of taking care of others, the expressions of life fulfill the ethical demand – before the demand has even made itself felt.  The sovereign expressions of life are therefore more fundamental ethical phenomena than the demand that derives from them.  (p. 2)

Several years ago, in a series of posts in another forum, I discussed Løgstrup’s sovereign expressions of life in connection with a film by Robert Bresson titled Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut (A Man Escaped).  I will not reprise those remarks here.  In truth, there is no substitute for reading Løgstrup directly (or in translation).  His ideas are difficult to summarize.  I urge anyone who may be intrigued by the sketches I have tried to present of his ethical ideas to read Beyond the Ethical Demand.  The companion book, Concern for the Other, with its critical essays, is excellent too although it may be of more interest to scholars than general readers.

I will, however, close with the following passage from the article “Sovereign Expressions of Life, Virtues, and Actions: A Response to MacIntyre” by Svein Aage Christoffersen, in Concern for the Other, because in it I think he nails the thing that many of Løgstrup’s critics miss.  Of all the contributions to Concern for the Other, I think Christoffersen’s gets closest to the heart of Løgstrup’s thought (although the article by Niekerk is also superb, and a very close second in this regard).

From “Sovereign Expressions of Life, Virtues, and Actions: A Response to MacIntyre” by Svein Aage Christoffersen, in Concern for the Other: Perspectives on the Ethics of K. E. Løgstrup:

A puzzling, but nevertheless important, distinction in Løgstrup is between sovereign expressions of life and actions.  Sovereign expressions of life express themselves in actions, but they are not the same as actions.  . . .  This distinction . . . is a crucial point in Løgstrup’s thinking.  In examining Løgstrup’s sovereign expressions of life, MacIntyre concludes that several distinctive features of the virtues are missing, such as reason-giving, teleology, and even development.  And he is right: these traits are actually missing, but that is because they belong to the shape that we give the sovereign expressions of life.  They are distinctive features of actions, not of sovereign expressions of life – which means, however, that when we act there is no such thing as “pure” sovereign expressions of life.  This, I think, is a consequence that we tend to ignore in our reading of Løgstrup, and I admit that Løgstrup was not always crystal-clear on this point himself.  It is not difficult to find passages where he gives the impression that acts of mercy or of trust and confidence are “pure” sovereign expressions of life.  I nevertheless think this is a misreading, or a misunderstanding.  Sovereign expressions of life can be recognized only when they are executed and shaped in actions, and then they are shaped and conditioned by the situation.  If we wish to “see” them stripped of the different shapes we give them, then we have to carry out a phenomenological analysis.  . . .

But if actions are never “pure” sovereign expressions of life, then why speak of sovereign expressions of life at all?  Is this not an unnecessary doubling?  Are sovereign expressions of life not just a figment of the imagination, or a ghost in the machine?  This would be the positivist point of view, but Løgstrup did not accept positivism.  He insisted on the importance of ontology as a presupposition for the understanding of ethics, and sovereign expressions of life primarily have to do with ontology in a Heideggerian sense of the word.  They belong to a fundamental and constitutive definition of being, to use Løgstrup’s own definition of ontology (Løgstrup 1997, 171 n. 2).

One way of putting this is to say that sovereign expressions of life are present in, with, and under the kind of actions we are dealing with here.  And it is not by accident that this way of phrasing the relation leans heavily on Luther’s wordings when he explains how Christ can be present in the elements of the sacrament.

As an ethicist Løgstrup did not deny the importance of reason-giving or personal growth and development, but he found it of greater importance to draw attention to realities beneath our reason-giving and personal development.  Ontology occupied his mind even when he was doing ethics.  He searched for the basic conditions of life prior to cultivation.  His provocative assertion or idea was that sovereign expressions of life are prior to both our actions and our virtues.  Our entire activity and our responsibility as moral beings are rooted in ontological presuppositions that we are unable to change by our actions.  . . .

Sovereign expressions of life are unconditional, unchangeable, and impossible to rationalize, whereas actions are by necessity conditioned, changeable, and open to rationalization.  Sometimes we must suppress the sovereign expressions of life, and sometimes we must fulfil them through action.  It all depends on the situation.  Sovereign expressions of life are not virtues, either, but when shaping sovereign expressions of life into actions, virtues are of great importance.  Since Løgstrup paid little attention to virtues from this point of view, it would be a significant step in the right direction to pursue and develop Løgstrup’s thought by attempting to incorporate some key perspectives presented in the virtue ethics of Alasdair MacIntyre.  (pp. 170-174)

This entry was posted in Bresson, Robert, Løgstrup, K. E., Philosophy (uncategorized), Theology (uncategorized). Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Knud Ejler Løgstrup: The sovereign expressions of life

  1. Kathleen Gilbert says:

    I came across the phrase ‘sovereign expressions of life and my heart responded-it felt akin to the givens in and of life so I was/am delighted to read this article and continue my thinkiing.

  2. Geoff Smith says:

    I was born on his death date, while interested in philosophy, we are quite opposite in our opinions. Interesting man.

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