100 years ago, Rudolf Otto’s influential study The idea of the holy was published. It may be worthwhile to revisit some of his ideas.
It is often said that the achievements of the phenomenologist Rudolf Otto prove more sustainable than those of the Kantian theologian that he also was. In this perspective, the most interesting part of The idea of the holy is probably constituted by Otto’s detailed descriptions of ‘the numinous’. By this he means the peculiar affective quality of religious life without which the various ‘rational’ meanings and doctrines related to it could not be properly understood.
With a little help from William James (with whom he shares more than his friendly-condescending remarks about the pragmatist would make us think), Otto rejects psychologism about religious feelings and ascribes to them an intentional structure. The so-called ‘creature-feeling’ is not so much revealing the state of the subject than it is related to something other than the subject (something wholly other, in this case).
If one were to use the language current in today’s philosophy of emotions, one could say that the ‘creature-feeling’ is a bodily attunement towards the ‘numen’, i.e. an object, a place, or a situation bearing a particular, though highly complex evaluative property called ‘the numinous’. The focus of the phenomenologist Otto (whose achievements are often said to be more sustainable than those of the Kantian theologian that he also was) is mainly on the latter and its effects on the subject’s temper (Gemüt).
When Otto distinguishes several aspects of the numinous, such as tremendum, majestas, energicum, fascinans, augustum, he hastens to say that those are not building blocks that could be associated bit by bit in order to arrive at the numinous. Rather, it is the numinous as a pervasive quality that one needs to be acquainted with in order to make sense of each and every aspect.
However, this sounds more mysterious than it actually is: Some have argued that most aspects of what Otto calls ‘the numinous’ are in place when, for instance, Levinas (though he officially regards the numinous as an element overcome in the relationship with the absolute Other) describes the effect that the face of the Other has on the subject, or when Kant explains the motivational force of the moral law.
That is, though both, Kant and Levinas, differ in terms of their respective ‘rational’ discourses on morality, they seem to be in agreement when it comes to describe the deontic power that the law, or the face, respectively, or, if we may speak more colloquially, the voice of conscience exercises on the subject’s temper. And although it is important to distinguish morality from religious experience, there may well be that dimension of the moral sense emphasized by Kant and Levinas – and, arguably, Otto’s analysis of the numinous can provide us with some valuable conceptual tools for elucidating that dimension.