Sophie Grace Chappell is Professor of Philosophy at the Open University, UK, and her new book Epiphanies: An Ethics of Experience, has just been published by OUP. In this interview, Sophie speaks with OUP Philosophy editor Peter Momtchiloff on exploring the concept and experience of epiphanies.
Some readers might not have the concept of an epiphany. Do you think your book might help these people to appreciate something about their experience that they haven’t previously had a way of framing?
As the author of Genesis understood, and also Sigmund Freud, there can be a kind of power in naming things. Tools for classifying our own experience are tools for understanding our own experience, and so for understanding ourselves. Very often this has a political aspect. For example, Miranda Fricker’s notion of epistemic injustice has a pleasing reflexivity about it. If you suffer from what Fricker calls hermeneutic epistemic injustice, that means that you lack the descriptive and expressive tools to say what is wrong with your situation. But then, one of the key tools that you need is the concept of hermeneutic epistemic injustice itself. Being able to name your situation as one of hermeneutic epistemic injustice is a key means to escaping that situation.
On the other hand, there are ways of framing ourselves that aren’t genuinely explanatory at all: they don’t pick up anything real about us, so they don’t offer any genuine insight into anything. Saying you’re a Sagittarius or an endomorph or that your birthstone is jasper is like this. So is saying you’re an introvert, probably; or at the very least this last classification needs a lot more clarification and precision.
And again, there are classifications that we should positively avoid, because what they do is underwrite ways of thinking and seeing ourselves that are inherently oppressive. American English used to have the words “quadroon” and “octaroon”, for two different degrees of being mixed-race; just imagine what a society would have to be like, for us even to have a use for this distinction. Or closer to hand, think of the ideology familiarly buried in terms like “ladylike” and “manly” and indeed a term I’ve sometimes used myself: “master-concept”.
“With the concept of an epiphany I am hoping to latch onto a genuinely explanatory way of framing our experience.”
So yes, with the concept of an epiphany I am hoping to latch onto a genuinely explanatory way of framing our experience, not a bogus one. And I would hope a liberatory framing too, and not an ideologically conservative or reactionary one.
You talk about an epiphany as an insight or experience that is given to the person who experiences it. Does that imply a giver?
I am studiedly ambiguous about this. I am a Christian theist myself, so I suppose in one way that gives you your answer. But I think as soon as people start casting this issue as an issue in philosophy of religion, there’s a tendency for some rather uninspiring positive conceptions of God to get a grip, on both sides. And these positive conceptions put people off exploring the issues that epiphanies raise with fully open minds—either because they’re inclined to reject religion, and so introduce into the discussion a rather plaster-cast image of God that they want to reject, or because they’re sympathetic to religion, but for that reason are only too keen on the plaster-cast image.
When you’re known to be a believer, as I am, you tend to find yourself confronted with the kind of atheist who apparently thinks it very important that every believer should know that they’re an atheist. I quite often feel like telling that sort of atheist “I don’t believe in the God that you don’t believe in either.”
Hence the ambiguity. I just want to say, both to believers and to unbelievers: Well, hold on a bit. Don’t shut things down too fast with positive affirmations. Be prepared to be a little bit apophatic, to wait and see where things go in experience before you have formulated any particular intellectual verdict on what hasn’t even happened yet.
What do you think it means for someone if they don’t have epiphanic experiences?
Sometimes? Or at all? I talk a lot in the book about how natural it is for anyone only to experience epiphanies sometimes—and at other times to experience not only humdrum normality, but also troughs, lows, depressions. That’s natural enough; but could someone just never have epiphanies at all?
In one way the answer seems to be “Surely not.” I invite my reader to think of epiphanies as peaks in the line of experience over time, and it seems very unlikely that someone’s experience would have no peaks in it—would just be a flat line, straight or tilted. (It’s an interesting question, of course, what it is for something to be a peak in experience at all, or for that matter a line of experience or a level of experience, and the book talks about that, but I won’t try and answer it here.)
Or maybe someone might never experience epiphanies in the sense that though there are peaks, yet none of those peaks is objectively high enough to count as an epiphany? Well, that’s possible, but it doesn’t seem very likely from talking to real people. What seems much likelier to me is that people do have epiphanies, but don’t have the concept of epiphanies—they lack the descriptive tools to put it that way. Which loops us back to an answer I gave earlier.
Thinking about the philosophers you most admire: does their philosophy work through something like poetic expression?
“In my view, the real objective is not the epiphanies, the experiences of value, but the value itself, the world itself that the epiphanies are experience of.”
In some cases yes: Murdoch and Plato and Augustine are all obvious examples. In other cases no: Williams, MacIntyre, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Mill. It should hardly need saying that philosophy isn’t poetry and shouldn’t try to be. But for at least some philosophy, especially ethics, it seems right to say that if you don’t say it the right way, then you don’t say it at all; we treat style as mere adornment, but in some inquiries it’s a lot more than that—the style shapes the character of the inquiry itself. Again, at least some philosophy is—sometimes—about capturing the nature of human experience, and capturing that from the inside. Since this is exactly what poetry does, at least much of the time, there are clearly places where philosophy and poetry overlap.
Do you think philosophy should itself aim to offer or stimulate epiphany?
I think there are words to be said in warning about the danger of making epiphany into a directly pursued objective. The danger is that we make experience a kind of idol. We can pursue epiphany, maybe, but a certain indirection is necessary. In my view, the real objective is not the epiphanies, the experiences of value, but the value itself, the world itself that the epiphanies are experience of. Walter Pater famously said that “not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end”; when he talks about “burning with a hard, gem-like flame” he means that he wants us to concentrate on our experience and ignore what it’s experience of. I couldn’t disagree more. That way, I think, lies a perversion of our faculties, a subjectivisation and a kind of solipsism of dilettantiste pleasure. This is why the last words in my book are Rainer Maria Rilke’s: No feeling is final.
But with those warnings in place, I think the answer to your question is that if any kind of writing should aim to offer epiphany, then philosophy should; why not?