Epiphanies: An Ethics of Experience
Sophie Grace Chappell
Oxford University Press, $45 (cloth)

Love hungers for knowledge. For someone newly in love, nothing is better than learning about the beloved, nothing better than revealing yourself to them in turn. “The talk of lovers who have just declared their love,” writes Iris Murdoch in The Bell (1958), “is one of life’s most sweet delights. . . . Each one in haste to declare all that he is, so that no part of his being escapes the hallowing touch.”

Epiphanies suggest a certain image of the moral life—one that puts stillness and receptivity, rather than activity, at the heart of things.

At times, such hunger makes for epistemic crisis. When someone falls in love, Alasdair MacIntyre notes, they are “apt to rediscover for themselves versions of the other-minds problem.” How, exactly, can one know what another person is thinking or feeling? In ordinary life the question feels forced and sterile. Most of the time the minds of others are simply open to us: I can see that you are in pain, say, just by looking at you. Then one falls in love, and suddenly things are different: no question is more urgent. One searches, desperately, for a sign, a trace, a clue of what one craves—that one’s love is returned—all whilst being tormented by the certainty that any such sign is mere suggestion. It might hint at the truth, but it cannot reveal it. The beloved’s mind is hidden; only an avowal of love will do.

Self-knowledge, too, is often a victim of romance. Emma Woodhouse, the eponymous heroine of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel, is in love with Mr. Knightley without realizing it; she discovers that she loves him “only in the dread of being supplanted” by Harriet Smith:

Emma’s eyes were instantly withdrawn; and she sat silently meditating, in a fixed attitude, for a few minutes. A few minutes were sufficient for making her acquainted with her own heart. A mind like hers, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress. She touched—she admitted—she acknowledged the whole truth. Why was it so much worse that Harriet should be in love with Mr. Knightley, than with Frank Churchill? Why was the evil so dreadfully increased by Harriet’s having some hope of a return? It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!

Falling in love—or realizing that one has fallen—often has the character of an epiphany. So it is for Emma. Her discovery that she loves Knightley is quite unlike her discovery that there is no more tea in the pot: it transforms her sense of herself. She is dismayed and tormented by “the deceptions she had been . . . practising on herself, and living under,” by “the blunders, the blindness of her own head and heart!” The epiphany marks a “break” in experience: from her new vantage point, with her new interpretation of things—of herself—in hand, Emma cannot look back on her past self without a sense of separateness.

Emma’s experience is perfectly her own, yet many who read Austen find that it rhymes with theirs. When philosopher Sophie Grace Chappell tells people she works on epiphanies, “a surprisingly high percentage of them know immediately what I’m talking about,” she writes in her new book Epiphanies: An Ethics of Experience. An epiphany is a readily recognizable experience; we know it when we feel it. And yet except for a few gestures in this direction—Ludwig Wittgenstein on aspect perception, Thomas Kuhn on Gestalt-like paradigm shifts, some resonances in the phenomenological tradition—modern philosophy has had little to say about epiphanies. Chappell minds the gap.

That philosophy has been silent on some subject need not be to philosophy’s detriment—or to the subject’s, for that matter. Some topics don’t reward philosophical attention; on others philosophers are too jejune to have much worth saying. Those writing on uncharted questions, then, have a double hurdle to clear. They don’t just need to persuade us that their answer has something going for it. They need to persuade us that their question is worth asking in the first place—or, at least, worth asking in a philosophical mood. Chappell’s favored questions are nothing if not ambitious. She wants to know what epiphanies can tell us about what it is to be human and what it is to live a human life. And to answer those questions, she thinks, we first need to know what sort of thing an epiphany is.

Chappell works like a portraitist: her goal is to capture her subject’s character. In place of preparatory sketches come examples. The book opens with a passage from priest Bede Griffiths’s autobiography:

One day during my last term at school I walked out alone in the evening and heard the birds singing in that full chorus of song which can only be heard at that time of the year at dawn or at sunset. I remember now the shock of surprise with which the sound broke on my ears. It seemed to me I had never heard the birds singing before. . . . I remember now the feeling of awe that came over me. I felt inclined to kneel on the ground.

This passage sounds key notes in Chappell’s thinking. First, there is value: Griffiths has heard birdsong before, of course, but he is suddenly struck by the beauty—and not just by the beauty, but also by something by something like the holiness—of the music. Its value becomes manifest for him in experience, becomes palpable. Second, there is givenness. Griffiths has not worked his way into this experience; it feels to him, as Chappell puts it, “like it ‘comes from outside.’” It is not an outgrowth of his sensibility but the world disclosing itself to him. Third, there is existential significance. Griffiths’s experience had a lasting impact: his feel for the mystical eventually led him to become a monk.

Chappell finds other examples in Murdoch, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and her own life. Together they serve as the alembic from which she distills her working definition: an epiphany is an “overwhelming existentially significant manifestation of value.” This value is “just there” in the world, “waiting for us to . . . notice.” It commands a response from us. That response might be love, or awe, or contemplation, but it might also be fury, or a willingness to go into battle.

Chappell’s main target is what she calls the “game” of theory-building in moral philosophy—its tendency toward systematicity.

Besides offering a paradigmatic example, Griffiths’s passage also makes vivid one danger in writing about epiphanies: it is all too easy to sound—perhaps even to be—overwrought. Griffiths’s words sing out to a part of me, but another part—the stuffy British part, perhaps—is impatient. “Yes, it’s birdsong. Very pretty. Now: up off your knees!” For the most part, Epiphanies avoids sentimentalism. Chappell is frank and unpretentious—she confides her “lazy habit” of rereading John Rebus detective novels in the bath—as well as quietly funny. To those who insist that any moral theory can be represented as a form of consequentialism, she retorts that “you can drive from Mexico to Alaska in reverse gear. But it’s one thing to say that this can be done (at all), and another to say that it is worth doing.”

For Chappell, epiphanies suggest a certain image of the moral life—one that puts stillness and receptivity, rather than activity, at the heart of things. Values might live alongside us, but as with a state of grace, there is no sure road or recipe by which we might arrive at them. Instead, we must “still the house,” wait, and hope. Perhaps Chappell is right that we should let the world call out to us, rather than always reaching ourselves out into it. But epiphanies can’t do all the work she asks of them.

Careful attention to epiphanies, she argues, speaks against a range of tendencies within moral philosophy. For example, she takes the phenomenology of epiphanies to speak against a familiar picture of moral motivation developed by David Hume. The Humean view has it that facts, by themselves, are “motivationally dead”—a fact can motivate only in the presence of a complementary desire. Suppose that I just handed you a gin and tonic. That fact on its own, says the Humean, can’t motivate you to take a sip. For the fact to come to life, motivationally speaking, it needs to be paired with a desire for a drink.

Why think that epiphanies make trouble for the Humean? Chappell gives the following example. Suppose that you, a meat-eater, read a vivid account of the suffering of turkeys in the slaughterhouse. You have an epiphany: you are overwhelmed by the reality of the turkey’s pain. Eating one becomes unthinkable. It is when people “realize the facts about turkey farms,” Chappell writes, “that they find themselves morally obliged to stop eating turkey.” It is, she claims, “precisely knowing the facts that makes the decisive motivational difference.”

But no Humean claims that learning a new fact never makes a motivational difference. When Oedipus learns that Jocasta is his mother, he becomes less motivated to have sex with her, but learning that fact makes a motivational difference, claims the Humean, only because Oedipus has a standing desire to avoid incestuous relations. Similarly, the Humean will say, learning that slaughtered turkeys suffer makes a motivational difference—when it does—only because it is paired with a standing desire not to cause or be complicit in terrible suffering. For someone with no such desire—someone like Patrick Bateman, perhaps—learning about the turkeys will make no motivational difference at all. (Chappell acknowledges that she may not have “a knock-down decisive argument” and that Humeans “can . . . talk their way out of this corner given sufficient argumentative ingenuity.” But the Humean’s response is hardly ingenious—it is natural, even obvious.)

Chappell’s main target is not the Humean, but what she sees as a far broader tendency in moral philosophy: a tendency toward systematicity. Moral philosophers are, by and large, engaged in what Chappell calls the “game” of theory-building. They seek to articulate general principles by which one might live and act (“Act so as to maximise pleasure,” “Do not lie,” “Permit inequalities only when they benefit the worst-off”) and to counter-example others’ favored principles (“Suppose you are sheltering a Jewish family and a Nazi knocks on your door. . . .”). Chappell worries that this “game”—which, full disclosure, I rather enjoy—makes little contact with the actual substance of our moral lives. We live, she says, by our visions, not by our arguments.

Moral philosophers might overestimate the significance of argument. Chappell, I suspect, underestimates it: she has a tendency to read a prophetic sensitivity into the most bureaucratic of exchanges. “On his own account,” she writes, “it sounds like even the arch-moral-theorist Peter Singer may have become a vegetarian . . . because of something like an epiphany.” But what Singer actually describes sounds rather dry: he had a lot of conversations with some friends. They persuaded him that eating meat was wrong. Perhaps Singer has deliberately drained these exchanges of their emotional charge; perhaps he is hiding, even from himself, the role played in his conversion by, say, pity. But why not take his account at face value? My own moral life has been shaped, at least at times, by cool argumentation—I’ve had my mind changed about abortion and about socialism without ever falling to my knees. Chappell claims to be interested in the real, lived texture of moral life; she says she wants to free us from the “grip” of an artificial picture. But Chappell is in the grip of her own picture.

Ethics is always on the cusp of politics; its questions cannot always be asked in the first person.

In the place of system-building, Chappell proposes “a sharpened and self-critical capacity for moral perception . . . together with a wide, sympathetic, and humane awareness of the sheer variety of things that can come up in our moral experience.” Moral philosophy, she claims, should be less like the law and more like art criticism. Where the law provides an authoritative set of rules, art criticism pays careful attention to particulars and gives us suggestions as to how to view them. This analogy to aesthetics does not imply that there is no such thing as “getting it right” in ethics—my way of looking at a painting might be callow, or self-indulgent, or downright silly. But it is to endorse a lavish pluralism. For Chappell, moral theories stand to the world as high noon and twilight to a landscape. A “theory offered in this spirit makes no claim to be . . . the one uniquely correct limning . . . of moral reality,” she concludes.

No one should argue against sharpening our capacity for “moral perception” or against “humane awareness.” The exhortation to be “self-critical” is a different matter: Murdoch contends in her 1970 collection on moral philosophy, The Sovereignty of Good, that we place too much stock in self-examination. What matters for Murdoch is being open to the world, not critically examining our own selves—an activity, she says, that we tend to find too interesting. Chappell’s own conception of the “givenness” of epiphanies—their coming from the outside, rather than from within—would also seem to point away from the business of self-criticism, rather than toward it. Moreover, her guiding disciplines—the law, art criticism—are understood tendentiously. Chappell claims, for example, that the law must provide a “determinate and decisive” answer to every question put to the courts. But the law is not an algorithm; it is full of unsettledness, of openness-to-interpretation. And art criticism, for its part, may be perfectly didactic. Take T. J. Clark, writing about Picasso’s Guernica:

What marks Guernica off from most other murals of its giant size is the fact that it registers so powerfully as a single scene. Certainly it is patched together out of fragments, episodes, spotlit silhouettes. Part of its agony is disconnectedness—the isolation that terror is meant to enforce. But this disconnectedness is drawn together into a unity: Guernica does not unwind like a scroll or fold out like a strip cartoon (for all its nods to both idioms); it is not a procession of separate icons; it is a picture—a distinct shape of space—whose coherence is felt immediately by the viewer for all its strangeness.

Clark is not just “making suggestions.” His claims have a force that goes beyond mere invitation. He is telling us how the painting works, and telling us what he takes to be the truth.

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Am I being captious? An image might be highly stylized and yet (and thus!) make for a helpful emblem. So suppose we grant Chappell her model of art criticism. Can it guide us in ethics? Perhaps, within limits: goodness is not, after all, beauty. Insofar as art criticism can be gentle—suggestive rather than prescriptive—it may be because the stakes are relatively low. There are aesthetic atrocities, yes, but George Bush’s pet portraits are not the Iraq War. And taste in art can be private in a way that taste in ethics never can be.

Chappell’s phenomenological ethics, then, may be a welcome corrective to the moral philosophy written for automata, to ethics that is more interested in axiomatic deduction than the experience of hope or fear or pity. But our separate perceptions and experiences are not the whole story. Indeed, the phrase “personal ethics” shades into oxymoron. Ethics is always on the cusp of politics; its questions cannot always be asked in the first person. They are questions about how I should live with and alongside others—not how I should live, but how we should live.

Chappell does not deny the reality of ethical disagreement. We might live by our visions, she acknowledges, but “different people live by different visions; and those visions point them in different directions.” One might worry that this very diversity shows epiphanies to be epistemically disreputable. But, Chappell replies, arguments also point in different directions—and we don’t find all arguments suspicious. Similarly, one might think that because epiphanies point in different directions, we need a systematic moral theory to adjudicate between them. Again, Chappell is unimpressed: the idea that theory is better than experience at settling disagreement is fanciful—just sit through any moral philosophy seminar!

Chappell’s proposal for managing disagreement is what she calls “a republic of conversation.” We should explore together our various epiphanies. Only extremists—those whose epiphanies preclude such conversation—will be excluded. This, of course, is textbook political liberalism. As such, it inherits much of the dreamy unreality characteristic of liberal visions of collective life. There are particular agents with their private projects. Sometimes those agents come together. When they do, their conduct is governed only by the thinnest of requirements: be tolerant, be respectful.

Arguments can be challenged, rather than merely traded, in a way that visions cannot.

This is a fantasy. Our collective lives are always governed by a thicket of normatively structured institutions—institutions that orient us to a particular conception of the good. Marriage, for example, is not neutral; it encodes a certain picture of how a life should go—a picture on which sexual-cum-romantic relationships matter more than friendships, and a picture on which those sexual-cum-romantic relationships should be monogamous. Arguably, it is just these thickets which enable conversation. Meaningful discourse requires an interpersonal infrastructure, which cannot be laid in a normative vacuum; it needs some lifeworld to bed into. But it seems to be within just such a vacuum—all moral content thicker than civility pumped out—that Chappell proposes we converse.

Once we start thinking of ethics as a social technology, systematicity and argument take on a different hue. It’s hard to be all that piecemeal or poetic when thinking about how to organize social institutions. We may live by our visions, but they can’t write our social policy. And some of us are doomed to live within a moral order that we disavow. This, I am inclined to think, is an unavoidable feature of human life: there could not be a form of life both neutral and meaningfully collective.

But if we can’t be neutral, we should at least be articulate. In other words, you owe me an argument. The vision of the good life that our social institutions encode should be explicit and contestable. And to be explicit and contestable—well, that sounds a lot like the law, and less like art criticism (at least as Chappell conceives it). Arguments can be challenged, rather than merely traded, in a way that visions cannot. To suggest that I might try looking at things like this might be enough if you are, say, trying to warm me up to Rothko. But politics is not a conversation with friends as to which pictures should hang in my home.

Epiphanies, then, can’t displace either Humeanism or moral theory quite as Chappell wants. But they can, perhaps, shed light on our human condition in other ways. Perhaps, for example, they can help us understand what it is to fall in love. This returns us to Emma Woodhouse.

Emma’s realization that she loves Knightley is a slightly awkward fit for Chappell’s way of thinking about epiphanies. For Chappell, disclosures of value are at the core of the epiphanic. But when Emma realizes that she is in love with Knightley, it does not seem that there is any value that is newly manifest to her. Rather, Emma has an epiphany because she comes, all in a flash, to see herself more clearly: she realizes “how much of her happiness depended on being first with Mr. Knightley, first in interest and affection.” Epiphanies in the wild, then, have an epistemic aspect that Chappell’s being-towards-ethics threatens to cloud over. An epiphany is a matter of—suddenly—coming to know something. Values—the beauty of birdsong, the “matteringness” of a turkey—are one thing that we might come to know in a moment of epiphanic ecstasy. But an epiphany might also be had in my coming to know the shape of a molecule, or the shape of my own heart.

Chappell’s favored example of a romantic epiphany comes from Dante rather than Austen. As Chappell tells us:

Dante was not yet 9 years old when, in the streets of Florence in about the year 1274, he first saw Beatrice . . . herself a girl of only just 8 at the time. When he first saw her he cried out to himself Apparuit iam beatitudo vestra, ‘Now has your happiness has appeared’. . . . The moment was epiphanic. . . . it was . . . the beginning of . . . a new life. . . . [Dante] shaped the rest of his life and all of his art around his romantic devotion to her.

The example is peculiar, and not just because Dante and Beatrice were both children when they met. As Chappell points out, Dante “doesn’t seem to have spoken to Beatrice or even seen her more than a handful of times during her rather brief lifetime.” What Chappell calls Dante’s “distant adoration” of Beatrice seems, then, not really to have been about Beatrice: of his first encounter with her, Dante wrote, “from that time on, my spirit was ruled over by Love,” not that his spirit was ruled over by Beatrice. Nonetheless, Chappell insists, Dante’s feelings for Beatrice really were those of romantic love, not mere obsession or fantasy.

We are a long way from Austen. For Austen, the virtues of real love are always twinned with those of truthfulness: to love someone means seeing them as they really are. Chappell does consider this line, but only to dismiss it:

We might suggest that when I fall in love with you, then I see your real value. . . . For sure, there is something rather engaging about the idea that, if we loved each person as much as their value merits, then we would be in love with each and every one of them. But when someone is in love with you, he—notoriously—is prone not just to idealize but to idolize you. It is not so much that he sees you especially clearly, as that he fails to see you clearly, or at all. He is blind to your faults. . . . romantic love . . . necessarily involves . . . a special kind of refusal: namely to see the flaws in someone whom one loves—and to see the merits in somebody else whom one does not love.

There are two different arguments here, running in parallel. The first is an appeal to adage: love is blind. This conceit, I am inclined to think, is simply nonsense: it confuses love with infatuation. Knightley loves Emma, but he loves her by seeing her imperfections whilst hoping and working for her improvement. My husband loves me, but part of his love for me comes in his patient criticism of my flaws. (I am careless, selfish, obsessive, impatient.) The second argument—that love essentially involves partiality—is more interesting, but nonetheless mistaken. I agree with Chappell that one cannot love everyone. But this observation does not rebut the thought that love involves seeing real value. What it rebuts is the converse: that to see someone’s true value one must love them.

Chappell is unbothered by such niceties. Instead, she quotes French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain with approval: “Beatrice [became] a constellation of supreme spiritual lights. . . . because everything revealed to Dante in the night of poetic knowledge was revealed to him in and through his love for her.” Chappell elaborates: to love, she argues, is to “make touch with symbolic realities.”

One does rather wonder how Beatrice herself felt about being Dante’s prosthesis; nonetheless, there is a heavy beauty to Chappell’s treatment of symbols, which she distinguishes from signs. In a system of signs, “everything . . . has a single and quite definite . . . meaning, which cashes out in its mechanical interactions.” Symbols, by contrast—the mother would be one example—are polysemous and indefinite, store-houses for psychic energies which resist neat explication. To get a symbolic reality properly in view would be to see the categories that structure our experience—it would be something like seeing squareness or whiteness, rather than just particular squares or particular white things.

Epiphanies can’t displace moral theory quite as Chappell wants. But they can shed light on our human condition in other ways.

But there’s something paradoxical in the idea of experiencing the structures that underlie experience. If we can get a hold of them at all, it must be in some indirect fashion—which is to say, precisely not by experiencing them. This, for Chappell, is where both love and art come in. Good art discloses the symbolic order by exemplifying it. In a work of art, indefinite polysemy is given a concrete expression. This understanding of art contrasts sharply with views on which at least one job of art is precisely to give form to the formless—as Audre Lorde puts it, to “give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”

As Chappell is well aware, the idea that love is a “way in” to deeper realities is terribly Platonic. For Plato, erotic love is a low rung on the ladder to wisdom; the beloved’s beauty is an occasion to realize the beauty of the world as a whole. Similarly, Dante need not see Beatrice as she really is any more than the rungs of a ladder need to be polished: the rungs need only hold our weight as we climb higher, and Dante’s infatuation with Beatrice need only give him the experience of being in love. Chappell’s expression of the idea makes for the most striking passage of the book: there could, she writes, “be something jaw-dropping about the experience of actually flying, of hurtling at high speed across a particular landscape, without there being anything very special about the landscape itself.”

Certainly, the experience of love—even unrequited love—can be sumptuous, what C. S. Lewis calls “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” But Chappell’s thoughts are not along these lines. Love’s value, for her, is not in any sense hedonic. What, then, is its value? The symbolic realities it bonds us with are not Plato’s forms, despite Chappell winking in that direction. They are human artifacts. Her idea is that love is a heavily storied stratum of human experience, a hallway down which many have walked and hung their pictures. The experience of love matters because it allows us, too, to walk down this hallway and look at its pictures. It unites us with others not because it unites us with the beloved, but because it makes legible love’s icons.

A helpful comparison might be with worship. I was brought up by cheerfully irreligious parents, but I attended church, sporadically, with my devoutly Catholic grandmother. The church we attended was small, with a cheap, shiny interior. Nevertheless, its solemn theater had a powerful effect on me. I wanted, very badly, to kneel before the priest and take communion; I was terribly jealous of my cousins, who could recite their catechism. The rituals gave out a deep hum against which my own form of life felt flimsy, a polaroid clipped onto a heavy tapestry. But despite the ache inside me for its symbols, I never became a Catholic. I could only ever feel a kind of nostalgic longing for religious belief, never the stirrings of the thing itself.

An unbeliever desperate for symbolic density might go in for hymns and thuribles, of course. But would this be a way to access value? Or would it be a self-deceiving sentimentality? In Philip Larkin’s poem “Church Going,” a ruminant atheist visits an unremarkable church. He wonders who the last visitors to the church will be:

one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?

Without a God to anchor them, the symbolic trappings of Christianity become mere fetish-objects. For it to be worthwhile to be ushered into an order of icons—well, that depends on whether those icons point to something other than themselves. And as it is with religion, so it is with romantic love. Its symbols matter when they offer us a “road right out of the self,” when they give us access to that most difficult of truths: the reality of another person. To value the symbols themselves is a kind of idolatry. And it is idolatry, precisely, of which Dante is guilty in his adoration of Beatrice. Austen offers us something quite different. Not only is Knightley’s admiration for Emma not idolatrous, Emma’s own moral progress—ceasing to cast Harriet Smith as a character in a romance novel—is a matter of her learning to take symbols with a pinch of salt.

Larkin ends “Church Going” by sketching a more honest mode of engagement with a Christian heritage. The poem moves from the church—a “frowsty barn”—to the church graveyard, where “so many dead lie round.” To be a modern subject is to feel a kind of loss, to know that the symbolic orders by which our ancestors lived are, in some important sense, not open to us. We cannot tap—to use one of Chappell’s loveliest phrases—their “reservoirs of meaning.” Chappell disagrees: she drills down into the wells; she drinks long draughts from them. But then, unlike me, Chappell is a Christian; her world still flickers with enchantments.

It is with God, perhaps, that we get to the heart of why philosophers have had so little to say about epiphanies. “Epiphany” names a Christian feast; the word fizzes with religious energy. It is not just that philosophy has become a determinedly secular affair, wrinkling its nose at anything that smells of spirituality. It is that knowledge, as philosophers see it today, works like a wage—a worldly good, something earned in exchange for native wit and skilled labor. It is thus figured as something quite different from—less brutal than—love. Love can never be earned or owed, no matter how hard one works. It is a fabulous, extravagant gift. And it can always—a bitter truth—be withheld.

Epiphanies, too, cannot be extracted from the world; as Chappell points out, they can only be quietly waited for. They share with love its dazzling unfairness: they, too, can be withheld. In place of actuarial disenchantment, they conjure an epistemology that is fey and fickle—in which knowledge becomes, like love, a state of grace.