Faith, Hope and Love as Virtues in Modernity


Our 2017 end of year conference, ‘Faith, Hope and Love as Virtues in Modernity’ took place at Senate House, London on Friday and Saturday 23rd – 24th of June, 2017.

For Aquinas, faith, hope and love (caritas) form a distinct set of virtues: the theological virtues. Since Aquinas, the idea of the theological virtues has come under sustained attack: both from within Christian thought, not least from the early Reformers, and then as part of the general challenge on Christendom associated with the European Enlightenment and from thinkers such as Spinoza and Nietzsche. This conference explored how the theological virtues have fared in modernity, in the wake of these challenges.


  • David Cerbone (West Virginia University )
  • Sebastian Gardner (University College London)
  • Sean Kelly (Harvard University)
  • Stephen Mulhall (University of Oxford)
  • Michelle Kosch (Cornell University)
  • Peter Poellner (University of Warwick)
  • Daniel Watts (University of Essex)


Day 1

09.00 – 09.30: Registration and Welcome (tea and coffee)
09.30 – 11.00: Stephen Mulhall: ‘A Savour of Holiness Groping for Expression’: Perfectionism, Irony and the Theological Virtues.
11.00 – 11.15: Break (tea and coffee)
11.15 – 12.45: Sebastian Gardner: Faith and Hope: The Kantian Vindication.
12.45 – 13.45: Lunch
13.45 – 15.15: Daniel Watts: The Idea of the Theological Virtues.
15.15 – 15.30: Break (tea and coffee)
15.30 – 17.00: Michelle Kosch: Effort, Inability and Faith in Kierkegaard’s ‘Postscript’

Day 2

10.00 – 10.30: Registration and Welcome (tea and coffee)
10.30 – 12.00: David Cerbone: Radical Hopelessness:  Reflections on Camus’s Sisyphean Ideal.
12.00 – 13.00: Lunch
13.00 – 14:30: Peter Poellner: Scheler and Musil on “Authentic Love”.
14.30 – 14.45: Break (tea and coffee)
14.45 – 16.15: Sean Kelly: Perversions of Love.


David R. Cerbone is Professor of Philosophy at West Virginia University.  He is the author of Understanding Phenomenology (Acumen, 2006), Heidegger:  A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum, 2008), and Existentialism:  All That Matters (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015), as well as numerous articles on Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and the phenomenological tradition.  He is also the editor (along with Søren Overgaard and Komarine Romdenh-Romluc) of the Routledge Research in Phenomenology series.

Sebastian Gardner is Professor of Philosophy at UCL. He has published a commentary on the Critique of Pure Reason and papers on Kant, German Idealism, and C19 philosophy. A collection on the history of transcendental philosophy, co-edited with Matthew Grist, The Transcendental Turn, appeared with OUP in 2015. His main research interests at present focus on the legacy of Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgement.

Sean Dorrance Kelly is the Theresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University and Faculty Dean of Dunster House. He served as Chair of the Philosophy Department at Harvard from 2009-2015. Before arriving at Harvard, Kelly taught at Stanford and Princeton, and he was a Visiting Professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Kelly has published articles in numerous journals and anthologies and has received fellowships or awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEH, the NSF and the James S. McDonnell Foundation, among others.  His last book, All Things Shining:  Reading the Western Canon to Find Meaning in Our Secular Age, jointly written with Hubert Dreyfus, was a New York Times bestseller.

Michelle Kosch (BA Harvard 1990; PhD Columbia 1999) is currently professor of philosophy at the Sage School of Philosophy of Cornell University. She has held appointments at the University of Michigan and the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center in Copenhagen and is the author of Freedom and Reason in Kant, Schelling and Kierkegaard (OUP 2006) and Independence of Nature in Fichte’s Ethics (OUP forthcoming).

Stephen Mulhall is Professor of Philosophy and a Tutorial Fellow of New College, Oxford. His research interests include Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre, and the relationship between philosophy, the arts and theology. His most recent book is The Great Riddle: Wittgenstein and Nonsense, Theology and Philosophy (OUP 2015).

Peter Poellner is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick. He has published on various issues arising from Nietzsche’s philosophy, on topics from classical phenomenology, on the philosophy of emotions, and on nonconceptual content.

Daniel Watts is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Essex and Co-Investigator on the project, The Ethics of Powerlessness: The Theological Virtues Today. His research focuses on Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein and the phenomenological tradition. He is the author of several articles in these areas, most recently: “Kierkegaard on Truth: One or Many?” Mind (2017); “Rule-Following and Rule-Breaking: Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein” European Journal of Philosophy (2017); and “Kierkegaard and the Limits of Thought” Hegel Bulletin (2016). He is currently writing a monograph entitled, Thinking Humanly: Kierkegaard on Subjectivity and Thought.

Titles and Abstracts

David Cerbone
This paper examines Camus’s conception of the “absurd man” in The Myth of Sisyphus as someone who possesses (or strives to possess) “a soul forever freed from hope.”  Drawing upon Wittgenstein’s scattered remarks on the phenomenon of hope and the way it might be understood as woven into “the tapestry of life,” as well as broadly Humean considerations regarding the relation between skeptical reasoning and what happens “outside the study,” I try to expose the tensions and difficulties inherent in Camus’s ideal in terms of making out just what kind of life he really envisions and recommends.  The difficulty appears to be that insofar as we can make sense of the absurd man, he is either possessed of (some forms of) hope after all (contrary to much of what Camus says) or his ideal threatens to collapse into a more ordinary form of despair that seems far from commendable.

Sebastian Gardner
Kant answers the question, ‘What can I hope?’, by offering a moral theology, which mandates a pure rational faith, the content of which is determined by what Kant calls the postulates of pure practical reason, which affirm the existence of God and personal immortality. These postulates are defined by Kant as theoretical propositions with practical grounds. The difficulties of Kant’s account were highlighted by his contemporaries, yet the notion of a practical postulate continued to play an important role in early German idealism. My discussion aims to do two, connected, things. First, I argue that the (peculiar and problematic) doxastic attitude involved in Kant’s moral faith is illuminated by setting it in the context of the theory of the intuitive intellect exposited in Section 76 of the Third Critique. Second, I suggest that this way of understanding Kantian faith is pursued in Schelling’s Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism (1795). The interest of the Kantian approach is, I further claim, not merely historical: some such systematic elucidation is required if the distinctive attitudes which define faith and hope are to be made intelligible.

Sean Kelly
The way we understand a practice to have gone wrong tells us something important about what we understand the practice to be. For Plato, for instance, it is a perversion of the practice of love to allow it to be directed towards an embodied being at all: love, eros, is properly directed at the Platonic Forms. For the early Christians, by contrast, love (usually agape, although in some cases something more like eros) is properly directed towards the physical, embodied being of Jesus Christ. In this talk we will discuss a range of different accounts of the perversions of love as they are understood in figures like Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Auden. We will ask what aspects of these interpretations of love remains recognizable and viable today.

Michelle Kosch
What do we do when the ethical task set for us is one we’re (non-accidentally) incapable of carrying out? What standards are we in a position to apply to our (necessarily doomed) efforts? The unfulfillability of the task of Christian faith on Kierkegaard’s depiction in Concluding Unscientific Postscript is an instance of a broader phenomenon to which moral philosophers have paid little attention. This paper aims to articulate a set of problems Kierkegaard raises and to make some progress toward theorizing the phenomenon from the point of view of contemporary moral psychology (and, incidentally, to understand Kierkegaard’s views on monasticism and amusement parks).

Stephen Mulhall
This paper addresses the question of whether there might be secular analogues of the theological virtues in the light of David Batho’s two Green Papers (published on the project website). Beginning with a Kierkegaardian account of the unity and structural underpinnings of Christian accounts of faith, hope and love as distinct from moral virtues more generally, it utilizes ideas from Stanley Cavell, John Stuart Mill and Jonathan Lear to develop a phenomenology of familiar moral experiences whose underlying logic points us in the direction of an essential role that might be served by secular inflections of the theological virtues in living out a full awareness of our finitude.

Peter Poellner
In the work of the phenomenologist Max Scheler (1874-1928) we find a sketchy phenomenological analysis of love as a distinctive kind of mental act, a “movement” of consciousness through which “a concrete individual object” is presented as “attain[ing] the highest [positive] values that are possible for it”. Of particular interest is his analysis of what he calls “authentic love”, which is closely connected with his thinking about the sacred, the latter understood in broadly Husserlian fashion as a phenomenological datum that can be explicated without metaphysical commitments. While Scheler’s analysis is suggestive, it is also elusive. I shall argue that we can interpret Robert Musil’s reflections on love in The Man without Qualities as an attempt to develop in greater detail an account of the phenomenon of “authentic love” in Schelerian spirit. For Musil, this phenomenon is central to an adequate ethics.

Daniel Watts
The traditional doctrine of the theological virtues holds that faith, hope and love are virtues of a special kind. Being divine gifts, and directed towards our supernatural telos, these virtues differ in kind from those on the classical lists, not least the ones Aquinas called ‘cardinal’. This doctrine gives rise prima facie to a dilemma. Either the theological virtues are capable of being exercised through human agency, in which case they do not in this respect differ in kind from those on the classical lists – or they are incapable of being exercised through human agency, in which case they are not really human virtues. In this paper, I chart possible responses to this dilemma and advance what I call a non-theological solution to the problem it articulates. Developing Alasdair MacIntyre’s notion of ‘virtues of acknowledged dependence’, I argue that there is a cogent way of thinking of faith, hope and love as virtues of a kind, without recourse to Aquinas’ account of human teleology or to any special theory of divine agency. On the approach I develop, faith, hope and love are virtues of a kind because of the way in which they express the distinctive kind of agency that is involved in owning up to our human dependence and vulnerability. My overall aim is to show that ethicists still have much to learn from the idea of the theological virtues, even if they do not accept the Thomistic framework in which this idea is traditionally advanced.


The conference is taking place in the Woburn Suite at Senate House.

You can find directions to this location here or on Google Maps using the postcode WC1E 7HU.


Spaces are strictly limited.

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