Paul Katsafanas, "Philosophy of Devotion: The Longing for Invulnerable Ideals" (Oxford UP, 2022)


Why do some of our identity-defining commitments resist reason and critical reflection, and why do we persist in them even when they threaten our happiness, safety, and comfort?

Paul Katsafanas argues in his book Philosophy of Devotion:The Longing for Invulnerable Ideals (Oxford UP, 2023) that these commitments involve an ethical stance that he calls devotion to sacred ideas. 

A sacred value is one that we cannot trade with ordinary values, or even consider trading off. When a value is sacred, no rational considerations will disrupt commitment to it. Philosophy of Devotion offers a detailed philosophical account and defense of these features both reasonable and unreasonable, beneficial and detrimental. Katsafanas explains that a life with meaningful commitments is richer and more meaningful than a life without deep, sustained commitments. 

At the same time, that same devotion can deform into forms of individual and group fanaticism that can be alienating, extremist, and violent. This fanaticism is driven by feelings of persecution and threat to a fragile self, and exacerbated by feelings of ressentiment, a growing anger and resentment of opposition that becomes self-perpetuating.   

In this book Katsafanas also provides an alternative to fanaticism, a way to express non-pathological forms of devotion. With this approach, individuals can avoid the dangers of fanaticism on the one hand and an empty lack of meaning on the other. This perpetual quest requires maintaining a form of existential flexibility, which may include oscillation between affirming these sacred values and deepening understanding through consideration of challenging questions. 

Recommended reading: The True Believer by Eric Hoffer

Meghan Cochran studies belief and action as a technologist working in customer experience and as a student of religion, business, and literature.

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Meghan Cochran

Meghan Cochran studies human systems of belief, both as a technologist and as a student of religion, business, and literature.
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