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Powers of Distinction

On Religion and Modernity

In this major new work, philosopher of religion Nancy Levene examines the elemental character of religion and modernity. Deep in their operating systems, she argues, are dualisms of opposition and identity that cannot be reconciled with the forms of life they ostensibly support. These dualisms are dead ends, but they conceal a richer position—another kind of dualism constitutive of mutual relation. This dualism is difficult to distinguish and its concept of relation difficult to commit to. It risks contention and even violence. But it is also the indispensable support for modernity’s most innovative ideals: democracy, criticism, and interpretation.
In readings from Abraham to the present, Levene recovers this richer dualism in its difference from the alternatives—other dualisms, nondualism, multiplication. From Abraham we get the biblical call to give up tribal belonging for a promised land of covenantal relation. Yet modernity, inclusive of this call, is also the principle that critiques the promise when it divides self from other, us from them.

Drawing on a long tradition of thinkers and scholars even as she breaks new ground, Levene offers here nothing less than a new way of understanding modernity as an ethical claim about our world, a philosophy of the powers of distinction to include rather than to divide.

304 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2017

History: History of Ideas

Philosophy: Philosophy of Religion

Religion: Philosophy of Religion, Theology, and Ethics


“Abraham is modern, Plato is not: this is the seemingly paradoxical position carefully argued for in Levene’s fine book, where she transforms received ideas about religion and modernity, with the help of erudite and elegant readings. Key to her demonstration is a new understanding of history: not the realization of a promise, but the injunction to leave for the other’s land. This is immensely helpful when postsecular ideologies struggle with their own confusion, calling for a new beginning of critique.”

Etienne Balibar

Powers of Distinction can be understood as a major contribution to what has been called post-secularism, a field often taken as the study of the afterlife of religion in fundamentally secular western modernity. But for Levene, the religious and the secular in modernity are not self-sufficient and opposed propositions; in fact, the belief in the opposition of those ideas, whether in favor of the religious or the secular, is what modernity, in Levene’s sense, refuses. This book will be of greatest interest to scholars and students of religion, but by no means will it be limited to people working in ‘religious studies,’ a category that is indeed fundamentally redefined here.”

Kenneth Reinhard, University of California, Los Angeles

"...the most important work in the study of religion in at least a generation. Hopefully in the decades to come, it will be broadly acknowledged as a classic."

Martin Kavka | Journal of the American Academy of Religion

“This is an audacious and impressive book, whose bold readings of canonical figures – Anselm, Spinoza, Vico, Kant, and others – are located in an intellectual framework where central terms – religion, history, truth, God – are themselves subject to review. That this book is engaging and illuminating, despite divesting with stable terrain, is testament to Levene’s intellectual agility and insight. . . . Levene’s book is striking and persuasive; its greatest strength is to render freshly compelling the renewal of modernity, a project which is necessary, impossible, and ‘never complete.’”

Danielle Sands | Religious Studies

"...a wonderful book to think with...[Powers of Distinction is] an ambitious book, offering accounts of modernity, religion, and history among other things."

Theodore M. Vial | Journal for the History of Modern Theology

Table of Contents

1 The Principle of Modernity
2 A History of Religion
3 Artificial Populations
4 The Collective
5 Images of Truth from Anselm to Badiou
6 The Radical Enlightenment of Spinoza and Kant
7 Modernity as Ground Zero
8 Of Gods, Laws, Rabbis, and Ends



American Academy of Religion: AAR Award for Excellence - Constructive-Reflective Studies

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