Heidegger Meets Madison

Ronald A. Lindsay

Masters of Illusion: The Supreme Court and the Religion Clauses, by Frank S. Ravitch (New York: New York University Press 2007, ISBN 978-0-8147-7585-1) 241 pp. Cloth $45.00.


Even those who have read dozens of books on the meaning of the religion clauses of the First Amendment have probably never encountered a sentence such as this: “I reject the notion that religious autonomy is possible in relevant constitutional contexts due to the nature of human beings—our dasein, or being in the world.” Dasein, for those of you who have been spared the questionable pleasure of wading through Being and Time, was a concept invented by German existentialist Martin Heidegger and adopted by later practitioners of continental philosophy. Frank Ravitch, a professor at Michigan State University College of Law, believes that legal analysis can profit from some of the methodologies embraced by continental philosophers. Mercifully, he focuses on the philosophical hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer, who is no match for Heidegger in obscurity. Moreover—and somewhat surprisingly—Ravitch is actually successful in using hermeneutics to criticize some of the widely accepted principles of First Amendment interpretation and to advance our understanding of constitutional jurisprudence. Make no mistake about it: Masters of Illusion: The Supreme Court and the Religion Clauses can be tough going at times. Unless you’re a lawyer, a philosopher, or someone with a keen interest in church-state relations, this book may not be for you. However, those who are willing to struggle with its occasionally dense prose will find that Ravitch offers an interesting perspective.

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