The Ways of the World

Thomas Arnold & Tobias Keiling

Fields of Sense. A New Realist Ontology Book Cover Fields of Sense. A New Realist Ontology
Speculative Realism
Markus Gabriel
Edinburgh University Press
Paperback £19.99

Reviewed by: Thomas Arnold (University of Heidelberg) and Tobias Keiling (University of Freiburg)

The world has always been a key topic for phenomenologists.[i] Any book claiming to prove its non-existence is therefore worthy of phenomenological attention. Since others have provided a general review of Gabriel’s book,[ii] we will instead aim to engage in a discussion of two substantive points in Gabriel’s so-called “New Realism” from the perspective of what can broadly be called phenomenological philosophy.[iii] Zahavi has recently presented a thorough (and convincing) criticism of a number of positions self-identifying as “Speculative Realism” or “New Realism”.[iv] Gabriel’s is not among them, although it is, in our judgment, the position that most deserves a closer look.

We will take at least a first one: firstly we will try to shed light on the relation between phenomenology, metaphysics, and ontology by considering phenomenological accounts of these matters. Secondly we will discuss how phenomenological theories anticipate Gabriel’s No-World-View by conceiving of the world in ways that avoid the ontotheological pitfalls Gabriel highlights.

Phenomenology, Metaphysics and Ontology

Gabriel posits a twofold relation between New Realism and phenomenology, one antagonistic, one co-operational. Husserlian phenomenology as he sees it is in conflict with his New Realism since Gabriel conceives of Husserlian phenomenology as a brand of metaphysics. “Metaphysics” in Gabriel’s terminology denotes a theory of everything, of totality, of the absolute or of the world, understood as the ultimate unity or the fundamental whole; it is, in short, what Heidegger calls “ontotheology” (23); ontology, in contrast, is a theory of existence and objectuality. We will use the same terminology. Gabriel now brands Husserl a metaphysician for two reasons, namely for positing the world as “ultimate horizon” (6) and thereby committing to a theory of totality; and for looking for a “point where we have to stop” (22), i.e. an absolute fundament which Husserl is said to find in the transcendental Ego.

Whether Husserl’s notion(s) of the world really deserves the label “metaphysical” remains to be seen in the second section, but regarding the latter charge we tend to agree with Gabriel. Even though nature, structure and function of Husserl’s transcendental Ego are still a matter of debate and research, it is hard to deny that Husserl exhibits ontotheological tendencies by repeatedly positing transcendental subjectivity as the absolute or ultimate ground (akin to the early Fichte) on several occasions – even though his idea of phenomenology as a critical undertaking of responsible thinkers would actually seem to exclude this move (Tugendhat 1967, 195). Gabriel correctly identifies the problem with this idea as one arising from the epistemological privilege granted to first-person givenness as fundamental (the “point where we have to stop”), motivating Husserl to understand the transcendental as consciousness of myself as an Ego, which is in turn illicitly granted ontological privilege. In light of these Cartesian (foundationalist and subjectivist) tendencies, Husserl may well be classified as a metaphysician. It is however equally possible to find decidedly anti-idealist and anti-ontotheological strands of thinking in Husserl. László Tengelyi’s last book is an eminent example of this (Tengelyi 2014), as is John Drummond’s work on the status of the noema (Drummond 1990). Indeed, the Cartesian trouble with Husserl has also already motivated post-Husserlian phenomenology to for the most part reject or re-interpret Husserl’s absolute subjectivity. Sartre for example paradoxically speaks of the subject as a “dependent”, “non-substantial absolute” (Sartre 1943, 713).

Already on an exegetical level then, the phenomenological tradition would have deserved a closer look. Thus it is very doubtful whether the metaphysical charge still holds regarding post-Husserlian phenomenology. Heidegger, for instance, is explicit in his criticism of Husserl’s illicit Cartesian move. This criticism not only dismisses the epistemological privilege of the first person by reconceiving it as eminently practical, world-embedded and finite, decisively modifying the phenomenological account of subjectivity vis-à-vis the transcendental subjectivity of Ideas I. More fundamentally, Heidegger’s account of ontology as understanding being qua being of entities – among which the subject is only one – is oriented not towards subjects but towards objects (things) as exemplary case of existence. In later Heidegger in particular, senses of being are equivalent to “interpretations of the thingness of the thing” (Heidegger 2003 (GA 5), 7). This not only sounds realistic, it presents a genuine phenomenological realism.[v]

Gabriel is at least in part aware of how close his own position is to some strands of the phenomenological movement. Regarding a non-metaphysical, i.e. non-foundationalist phenomenology, Gabriel proposes a division of labour between phenomenology and ontology: ontology in Gabriel’s sense “is the systematic investigation into the meaning of ‘existence’, or rather investigation of existence itself aided by insight into the meaning of ‘existence’” (5), whereas phenomenology could potentially take the role of “an overall theory of error and its manifold forms” (21), alongside psychoanalysis. While Husserl and Heidegger can be taken to both present error-theories of sorts (namely how naturalism comes about and how European thought has become forgetful of Being), it remains unclear why the link between phenomenology and ontology should be severed in the first place. For while we find different ways of thinking about the relation between ontology and phenomenology within the phenomenological tradition, no phenomenologist separates them completely, as Gabriel’s division of labour presupposes.

Husserl for instance distinguishes but doesn’t separate ontology and phenomenology: ontology is a straightforward investigation of the fundamental or formal properties of objects and the structures of the world itself, phenomenology deals with the laws of transcendental constitution. For Husserl this implies an asymmetrical relation between the two insofar as ontology as a static theory of being needs to be recast as a genetic transcendental theory of constitution, since, according to Husserl, we can only understand what existence is once we understand how it is constituted by transcendental (inter-)subjectivity (Husserl 1971 (Hua V), 129). A “concrete ontology” (Husserl 1959 (Hua VIII), 214), encompassing all a priori noetic-noematic correlations, can therefore be only a “transcendental ontology” (Husserl 1959 (Hua VIII), 212). So while a non-transcendental ontology is possible – and actual in the form of mathematics, mereology or a formal theory of objects – it is necessarily one-sided (Husserl 1959 (Hua VIII), 224). Such ontologies are therefore to be reformulated using the phenomenological method, resulting in a genuinely phenomenological ontology unified by phenomenological method.

Heidegger on the other hand takes phenomenology to be simply the way to do ontology (Heidegger 1977 (GA 2), 36), as all non-phenomenological ontology fails to even obtain its topic. Only destructing the history of metaphysics, foregoing errant theorizing and going back to the ‘things themselves’ can bring out the meaning of existence. This is what a “phenomenological interpretation” of the history of philosophy is supposed to achieve. The hermeneutical task of philosophy thus has a phenomenological purpose and, ultimately, an ontological aim.[vi] As addressing the question of being (existence) is philosophy’s paramount task and phenomenology the way to reach this end, ontology and phenomenology are but two sides of the same.

Sartre, to name just one other thinker from the phenomenological tradition, builds on this idea, in some sense subverting the Husserlian priority of phenomenology: phenomenological description allows a regressive analysis leading towards the ontological structures necessary for the kinds of phenomena described (Sartre 1943, 83). This option corresponds to Gabriel’s own (earlier) definition of “transcendental ontology” as the investigation into “the ontological conditions of our conditions of access to what there is” (Gabriel 2011, ix), i.e. into a subset of transcendental conditions that obtain in experience. In Gabriel’s work under review, however, ontology seems to be first philosophy, without any form of transcendentalism involved.

Husserl, Heidegger and Sartre (among others) offer very different takes on the exact relationship between phenomenology and ontology (foundation, identity, facilitation). Yet on no account can a complete ontology be accomplished without phenomenology and on no account are the ontological questions “what is existence?”, “what is an object?” or “(what) is the world?” excluded from the set of problems to be answerable by a phenomenological philosophy. As Günter Figal has argued, Heidegger’s understanding of phenomenology is even (unduly) restrictive in that it concerns itself with the meaning of existence only, neglecting to give an account of phenomenological description for the sake of determining what makes phenomena possible at all. Phenomenology should try to understand the relation between an account of existence and an account of the manifestation or constitution of entities (Figal 2010). From the perspective of phenomenology, then, ontology is but phenomenology with regard to a particular topic, namely the meaning of existence. It is simply part of what can be achieved through phenomenological insight into the structure of meaning as it is experienced. Thus from the phenomenologists’ point of view, the division of labour Gabriel proposes undercuts (or ignores) the entire project of understanding existence with the manifestation of entities firmly in view, i.e. the whole idea of a phenomenological ontology.

Unfortunately, however, Gabriel doesn’t address the methodological import, the very idea of phenomenology as a way of ‘doing philosophy’. Congruent with his move away from his earlier endorsement of ontology as transcendental, Gabriel’s work under the heading of New Realism does not proceed from an analysis of experience towards ontology. Rather, Gabriel discusses and dismisses particular ontological claims by labeling them and then developing a critique of that position, including phenomenology. But if one wishes to show that phenomenology is unapt for understanding the meaning of existence, one needs to do more than distribute such labels and show in more detail why phenomenology as a method fails with regard to this particular question. And that presupposes that one makes explicit how one thinks ontology should be done, and how existence/being does relate to experience/manifestation/phenomenality.

In the welcome engagement of phenomenology with Gabriel’s realism we would like to see more discussions on the proper way of doing ontology and on how claims to descriptive plausibility or experiential givenness (intuitions) can be introduced in a controlled, philosophically justified way. If there is a “fallacy of misplaced ontological concreteness” (198), then where is the right spot to place the concreteness of experience—that Husserl famously associated with his own commitment to realism (Husserl 1994 (Hua Dok.III/7), 16) and that Heidegger sought in the experience of things in an eminent sense? Until Gabriel addresses phenomenology’s concern for concreteness, nothing in the idea of phenomenology as a method or a way of doing philosophy commits one to posit either the subject as a metaphysical absolute or the world as a metaphysical totality, as we shall now see.

The Worlds of Phenomenology

Gabriel calls his own position “only faintly phenomenological, as the goal of phenomenology is usually to ‘save the appearances’, or even to privilege the zuhanden and absorbed being-in-the-world over the mere being-there of spiders and hair. Yet, in my view, there is no monolithic domain of appearances to be saved, but manifold fields with their related appearances.” (195) It is unclear what makes the “domain of appearances” a “monolithic domain” for Gabriel. Possibly, the impression of homogeneity stems from the idea that Husserlian phenomenology sometimes equates appearance with possible experience. But be that as it may, for Gabriel, the “monolithic domain of appearances” triggers his critique of phenomenology, as it is one guise of the absolute or the world, the existence of which he so vehemently denies. “The World” for Gabriel is “any kind of unrestricted or overall totality, be it the totality of existence, the totality of what there is, the totality of objects, the whole of beings, or the totality of facts or states of affairs.” (187) It follows from Gabriel’s ontology that the world cannot exist. Here is how and why.

According to Gabriel’s definition, existence is just “the fact that some object or objects appear in a field of sense.” (158) The term “appearance” however is not supposed to indicate the involvement of any form of subjectivity. “Appearing is fairly inhuman. […] What appears comes forth; it stands apart from a certain background.” (166) These backgrounds (or contexts or domains or …) are what Gabriel calls fields of sense. “Fields are not horizons or perspectives; they are not epistemological entities […] They are an essential part of how things are in that without fields, nothing could exist.” (157) Note that taken as a description of experience, Gabriel’s account seems centered around one key intuition, namely the contrast between a background/field and an object appearing within it. But if no phenomenology (such as the experiential contrast between background and foreground) is to enter into his ontology, the challenge for Gabriel is to define objects without referring to any particular experiential setup.

Gabriel addresses this challenge by offering the following “formal theory of objects”: “an object is anything that can become the content of a truth-apt thought.” (146) Gabriel further refers to his position as an “ontological bundle descriptivism” (230, cf. 346) according to which “objects are bundles of senses or objective modes of presentation, that is to say, objects are identical with the totality of what is true about them” (231). That idea is of course familiar to phenomenologists: it matches Husserl’s definition of the (logical) object as studied by formal ontology as “subject of possible true predications” (Husserl 1976 (Hua III/1), 17). Gabriel and Husserl also agree on the fact that there “simply is no bare reference without sense” (238), i.e. that we cannot refer to/intend an object without referring to/intending it as this or that object, it is always given in some way or the other and not in another way (Husserl 1984 (Hua XIX/1), LU 1, §13; LU V, §17); for something to be manifest means for it to become manifest as part of a particular experiential context, a position developed in detail in Being and Time.

Despite the contrary implication of his terminology, Gabriel emphasises that just as “appearance” is “inhuman”, “description” is not to be understood as a linguistic activity and not as a correlative process at all. There are “visual descriptions” (19) and more generally “sensory descriptions” (20, cf. 332) — and these descriptions define objects regardless of the experiential content of these descriptions. Beneath the terminological similarities to phenomenological positions, however, Gabriel’s disregard for experiential givenness defines the decisive difference: the idea that a formal or descriptivist theory of objectuality is sufficient for ontology is probably the most contentious point of disagreement between phenomenology and Gabriel’s New Realism.

Be that as it may, the “no-world-view” follows from Gabriel’s definitions by way of a reductio ad absurdum: the world qua field of fields (or background of backgrounds or context of contexts etc.) cannot exist, since it would have to appear within a field of sense as an object in order to exist. This would then either lead into a regress of ever-bigger fields or it would engender paradoxical duplications since the world would otherwise have to appear within itself, next to all other entities which would then not only exist within the world, next to the world, but also within the world-within-the-world.

The world thus obtains a peculiar status that is most clearly defined negatively: the world is a non-object; the “world’s necessary non-existence is not a truth about an object, the world. The world is not even an object, and it absolutely does not exist.” (174) “The principle statement of the no-world-view, that the world does not exist, does not say of a particular object, the world that it does not exist. The reason for this is that ‘the world’, had it existed, would have been a very peculiar object. Had it existed, it would have been all-encompassing. Thus, it would certainly never exist in a proposition, as the proposition itself would rather exist in the world. The world, with which the proposition deals as its object, cannot be identical with the world in which the proposition exists.” (201) So “the point is that ‘the world’ has no meaning; that the term cannot refer to anything if it means what it traditionally means (the all-encompassing).” (203) The core idea of the axial age therefore turns out to have been an illusion as “there never was such an object as ‘the world’ about which one could have truth-apt thoughts.” (206)

Setting aside the worry that to think that the world doesn’t exist should be a truth-apt thought for that claim to be true (and hence be about an object in the formal but for Gabriel decisive sense), how Gabriel talks about objects and fields raises numerous questions: for instance, what is that “governing sense, as it were, that holds the various senses of an object together” (231), a notion that sounds very much like an eidos? Is it but another “truth-apt thought” or another description? What makes it “governing” and how is one then to understand the “weak form of essentialism” (231) that the no-world view entails? What is ‘essential’ here? Further, is there an identity of objects across fields? How do fields appear as objects (and not as fields)? How can fields “interact” (272) and even “merge” (172)? It is unclear how fields should be able to ‘do’ that on Gabriel’s account if “[s]ense is responsible for the individuation of fields” (131, cf. 139), and sense is the “objective mode of appearing [within that field]” (161). Again, from a phenomenological point of view, small change is needed to evaluate these ideas: would a merger of fields ‘blend’ the objective modes of appearing? How would that look like? For whom? Is “interaction” not a relation between objects? What is it like to witness an interaction of fields (in contrast to the interaction of objects)? The trouble we see is that Gabriel gives no more detailed account of these issues. In the remainder of this review we will thus focus again on what Gabriel does say a lot about, namely the matter of the world. We see no reason to dismiss that notion. Rather than a valid object of Gabriel’s criticism, we see phenomenology rather anticipate many of his ideas—without, however, therefore urging us to renounce in speaking of ‘the world’.

Husserl certainly conceives of “universal ontology” as a theory of the “total coherence or nexus (Totalzusammenhang) of everything that exists actually or possibly, of everything real and irreal” (Husserl 1974 (Hua XVII), 177), which is almost exactly the definition Gabriel gives of a metaphysical notion of world, depending on whether we consider the dichotomy real/irreal as exhaustive. We agree with Gabriel that this constitutes an unwanted remainder of ontotheology in Husserl’s work (among others). Yet to therefore abandon all notions of the world in Husserl’s writings as metaphysical would be hasty. Husserl’s famous notion of the life-world (Lebenswelt) for example, which he identifies as the “universe of pregiven self-evidence [Universum vorgegebener Selbstverständlichkeiten]” (Husserl 1954 (Hua VI), 183), is not a metaphysical concept in that the life-world is not meant to be all-encompassing; and it differs radically from the (arguably metaphysical) notion of the world he puts forth in Ideas I (Cf. Carr 1974, ch. 6). Hans Blumenberg, for instance, pointed out that the notion of the finite life-world is developed precisely in contrast to the world as a metaphysical totality and super-entity, motivating an understanding of phenomenology Blumenberg explicity labels ‘realist’ (Blumenberg 1986, 28; cf. Blumenberg 2010). László Tengelyi even reads the later Husserl as directly and strictly opposing all (ontotheological) notions of the world “as a whole in the sense of an absolute totality” (Tengelyi 2014, 299).

Heidegger in particular consistently denies object-hood as well as existence to the world. As early as 1920/21 he states that the world is something to live in, not an object (Heidegger 1995 (GA 60), 11). In Being and Time Heidegger says of the world that it is “further out” than any object might ever be, while he also denies its identification with the “totality of objects” (Heidegger 1977 (GA 2), 484). Both early and later Heidegger discuss the world not as an object but as a type of event, as a “worlding” (Welten) (Heidegger 1987 (GA 56/57), 73). The world here is not an entity but a mode of being, a “how of being” rather than a what (Heidegger 1978 (GA 26), 219).[vii] This mode of being indicates the infinity and openness of appearance, the openness of meaning rather than its closure.[viii] Only with a view to human beings and their ontological understanding, the “worlding” mode of entities forms a totality, a historical world among others.[ix]

But if Husserl and Heidegger have themselves either moved away from or consistently rejected the idea of the world as a super-entity, it is doubtful whether phenomenological notions of ‘the world’ can be targets of Gabriel’s reductio ad absurdum. And the later one looks in the history of phenomenology, the less likely this is. Werner Marx, who followed Husserl and Heidegger on the Freiburg phenomenology chair, is a case in point. Marx goes even further in Gabriel’s direction than his predecessor by dismissing the idea of the world as an “ultimate horizon” altogether, replacing it with the universality of a demand for the justification of human practice, an idea Marx associates with empathy. Marx indeed already employs the very notion of a “field of sense” (Sinnfeld) in his criticism of ontotheology. But in contrast to Gabriel’s method, which despite its self-proclaimed anarchism doesn’t provide a systematic way of proceeding from the manifestation of a particular entity to his account of existence, Marx’s approach is indeed bottom-up, as it were, beginning with ordinary language and everyday experience. This includes his treatment of the notion of the “world”, whose meaningfulness Marx never denies: “with ‘world’ we always mean, at least at first, something spatial, a space in which we perceive or into which we act, a space ‘surrounding’ us as bodily beings, a space in which the things are located together with which we live our lives, the things of nature, landscapes, mountains and oceans as well as all the objects craftsmanship and technology produce. This is the space in which we either deal with things near; but it is also the space for all those things far from us, with which we could only possibly have to deal.” (Marx 1986, 59) In Husserlian short-hand, ‘the world’ is nothing but the life-world.

Note that Marx’s is a take on the notion of the world beginning with the first-person-perspective, with an account of how objects appear and are relevant to us. But what comes into focus are not subjective achievements constituting the objects’ meaning, locating them within a super-entity encompassing everything. Rather, what presents itself to the phenomenologist are precisely “fields of sense [Sinnfelder]”, the interaction of which makes up experience, an interaction the form of which is eminently spatial for Marx. Marx emphasizes the plurality of fields of sense in the world thus described, concurring with Gabriel’s claim to a constitutive (infinite or transfinite) plurality of such fields. And exactly along Gabriel’s lines, Marx denies that these fields are portions of one “indivisible field of sense”. Rather, Marx argues, it is an ongoing philosophical task to “free us humans from this unfruitful longing” for a whole and salutary (heil) world. Instead of dismissing the notion of world completely because it can supposedly only take on the meaning of a metaphysical totality, Marx wants us to learn to “live in many worlds at once” (Marx 1986, 69). In Marx’s view, the constitutive plurality of worlds then further motivates an ethics of empathy.

This last consequence may well be a non sequitur. What results from Marx’s discussion of Sinnfelder, however, is effectively a merger of Gabriel’s ontology with an understanding of first-person-phenomenology as inherently normative. Marx’s description of the normative import of empathy is much fuzzier than recent phenomenological accounts such as Steven Crowell’s fusion of a theory of normativity with semantic externalism (Crowell 2013). By focusing on empathy Marx misplaces and restricts the source of normativity to the self’s relation to the other, an error corrected in Crowell’s broader understanding of normativity[x] and in the larger debate surrounding the normativity of perception. Nonetheless, with a view to the history of phenomenology, Marx’s essay is quite an interesting parallel to Gabriel’s work in post-Heideggerian phenomenology. It confirms that the trajectory of phenomenology as a movement is indeed gradually overcoming rather than repeating the Cartesian and the ontotheological fallacy. But it holds fast to the notion of ‘the world’, taking a no-world-view as unwarranted. Most phenomenological notions of ‘world’ are no residues of ontotheology but attempts at a phenomenological reflection and description of what we do call (our) world(s). Rather than simply giving up on the world’s existence then—and what would be at stake in this decision?—, phenomenologists should welcome a conversation with New Realism and press it to say in more detail how the no-world of fields looks like. Gabriel has given us large notes, but we need small change.


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Zahavi, Dan. “The end of what? Phenomenology vs. Speculative Realism”, International Journal of Philosophical Studies 24 (2016), pp. 289-309.

[i]            Cf. recently László Tengelyi. 2014. Welt und Unendlichkeit. Zum Problem phänomenologischer Metaphysik. Freiburg / München: Alber.

[ii]        See Tom Sparrow’s review:

[iii]              For a sustained discussion of Gabriel’s work from other perspectives see the discussion in German in Philosophisches Jahrbuch 2015, pp. 113-185, with contributions from Thomas Buchheim, Claus Beishart, Catharine Diehl/Tobias Rosefeldt, Marcela Garcia, Volker Gerhardt, Anton Friedrich Koch, Sebastian Rödl, Pirmin Stekeler-Weithofer.

[iv]           Dan Zahavi, “The end of what? Phenomenology vs. Speculative Realism”, International Journal of Philosophical Studies 24 (2016), pp. 289-309.

[v]               For an interpretation of later Heidegger along these lines, see Tobias Keiling. 2015. Seinsgeschichte und phänomenologischer Realismus. Eine Interpretation und Kritik der Spätphilosophie Heideggers, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

[vi]              See, for instance, the programmatic Natorp-Bericht (Heidegger 2005 (German version in GA 62)).

[vii]             For a detailed treatment of both Husserl’s and Heidegger’s notion of the world, concurring in substance with Tengelyi’s assessment, see Overgaard 2004.

[viii]          The phrase “openness of meaning” is taken from Michael Steinmann. 2008. Die Offenheit des Sinns. Untersuchungen zu Sprache und Logik bei Martin Heidegger. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

[ix]              On “worlding” in later Heidegger, see Keiling 2015, 439-460.

[x]         On normativity and phenomenology, also see Sacha Golob. 2014. Heidegger on Concepts. Freedom, and Normativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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