Jan Patočka: The Natural World as a Philosophical Problem

The Natural World as a Philosophical Problem Book Cover The Natural World as a Philosophical Problem
Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy
Jan Patočka. Edited by Ivan Chvatík and Lubica Ucník. Translated by Erika Abrams. Foreword by Ludwig Landgrebe
Northwestern University Press
2016
Paperback $34.95
240

Reviewed by: Michael Deckard (Lenoir-Rhyne University)

There is something slightly mysterious about reading this book, like finding a notebook in a desk in the attic in a drawer full of cobwebs. Or searching the archives for something you only have an inkling of what you might find (see below for a further description of the Patočka archives in Prague). Even though everything in this book besides the Translator’s Note has previously been published before in other languages, this collection of texts provides in English an insight into a thinker’s life hitherto inaccessible, or at least forgotten. Hence, the mystery. Erazim Kohák’s work in the 1980s brought forth a life story and a philosopher, but focused on the phenomenological and Czech thinker. The dates of the texts from The Natural World as a Philosophical Problem are fascinating in themselves. The main text is Patočka’s habilitation from 1936, Přirozený svét jako filosofický problém, first translated into French forty years later in 1976 (a year before he died), Le monde naturel comme problème philosophique, and then in German in 1990 as Die natürliche Welt als philosophisches Problem. Now the English in 2016, some eighty years after the original publication and forty years after his death. I mention these three translations because the nature of the natural world, for Patočka, is at issue: why is this a philosophical problem, and not an historical or scientific one? What has become of this problem in the intervening eighty years since he wrote the text? Normally, one does not review a book published eighty years earlier, but besides the main text, there is a “remeditated” supplement to it written 33 years later (1970), and then an afterword to the first French translation (1976). But that still leaves a mystery: what can be recalled anew about such texts?

The mystery begins with the foreword, written by a close friend of over forty years, who speaks to the life of the man himself and not just his thought: “our conversations were never purely philosophical,” and that these took place “for nights on end in my Prague years between 1933 and 1939”, Ludwig Landgrebe writes. These years seem to haunt this book, and perhaps the life and country if not all of Europe itself. Experiencing these years in “a kind of exile” in Prague, Landgrebe says, “Talk of personal life, family, comments on the alarming political situation in Europe, common concern for the future of Germany…For me, the development of Patočka’s philosophy is inseparably linked with the history of a friendship.” (ix) This is not a normal foreword. In fact, it was written as memories right after Patočka’s death in 1977. In being guided through the homeland and Prague in particular, “History came alive on these occasions in its interwovenness with art and literature” (x). The foreword is a document in history concerning a time “near and far, familiar and alien,” (xv) and according to Landgrebe, it was the first book on the problem of the life-world (Lebenswelt) (xiv). And yet, the title of the work is not the lifeworld as a philosophical problem, but the natural world. Is this only a problem of translation? Should this 1936 book be interpreted as truly a book about the problem of the lifeworld, or rather as one regarding the natural world, which is a broader problem in philosophy and science than the “well-nigh uncatalogable” literature on the life-world problem. (See the recent review on this site by Philipp Berghofer of The Phenomenological Critique of Mathematisation and the Question of Responsibility: Formalisation and the Life-World).[1]

The introduction to the main text begins thus: “Modern man has no unified worldview. He lives in a double world, at once in his own naturally given environment and in a world created for him by modern natural science, based on the principle of mathematical laws governing nature. The disunion that has thus pervaded the whole of human life is the true source of our present spiritual crisis.” (3) The one philosopher mentioned in this introduction is Descartes—but isn’t Descartes himself a kind of founder of phenomenology as well as science? In a certain sense, then, this book is about “the history of the development of modern science” (113) for which he points to “Leonardo the engineer, Bacon the insatiable political practitioner and visionary, Descartes the mechanistic physician, and even Galileo himself” in the conclusion. Instead of calling it a disenchantment of the world, it is a “dehumanization of the world.”

Chapter 1, “Stating the Problem,” expands upon this fundamental “disanthropomorphization” (6), speaking to how one can philosophise again not just “through mere wonder (thaumazein), but rather on account of the inner difficulties of his spiritual life.” (7) The problem is simply that humans who have experienced modern science “no longer live simply in the naïve natural world; the habitus of his overall relationship to reality is not the natural worldview.” (8) If this book is considered a debate with the founders of modern philosophy, then after stating the problem, Patočka poses some answers: a return to the feeling of life (9-11), an historical typology of possible solutions (11-19), and Patočka’s own proposed solution (19-22). To put it as simply as possible, “to state what we expect from this philosophical anamnesis and why we look upon the subjective orientation as a way to reestablish the world’s unity, the breaking of which threatens modern man in that which, according to Dostoyevsky, is most precious to him: his own self.” (19) There are thus three parts to his solution: subjectivity, the natural world (through history), and language. All of these are meant to unify the self from its fractured nature.

Chapter 2, “The Question of the Essence of Subjectivity and Its Methodical Exploitation,” begins from Descartes, and follows a trajectory of Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Schelling, and finally the method of phenomenology as recapturing subjectivity. Several guiding clues are given as to this method, reduction and time consciousness being two of the most important. Regarding the first,

“the reductive procedure applies, of course, to each and every particular thesis, but above all to the so to say general theses, which are already presupposed in singular judgments, and so on, e.g., the thesis that the world exists with its specific real structures. The reduction applies thus not only to propositions about what is but also to propositions about the structure of what is: not only to ontic but also to ontological propositions. Reduction should not be regarded, as is sometimes the case, as a method for acquiring a priori knowledge.” (38)

By means of this guiding clue, both subjectivity and knowledge are saved through “abstaining” (Epoche), and thus purifying experience of sedimentation in order to achieve some singularity in “pure givenness” or “pure consciousness” as “lived-experience.” (41) It is worth pointing out here that occasionally an endnote by the editors mentions the “recently discovered personal copy of his habilitation thesis” in which there is a penciled note. (201n52) Part of Patočka’s thesis of this chapter is thus to show similarities between phenomenology and the “Platonic-Aristotelian noesis.” (203n71) Due to ideation’s relationship to time-consciousness, the human is intersubjectively constituted. Differentiating this view from Fichte, Schelling, Kant, and Descartes, to go in reverse historical order, nevertheless allows a “passage through phenomenological reflection.” (51)

Chapter 3, “The Natural World,” the heart of the book, entails that subjectivity is not enough, but rather that man is in relation to a world. Erazim Kohák has already written of this work in his 1989 collection of Patočka’s writings, touching upon the difference between přirozený svét and English or German or French: “the world of nature, the entire realm of animate being, including humans in their mundane dimension, with its vital order and natural teleology…the world—now in the sense of the coherent, intelligible context of our being rather than as a sum of existents—which comes ‘naturally’ to us, the prereflective, prepredicative coherence of our context which we take so much for granted.” (Kohák 1989: 23) The point, going back to Patočka’s text, is a conscious co-living with others, with regard to them, and common to all. Criticisms of his 1936 conception, even mentioned 33 years later in his French afterword, is that it was too human-centric. The references are to “home”, “refuge”, “alien”, but he is still aware of the human and the extrahuman dimension. While animals are mentioned within “living nature,” as well as “generations,” “traditions,” and even “myth,” there seems to be no references to fossils. minerals, or flora as part of this natural world. The historical development of the problem accentuates this absence in which something of German idealism is still too stuck in human sensibility, despite mentions of biologists like von Baer and Uexküll or philosophers like Bergson.

Chapter 4, “A Sketch of a Philosophy of Language and Speech,” takes up the third aspect of his proposal, basing language in sensibility, history, and acoustics. While using insights from the Czech school of linguistics, as Landgrebe says in his foreword, “the whole chapter can be read as echo of the discussions that took place in the 1930s in the Prague Linguistic Circle. Many issues of fundamental philosophical import discussed at that time have disappeared from current linguistics under the influence of the nominalist tradition.” (xvii)

When Patočka added a supplement to this main text 33 years later (115-180), he later wrote about that supplement, “Written in haste, under the pressure of circumstances, the added text falls short to this aim, i.e. to clarify and update our view of the problem.” (182) The main problem is thus whether to listen to him or not. If we did, we would only read the afterword, some nine pages long (181-190) Most Patočka scholars ignore this, as did the German edition as well as the editors and translator of this book “despite his openly stated criticism of the first of the two and its omission from the 1976 French edition.” (191) Now, in reviewing this whole text from the perspective of eighty-years later, the sense of mystery returns. The translator’s note, then, should really be read first, or at least at the same time, as Landgrebe’s foreword, since she concludes that “the two afterwords are mutually complementary.” (192) Remembering that for most of Patočka’s life he was under great scrutiny, Kohák points out: “Altogether, of the forty-six years of his active life as a philosopher, Jan Patočka lived only eight years free of censorship.” (Kohák, 1989: 27) This is not an arbitrary point of history. “Man is not only thrown into the world but also accepted. Acceptance is an integral part of throwness, so much so that being-at-home in the world is made possible only through the warmth of acceptance by others,” Landgrebe writes (xvii). It is not without irony and a sense of sadness that Patočka died, having been arrested and interrogated for over eleven hours, forty years ago this year and that we can now read his earliest book for the first time in English.

My own experience, having spent a few days this year in the Patočka archive, was remarkable. Upon discovering a 200+ page manuscript on Ficino with pages and pages of drawings, astrological and artistic, hidden in the 1940s in the Strahov Library in Prague, the content of the archive can truly astonish and surprise one. A few pages of this ms. have been translated into German in Andere Wege in die Moderne: Studien zur europäischen Ideengeschichte von der Renaissance bis zur Romantik by Ludger Hagedorn. The amount of time Patočka spent studying and researching this period from the Renaissance to Romanticism is incredible. Any good phenomenologist or historian wanting to understand the richness of Patočka should visit the archive. The mystery of the text mentioned at the beginning of this review concerns the prophetic style of the philosopher, and how such a text brings out a renewal of thought. Once the cobwebs are blown off, and the archive uncovered, thought and even resistance can begin anew.


[1] Philipp Berghofer. Review of The Phenomenological Critique of Mathematisation and the Question of Responsibility: Formalisation and the Life-World by Ľubica Učník, Ivan Chvatík, Anita Williams (Eds.), Springer, 2015.

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