Essays on Aesthetic Genesis, edited by Charlene Elsby and Aaron Massecar, is a collected volume of essays responding to and discussing Jeff Mitscherling’s phenomenological trilogy, collectively titled The Revision of Hermeneutic Ontology, which consists of the books Roman Ingarden’s Ontology and Aesthetics, The Author’s Intention (coauthored with Aref Nayed and Tanya DiTommaso) and Aesthetic Genesis, from which the edited volume draws its name. In this trilogy Mitscherling develops the “New Copernican Hypothesis”, an explicitly realist revision or reversal of phenomenological interpretations regarding the nature of intentionality. Intention, under Mitscherling’s project, is to be decisively severed from consciousness, insofar as intentionality subsists within the world as a third ontological category, beside material and ideal existence. The implications of this revision, and its placement within the phenomenological tradition, make up the guiding thread for the collected responses.
The volume’s chapters are helpfully split into three thematic groupings, under Major Concepts, Historical Considerations, and Contemporary Discussion, though given the historically grounded nature of Mitscherling’s project, all three are dominated by comparative discussions.
Under Major Concepts, the prime concern for both papers is to show the historical legitimacy of Mitscherling’s hypothesis. In “On the Concept of Aesthetic Genesis”, Charlene Elsby connects the idea to certain shared theses of Plato and Aristotle. “The Copernican Turn of Intentional Being” similarly situates Mitscherling’s project within the history of 20th century philosophy, particularly relating to phenomenology but at the same time discussing Mitscherling’s promise with regards to the materialism and scientism of 20th century Anglo-American philosophy.
The general aim of the Historical Considerations section is to bring out some of Mitscherling’s often quite forgotten forbearers with Kimberly Baltzer-Jaray, Rob Luzecky, and Jason C. Robinson offering readings of Adolf Reinach, Roman Ingarden, and Hans-Georg Gadamer, respectively. Each of these bring out certain features and early formulations of Mitscherling’s own theses, while at the same time giving Reinach and Ingarden a new day in the sun after long periods of obscurity.
The notable exception is the first paper of the section, “Cartesian Soul: Embodiment and Phenomenology in the Wake of Descartes”, by Felix Ó Murchadha and Ane Faugstad Aarø. Here, the authors provide a reading of the history of phenomenology’s engagement with Cartesian thought that serves to challenge the narrative put forth by Mitscherling, and this paper is one of the high points of the volume. Rather than taking up a somewhat vulgarly dualist reading of Descartes and Cartesianism, the authors provide a reading more informed by Descartes Passions of the Soul, and its attendant concerns with embodiment and worldliness, tracing this element of Cartesianism through its French reception through Malebranche, Maine de Biran, and Merleau-Ponty. What this affords is a placement of Mitscherling’s project, not as a revolution in phenomenology, but very much in keeping with an historically realized form of interpreting intentionality to begin with. The end result is an admittedly strong qualification of Mitscherling’s own claims, insofar as the “New Copernican Hypothesis” is to be considered something so drastic as a “reversal” of phenomenology, while at the same not at all discrediting the results of such a project. Most refreshingly, this paper ends with connecting Mitscherling’s work to a number of contemporary French phenomenologists of the theological turn, such as Henry, Chretien, and Marion, who each share a number of concerns about alterity and the transcendence of the world quite similar to Mitscherling’s. This, it must be said, is the only reference to be found within the volume to any sort of contemporary phenomenological work.
This is not to say, however, that contemporary philosophical work on mind and embodied engagement with the world is somehow not represented. It is within the third section that Mitscherling’s work in brought into contact with debates concerning philosophy of mind, Peircean pragmatism, contemporary Hegelian philosophy, aesthetics, and eco-phenomenological debates, to name a few. Again, it must be said, that historical comparison makes up a good deal of the discussion, as Husserl, Stein, and Peirce make appearances as phenomenological interlocutors in the papers by Antonio Calcagno and Aaron Massecar, as do Aristotle and Hegel in Conrad Hamilton’s particularly rich contribution.
There is a curious situation, it must be said, that arises from the fact that Mitscherling’s entire project is grounded upon a specific narrative regarding the history of phenomenology, and that is that so much of the plausibility of the papers’ claims regarding the importance of Mitscherling’s work are based upon the claims of that particular narrative concerning the supposedly rampant idealism of phenomenology’s interest in consciousness. However, as was mentioned above, Murchadha and Aarø’s paper very early on challenges this narrative. So, on a sequential reading of the volume, so many of the grand pronouncements in honor of Mitscherling, and so much of the criticism of phenomenology, appear altogether inflated; that such claims are found in, Calcagno, George, and Massecar after Murchadha and Aarø’s paper generates a certain unease about the whole picture being sold. For all of that, however, this circumstance takes nothing away from any of the papers beyond the rhetorical; their specific theses stand on their own merit.
Essays in Aesthetic Genesis is, overall, a good and informative introduction to Mitscherling’s work, and certainly a good contribution to the development of a certain new wave of realist phenomenology and engagements therewith.