Véronique M. Fóti and Pavlos Kontos (Eds.): Phenomenology and the Primacy of the Political: Essays in Honor of Jacques Taminiaux

Douglas Giles

Phenomenology and the Primacy of the Political: Essays in Honor of Jacques Taminiaux Book Cover Phenomenology and the Primacy of the Political: Essays in Honor of Jacques Taminiaux
Contributions To Phenomenology
Véronique M. Fóti, Pavlos Kontos (Eds.)
Hardback 96,29 €

Reviewed by: Douglas Giles (University of Essex)

This volume of fourteen essays honors and explicates the underappreciated Belgian phenomenologist Jacques Taminiaux. The essays cluster around the theme that there is in phenomenology and society a primacy of the political echoing Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s primacy of perception. The book treats the political not as foundational to philosophical inquiry but as inescapable. The claim made by the editors is that “almost any sort of philosophical research, whatever its specific object, will find itself confronted by the mirror of the political,” and, therefore, phenomenology cannot claim the attitude of the uninvolved spectator and “exempt itself from being reflected in the mirror of the political.” (vii) Instead, phenomenology must enact a fundamental attitude of judgment and respect. Not all of the essays in this book, however, directly address the thought of Taminiaux, the primacy of the political, or phenomenology, but all of the essays contribute to phenomenology in general.

Shaun Gallagher’s essay, “The Struggle for Recognition and the Return
of Primary Intersubjectivity,” explores the distinction between primary and secondary intersubjectivity. Gallagher’s approach is to contrast Fichte’s concept of summoning, Honneth’s concept of a Hegelian struggle for recognition, and Ricoeur’s concept of a gift. The question that Gallagher takes on is whether mutual recognition emerges as a natural and automatic event regardless of any practical response an individual makes. His response is basically that it does not. He takes a somewhat negative view of Honneth’s Hegelian theory that dialectical struggles for recognition lead to self-realized individuality and then onward to politico-economic justice and social solidarity. Acknowledging that an individual’s autonomy depends on intersubjective mutual recognition, Gallagher astutely points out that that this situation does not necessitate that we accept that mutual recognition is perfectly reciprocal. Gallagher proposes a model of primary intersubjectivity that does not depend on reciprocal recognition but instead acknowledges that recognition relations are imperfect. At times, we give recognition without expecting reciprocation and receive recognition without being able to return it. In these circumstances, recognition is best seen as a gift or summons. Primary intersubjectivity, therefore, does not require a dialectical struggle to find ourselves where we are.

Fabio Ciaramelli in “Intuition and Unanimity: From the Platonic Bias to the Phenomenology of the Political” extends Taminiaux’s claim of a Platonic bias in philosophy. For Taminiaux, the Platonic bias in speculative philosophy subordinated the body politic’s life and action to the sage’s life of contemplation that brought with it a problematic failure in understanding human affairs. (16) Ciaramelli takes the impetus of Taminiaux’s antispeculative research to connect the Platonic bias in speculative philosophy’s ontological paradigm of an ideal truth with the preference for unanimous solutions to social and political issues. For Ciaramelli, the issue is a matter of totality versus plurality because the Platonic bias to unanimous solutions implies a repression of plurality. (18-19) Ciaramelli takes an unexpected and interesting approach to the issue, basing his essay on a 16th century text by Etienne de La Boétie, Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. La Boétie’s essay criticizes passive submission to a unique center of power. La Boétie goes so far as to blame the people for their servitude, reasoning that by continuing to submit to power, they prefer servitude to liberty. Ciaramelli interprets La Boétie as advocating two conflicting social models: a pluralism that allows uniqueness to flourish and a totalizing model that dominates individualities and produces uniformity. (20-21) La Boétie argues that nature does not give us a model for either servitude or freedom; therefore, the ways to safeguard individual uniqueness and pluralism must be socially instituted. From this concept, Ciaramelli deduces that it is necessary to reject the Platonic bias of a universal solution. He insightfully extends this thought to La Boétie’s conception that to achieve liberty “nothing more is needed than to long for it,” connecting this conception with the preference for unanimous solutions that threaten plurality. (25) Ciaramelli concludes that La Boétie, despite his insights, is also guilty of confirming the domination of unanimous solutions.

In “Phronêsis and the Ideal of Beauty,” Danielle Lories extends Hannah Arendt’s discussion of the difference between Aristotelian phronêsis and the Kantian judgment of taste. Lories’s close analysis of particular passages in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Kant’s Third Critique is of interest to scholars of those books, or of Arendt’s Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, but Lories does not connect her topic to Taminiaux, the primacy of the political, or phenomenology.

Rosemary R.P. Lerner’s essay, “The Ethical Dimension of Transcendental Reduction,” attempts to craft a “coherent, unitary view of [Edmund Husserl’s] thought that integrates all of its various dimensions.” (46) Her first step is to free Husserl from Martin Heidegger’s interpretation of Husserl’s project as intellectualist, and Lerner gives a useful overview of the history of Husserl interpretation as background for her argument. Lerner recasts Husserl’s phenomenological reduction “as an eminently practical—namely, ethical—achievement (Leistung), driven by a practical virtue, responsibility.” (45) Lerner argues that ethics were a systematic locus in Husserl’s proposed idea of philosophy. She describes Husserl’s gradual transition from viewing ethics as founded upon formal a priori laws to viewing the ethical motivation of right and valuable actions as love in its diverse forms. (52) Husserl never wavered in his view of the importance of the rational, but, Lerner points out, Husserl also included acts of loving, hating, and desiring. This connects with Lerner’s thesis that Husserl’s motivation is responsibility as a function of practical reason. “The intellect is the servant of the will in the same way that I am the servant of those that configure our practical life, as leaders of humanity,” she quotes Husserl as writing and offers other quotes to back up the idea that this idea guided Husserl’s thought. (55) Lerner connects this thought to the primacy of the political in that even if Husserl does not mean that philosophers should immediately dedicate themselves to political life they should set the bedrock of the essential structures of being human, a bedrock on which authentic moral philosophy can be built. (55) She concludes that Husserl’s transcendental reduction can be understood as a resolution to adopt an authentic, good, and responsible life and, therefore, as an ethical renewal. (61-62)

“Individuation and Heidegger’s Ontological ‘Intuitionism’” by accomplished Heidegger scholar Mark A. Wrathall explores the meaning of individuation. Following Taminiaux, Wrathall defines intuitionism as the privileging of perception over thought and the necessity of approaching the Self by means of intuition rather than symbolism. For Wrathall, this means that what individuates each of us is something to which we have direct access. (71) It is possible and necessary to see the distinct individual that I am and to do so in the most radical way. We transcend everyday intelligibility and arrive at an intuitive apprehension of Self that is required for an authentic selfhood. Wrathall states, however, that the transcendental moment in the intuition of the self can never dispense with shared, everyday modes of self-interpretation. Again agreeing with Taminiaux, Wrathall holds that Heidegger erred in thinking that the Self is separated from and constituted independently from relations with others, a view that closes off the Self from ethical demands. Intuition is the priority of “seeing” over thought, (75) but the kind of sight involved in individuating oneself as an authentic agent is a particular type of seeing: perspicuity. (78) Wrathall says that “the sight of perspicuity plays an intimate role in the process of the realization of myself as a self, because it allows me to recognize myself as co-responsible for the opening up of the world.” (83) We are not cut off from others when we individuate ourselves but we see our Self in a shared public world within which we realize ourselves as individuals. The purpose served by achieving a perspicuous grasp of myself and an authentic disclosure of the world, then, is to allow me to comport myself toward my existence in such a way that I “own” or take responsibility for it. The end goal of owning myself is to forge a stable, autonomous character. A responsible existence ultimately depends on an intuitive grasp of myself.

Pol Vandevelde’s “Historicizing the Mind: Gadamer’s ‘Hermeneutic Experience’ Compared to Davidson’s ‘Radical Interpretation’” is as the title advertises. Vendevelde contrasts the two differing views of interpretation. Hans-Georg Gadamer characterizes interpretation as an event of hermeneutic experience, whereas Donald Davidson, against what he sees as Gadamer’s relativism, sees interpretation as an ahistorical but empirical process of triangulating subjective, objective, and intersubjective positions. The difference between the two theories of interpretation, Vendevelde argues, lies in their treatments of concrete individuals within their own historical situations. (104) Davidson’s theory, by dehistoricalizing interpretation, depersonalizes the concrete historical individuals who have made their own interpretations. The political ramifications of Davidson’s presumed neutrality is a neutralizing, if not empowering, of dominant cultural narratives that prevents concrete individuals, who perform interpretation, from being observed and considered, and therefore is a marginalizing of individual interpretations from subaltern groups.

Focusing on Merleau-Ponty, Stephen Watson addresses the issue of the incompleteness of the phenomenological reduction. Watson observes that “the search for truth is always an embodied truth, but equally a veiled truth.” (108) In “On the Metamorphoses of Transcendental Reduction: Merleau-Ponty and ‘The Adventures of Constitutive Analysis,’” Watson analyzes Merleau-Ponty’s writings on incompleteness to uncover the nature of what is incomplete in the reduction. Watson’s position is that the incompleteness is owing to the inexhaustible transformations involved in the work of making origins manifest rather than a failure fully to grasp originary evidence. Watson links this realization with what he claims is Merleau-Ponty’s idea that we barely coincide with the originary: “what justification we have comes to an end without attaining ultimate determinacy—but not because its itinerary does.” (122) Therefore, Watson concludes, phenomenology itself becomes an open multivocal practice of symbolic institutions as the world is revealed.

Also writing on Merleau-Ponty is Babette Babich in her essay, “Merleau-Ponty’s Lamellae: Aesthetic Feeling, Anger, and Politics.” Babich attempts to show how throughout Merleau-Ponty’s writings is a sustained engagement with psychology and biology. She draws mainly on Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts on embodiment and bodily engagement with the lifeworld to show how his phenomenology is a multifaceted topography of thought and intercorporeal life. Babich’s overview of Merleau-Ponty’s views on flesh, spacings, and lamellae does not break new ground, nor do her observations on the relevance of Merleau-Ponty warning’s against violence and capitalist imperialism. She does make some good observations on Merleau-Ponty’s connection between lamellae and flare-ups of anger in relation to embodiment and space (137-139) but does not pursue them fully. A further pursuit of the political implications of personal anger would be highly valuable to social and political theory, and Babich provides some thoughts and resources on this important issue.

Of significant value to addressing the current crisis in education is Sharon Rider’s insightful essay, “Coercion by Necessity or Comprehensive Responsibility? Hannah Arendt on Vulnerability, Freedom and Education.” Speaking on an important current topic, Rider questions recent trends in education policy and provides a much needed counterpoint to them. First, she argues that there is a false image in education of children’s autonomy. She accuses educational “progressivism” of advancing the idea that there is “a child’s world” separate from the adult world that educators and the education process must take into account and therefore not guide but merely support children. (165) She then turns to the related assumption in educational progressivism that there that there can be a science of teaching that can be studied and implemented without mastery in the subject matter taught. Any teacher who has been dragged into certain “training sessions” will commiserate. Armed with an understanding of these two false assumptions, Rider argues, we can move to the more fundamental problem of what the crisis in education says about our form of life. Rider applies Hannah Arendt’s thought to the philosophy of education and proposes the idea of an institution of truth-telling and critique (173) in which we understand human beings as part of the world, always beginning again. Rider says that “it is within the public organization of a collectivity where we are not under the sway of necessity that the new emerges.” (173) The answer to the crisis in education is to treat education as a collectivity that recognizes our shared vulnerability and exercises authority to build stable institutions in which children learn to face facts about who we are and what the world is, as well as learning the discipline of sound judgment.

Environmental ethics are at the center of “Edmund Husserl, Hannah Arendt, and a Phenomenology of Nature” by Janet Donohoe. She starts with Husserl’s concepts of the lifeworld and the distinction between homeworld and alienworld. Donohoe contends that lifeworld is so deeply intertwined with homeworld and alienworld as to be inseparable, providing the foundation for the objective world but not being itself an objective world. (177) She then addresses the question of whether nature is something separate from us that we define ourselves against or whether we are immersed in and inextricably part of nature. Donohoe is firmly on the side of the latter, drawing on Arendt and Kelly Oliver to craft an understanding of us as intertwined with nature. Her purpose in this analysis is to argue for a conception of animal ethics based on the idea that our human lifeworld is not separate from the animal environment. In other words, animals are not an alienworld to our homeworld, but our homeworld is grounded in the same environment shared with nonhuman animals. We are therefore responsible to Earth and the other creatures with whom we share the Earth. (187)

In the most directly political essay in the book, Paul Bruno’s “Symbols and Politics,” the author takes on the thorny issue of the display of the Confederate flag in the United States. Taking as his starting point debates over display of the flag at a particular university, (190) Bruno understands the conflict as regarding the definition and meaning of a symbol, not only in a political sense, but in an aesthetic sense. Bruno is employing aesthetics less in an artistic sense and more in the sense of how humans perceive the meanings of objects. With this move, he can adroitly position the symbol of the flag within the setting of a culture and language. To assist in his analysis, he engages in a phenomenological reading of Kant’s Third Critique, assisted by Taminiaux, focusing on the concepts of symbol and imagination. Our thought takes into account others’ ways of presenting something to compare our own judgments with human reason in general. Importantly, this means that “impartiality is achieved by taking into account other people’s way of seeing or feeling, including those ways of seeing and feeling that we may not find palatable.” (202) Education and politics require that we interact with others’ biases so that we may see our own biases in a new light. Bruno therefore concludes that: “Becoming sensitized to evils perpetrated under the Confederate flag or Nazi flag requires a place in public discourse for those flags. Putting those images in a lockbox is a recipe for them becoming rancid, tools of resentment and disillusion that fester in the hands of the disengaged, or dare I say, the excluded.” (203)

In “Poetics and Politics,” Françoise Dastur examines Taminiaux’s interpretation of tragedy from 1967 to 1995. Dastur reconstructs Taminiaux’s argument of the connections between poetics and politics from Aristotle to Heidegger, assessing it mostly positively. Dastur is critical, however, of Taminiaux’s attempt to argue for a distinction between praxeological and speculative readings of Greek tragedy. She is skeptical of the need for a speculative reading, and drawing on the German Idealists and Niezsche, states that perhaps a praxeological reading of tragedy is adequate to uncover the varied speculative aspects of Greek tragedy. Dastur then questions Taminiaux’s core thesis that poetics and politics are two sides of the same coin. Dastur instead holds that both the ontological
dimension and the political dimension of the tragedy have to be taken into account because they concern human beings in their entirety.

Finally, the two editors each contribute an essay. Véronique M. Fóti stresses the impotence of understanding Merleau-Ponty to understand Taminiaux in “Nature, Art, and the Primacy of the Political: Reading Taminiaux with Merleau-Ponty.” Similar to Donohoe, Fóti argues against treating nature as separate from us. Fóti uses Merleau-Ponty’s arguments against the intellectual subjugation of nature and in favor of the intercorporeality, or interanimality, of animal being and humanity. Her exegesis of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of nature highlights the need to understand our place in nature as the inter-being of self and other and that our unique spatio-temporal emplacement is a radical contingency, leading us to accept that we cannot intellectually dominate nature. From this concept, we can place our emphasis on lateral rather than hierarchical relationships of power that reject structures of domination. Fóti then turns to Merleau-Ponty’s interrelation between political philosophy and the philosophy of art, a question she relates to an ontology of nature. The political dimension, Fóti says, is not a region set apart but is fundamentally co-extensive with the lifeworld and we must abandon a binary opposition of political and nonpolitical life.

The book concludes with Pavlos Kontos’s “The Myth of Performativity: From Aristotle to Arendt and Taminiaux.” “The Myth of Performativity” in the title Kontos understands
as the conception in philosophy that some actions constitute pure performances in that they do not leave behind them concrete traces in the world. Kontos identifies the pitfall of the myth in Heidegger who, Kontos claims, celebrates pure performativity, distorting the performativity proper to actions. Kontos praises Taminiaux’s theory of political action, which speaks against the legitimacy of the Myth. Kontos sees Taminiaux as a corrective for how philosophers like Heidegger and Arendt, under the influence of the Myth, misunderstand the notion of solidarity, power, and memory. For example, Arendt’s idea that the actor and storyteller occupy two different positions is problematic. The storyteller is portrayed as not engaged in the web of political action so that the elusive character of actions is therefore not a predicament. When we reject the Myth, we put the storyteller and the actor into a new light showing that the practice of historical storytelling is intrinsically political.

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