James G. Hart: Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology

Matthew Clemons

Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology Book Cover Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology
Women in the History of Philosophy and Sciences, Vol. 5
James G. Hart. Rodney K. B. Parker (Ed.)
Softcover 67,59 €
XII, 272

Reviewed by: Matthew Clemons (Stony Brook University)

As James G. Hart notes in the opening chapter of his Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology, the German phenomenologist and Naturphilosophin Hedwig Conrad-Martius is a marginally known figure. Prior to the last half decade, what limited consideration she received in the English-speaking world is primarily in the context of her relationship with Edith Stein, particularly in the role that she played in Stein’s conversion to Catholicism in the early 1920s. There are several plausible reasons for Conrad-Martius’ obscurity: the absence of translations of her work; the political and bureaucratic challenges and sometimes outright opposition she encountered as one of the first women to enroll in and complete studies at a German university; the personal and professional hardships—including the death of numerous colleagues and a publication ban due to Jewish ancestry—that resulted from the socio-political upheavals of the early 20th century; the ascendency and predominance of the hermeneutical-existential mode of phenomenology to the exclusion of phenomenological realism movement of which she was a leading figure. Whatever the reasons for her obscurity, the quality of her work is certainly not one of them, even a passing familiarity with which would confirm.

I am the sort of reader of Hart’s monograph on Conrad-Martius that qualifies as having passing familiarity with her work. I know enough about her lifelong project, the Realontologie, or the investigation into the essence and metaphysical foundations of reality, to want to know more. But resources for knowing more are limited. A cursory search of the Kösel-Verlag archives, the publisher now owned by Penguin Random House that originally printed Conrad-Martius’ work, yields no results. To the best of my knowledge, her work is no longer in print and only available only second-hand via private handlers. There are no translations. As far as secondary material, at the time of its publication in 2020, Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology was the only extended treatment of Conrad-Martius’ thought available in English. According to Hart, the only other monograph, which is in German, is Alexandra Pfeiffer’s Hedwig Conrad-Martius: Eine phänomenologische Sicht auf Natur und Welt. A monograph on Conrad-Martius, then, is a welcome contribution. A monograph on Conrad-Martius by James Hart is even more so. Hart’s work is consistently of the highest level, combining an immense scholarly and philosophical comprehensiveness with clarity and a sharp eye for the germane in the matter-at-hand. His two-volume work Who One Is (Springer 2009) is an absolute gem, a must-read for anyone interested in any number of themes even remotely related to transcendental and existential phenomenology. Needless to say, I anticipated Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology with excitement, and it mostly met those expectations.

The book itself is composed of eight chapters and an appendix. The appendix is a selection translated by the book’s editor Rodney K.B. Parker of HCM’s unfinished and eventually abandoned manuscript Metaphysik des Irdischen (or Metaphysics of the Earthly). Hart tells us that she originally intended the work to be a “unifying opus magnum” (4), but that it remained incomplete due to extenuating health and financial circumstances. Parker implies that disagreements with the publisher were also a contributing factor. As for the body of the book, chapter one is a general introduction to Conrad-Martius’ life and thought, presenting relevant biographical material and acquainting us with her project and its primary influences; the final chapter is a conclusion. Chapters two through five contain the bulk of the exposition of Conrad-Martius’ thought and are the most challenging of the book. Chapters six and seven are Hart’s own creative appropriation of one of the basic theses of Conrad-Martius’ work, namely that theological-cosmological categories have an ontological-metaphysical referent, which he applies to the theme of heaven. In what follows, I’ll summarize (by no means exhaustively) Hart’s presentation of Conrad-Martius’ thought and conclude with a few reflections on the work and on its contemporary relevance.

Conrad-Martius as Naturphilosophin

All of the subsequent analysis depends on Hart’s exposition of Conrad-Martius’ thought. HCM is a philosopher of nature in the ancient sense. Her notion of nature as “reality under the aspect of its radical ‘basic motion’ of self-genesis” (80) reflects a more typically Aristotelean designation: nature as “that which by virtue of itself…and out of itself (the founding hyle) brings forth itself (its eidos and morphé)” (80). She employs familiar philosophical notions such as substance, potency, and entelechy, and makes use of well-known medieval distinctions like that between essence and existence. HCM asks typically natural-philosophical questions: what is time; what is space; what is mass? What are the constitutive features of matter or of light? How do we conceive of the phenomenon of organic life on both a macro and micro scale? Her work demonstrates deep familiarity with the natural sciences of her day and with the revolutionary 20th century developments in, e.g. physics. There are, however, at least two features of her general approach that make it unique: 1) her commitment to eidetic-phenomenological analysis; 2) her fundamentally Christian cosmological outlook.

1) In chapter two, Hart details Conrad-Martius’ involvement in the early phenomenological movement and its effect on her methodological and philosophical commitments. HCM was a member of the Munich and Göttingen circles of phenomenology. Members of these circles had in common an admiration for Husserl’s rejection in the Logical Investigations of philosophical psychologism and the overcoming of epistemological standstills and reductivism of all kinds that it represented. Freed from these concerns, they were able to take up Husserl’s exhortation to return to die Sachen selbst and embody his vision of a community of interdependently working researchers conducting investigations into the essential features of the various regional ontologies. For Conrad-Martius, a philosophy of the region of nature meant, as stated above, investigating nature in an effort to discover its essential sources and structures.

Aiding this task was the method of the eidetic-reduction in which the existence of an actual object (but not the world as such) is bracketed so as to investigate the object via ideation, a process of imaginatively altering an object to bring its essential structures into relief (cf. section 2.2.). For Conrad-Martius, this involved a second aspect, namely a horizon analysis in which the limiting presuppositions and prejudices that predetermine what counts as legitimate are brought to light. In relation to the natural sciences, the general interpretive framework tends to be one of quantification and mathematization.

As an aside on method, the early phenomenologists were as a rule not concerned with epistemological questions. They unanimously lamented Husserl’s “transcendental turn” and his forays into the subjective sources of meaning as a regression into the bogs of critical philosophy. One of the merits of Hart’s presentation of HCM’s method is his pointing out the challenges that the products of Husserl’s genetic investigations, particularly the role of temporality and history in the constitution of meaning, present for her conception of essences and the kosmos noétos. For more on this, see sections 2.4-2.6.

Phenomenology’s insistence on attending to the thing in the fullness of its appearance produced, according to Hart (10), the fundamental convictions in Conrad-Martius that the way in which nature appears is reflective of what it is. There can be no irreconcilable conflict between what appears and the way it appears. This means, “on the one hand, that there was no abyss between nature as it appears and the positions of the physical sciences, and, on the other hand, that appearing is, as such, not a veil of some unknown ‘in itself’” (53). Given, for instance, the developments in quantum physics that contest the more intuitive conceptions of matter found in classical, Newtonian physics, this is quite the radical thesis. But the thesis also represents a break from the temptation of dividing nature’s appearing into primary qualities, or the real features of the physical, and secondary qualities, or sensible, merely mental features, as a consequence of which the secondary qualities are dismissed as irrelevant and the primary are conceived of inertly and mathematically. Against this quantification of nature, Conrad-Martius insisted on a qualitative analysis in which all modes of appearing are appearances of something. Conrad-Martius’ nature is a cosmology, an ordered whole of interwoven regions and parts that Hart compares to a tapestry or symphony (157).

2) If the predominant horizon of the natural sciences is quantification and mathematization, HCM’s is Christian. One of the dominant trends in the theology of her day was demythologization in which “the content of the ontological referent [of cosmological notions] is fully replaced by an existential and symbolic interpretation” (205). In contrast to this tendency, Conrad-Martius sought to “remythologize” the cosmos, i.e. to affirm a cosmological meaning and referent for Christian cosmological notions, for example, heaven as a region of world space (see 7.3). Hart quickly adds two qualifications: a) that this doesn’t mean that we should altogether reject the fruits, much less the impulses and motivations, of existential and hermeneutical theology; b) that this in no way implied for Conrad-Martius a fundamentalism that eschews the evidence of, e.g. paleontology, and seeks to return to the pre-Copernican picture of a storied-universe of heaven physically above. As I mention above, chapters six and seven contain Hart’s attempt to appropriate this move with regard to heaven. While the content of these chapters is undeniably interesting, it seems to me disproportionately focused on existential and hermeneutical meanings of the religious cosmological categories. This is an issue only insofar as the Hart’s main objective is to show that Christian cosmological notions can be interpreted cosmologically.

In accordance with these two unique features of Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ approach, Hart seems to discern two promises: 1) a qualitative philosophy of nature that is the product of essence-investigations and integrates the developments of the natural sciences into an overarching cosmological unity which leads to 2) the possibility of giving Christian cosmological notions an ontological-cosmological foundation rooted in a serious philosophy of nature.

The Realontologie at a Glance

A. Substantiality and Time: If chapter two delineates Conrad-Martius’ method, chapters three through five deal with her thought as such. Chapter three begins with an analysis of the various kinds of being that culminates in the decisive distinction between ideal and real being. This distinction is the point of departure for the Realontologie, or ontology of the real, and for the philosophy of nature insofar as nature is, as we saw, “reality under the aspect of its radical ‘basic motion’ of self-genesis.” The section in which the distinction is introduced (3.2) is a bit convoluted. I get the impression that Hart has here the unenviable task of mapping out the critical theme that is at once the juncture of several intersecting trains of thought and the point of departure for the whole show. Probably for this reason, the terms of explanation seem to shift just as you begin to get your teeth into them. It can feel a bit like biting air. At any rate, the gist of the distinction is clear enough. Whereas “the ‘being’ of ideal objects is exhausted totally in their ‘being something’ or being such” (66)—in more traditional metaphysical parlance, in their essence—real being exists. Inherent in the meaning of real being is not just the essential moment (what something is) but also the existential moment (that something is) without which a real being would not be real. By existence, HCM seems to mean the brute thereness, the in-the-flesh character of facticity. This leads her to the notion of substantiality, which for her refers to being that is self-grounding. A being exists, is “really there” because it stands in itself. Substantial being, for Conrad-Martius, is real being.

To be self-grounded is sometimes characterized as standing-in-itself, and other times as stand-under-itself: “Substance as such stands under its own being; it is the self-grounding of itself which is the standing under (sub-stans). It stands under (grounds) itself…Substance is a being’s standing in its own existential potency to its own being” (79). Although it seems like an unintentional equivocation or an exploitation of the etymology of substance, it is actually a purposive and important equivocation. It takes some rearranging to figure out why. As far as I can tell, “itselfness” is for Conrad-Martius both a technical term and an operative concept, the meaning of which changes depending on context. Hart confirms the latter (cf. 78) and implies the former. I note that one of the difficulties with the use of “itselfness” as a technical term, beyond its being an operative concept, is the possibility of its conflation with the reflexive pronoun “itself.” This is probably less of an issue in the original German.

One of the meanings of “itselfness” in the case of real being is “the potency to exist, to be or not to be.” What makes a being “stand-in-itself” is its having “itselfness” (technical sense) within itself (this second use of “itself” has a slightly different meaning), i.e. it has within itself the potency to be or not to be. But “itselfness,” insofar as it means the potency to exist, grounds or is the source of the actually existing being. The formulations standing-it-itself and standing-under-itself foreground different aspects of substantiality. The second is crucial. Insofar as the potency to be “stands under” an entity, the theme of potentiality as the real, but not actual source of actual being is emphasized. It is that from which real, actual being comes to be. Moreover, it implies that the actually finished being, insofar as it is potential, precedes itself. Potential being is not finished being; it is pre-finished being. This leads to the central question for Conrad-Martius of the “place” of these potencies themselves. If the cosmos is an ordered whole with various kinds of regions, we here have an indication of what one of the regions would be. In short, in the analysis of real being, we are led to substantiality. The essence-analysis of substantiality leads us to the notion of pre-actual potential sources that generate and sustain actual being. Investigating these sources is the project of the Realontologie. As Hart puts it, “for the full constitution of real substances, the form-giving active (entelechial) and passive, purely potential powers must be studied” (47)—I’ll say more about the “form-giving active powers” in the next subsection.

For Conrad-Martius, that an entity is grounded in its possibility to be does not mean that it has absolute power over its potential to be. Such a capacity belongs only to absolute being. Insofar as potential being is a form of non-being, she can say that to be real is to be suspended over an abyss of nothingness that requires an ontological motion of “incessant flight from nothingness” (70). Its existence is something which is incessantly “slipping away” (78) and simultaneously won anew. This is an important observation because, for Conrad-Martius, this motion inherent in the mode of existence of real being is that which constitutes time. Time is not some pre-existing container into which being steps. Time follows on existence and not the other way around. As Hart puts it, “time is a mode of the existence of something” (137). Again, “time is a dimension corresponding to the being or existence of something” (150). In contrast to this real-motion of time is what she refers to as the transcendental imaginative time—think Husserl’s time-consciousness in which the present is held onto in retention and on the basis of this holding arises protention, an expectation of what is to come. In this context, it makes sense to speak of past and future and of a motion between the two through the present. For HCM, this flowing time along with the categories of past and future are not real, but only features of transcendental imaginative time. The real motion of time is not one from the past into the future or vice versa. Just as a being is incessantly losing and winning its existence, the real motion of time is a discontinuous “relentless coming forth of the world into being as it is a constant vanishing from actuality” (76). An analogy with number is helpful:

The number, e.g., 5, means more than that it stands in line at the fifth place after preceding rows of unities. The eidos of the number lies in its being a complex unity which contains the total series of numbers leading up to its place of order. Only secondarily does it indicate its place of order in the series of numbers. The number is the expression of a quantitative monad-like ‘sum value.’ One value cancels out the preceding by including it and going beyond it [Aufhebung]. Conrad-Martius’ point here is that the nows are analogous to numbers. And as numbers are monadic sum-values, so are the moments of actuality monadic being-values. And as with each individual number the preceding (and coming) numbers are conceptually and terminologically negated, because this number presents a sum-value which is valid only for it, so with each definite moment of actuality [Aktualitätsjetzt] are all other moments ontologically negated. (77)

Theologically, that real being is situated on the “knife-edge of nothingness” (190) is indicative of nature’s being non-integral, i.e., being fallen. If incessantly negated time follows on the mode of real existence, HCM speculates on what a different mode of “eternal” or “blessed” existence might mean for time (see section 5.1 and 5.3). As for the question of the source of this motion, Hart returns to it in chapter five.

B. Matter (hyle) and Space: I noted above that “itselfness” seems to be an operative concept. Beyond referring to the potency to exist that underlies real being, it also seems to refer to the potency for an entity to be what it is, to be its essence, which it also stands in. The “‘basic motion’ of self-genesis” by which Conrad-Martius delimits the region of nature would then signify that substantial being both stands in its possibility to exist and has its potency within itself to be what it is. This sheds light on obscure locutions like nature’s definition as “that which is by reason of its own power to be—to be itself. That is, to be what it is in its own essence” (80), which Hart follows up by quoting HCM as saying “existential substantiality is essential substantiality” (again, the major difficulty with these locutions seems to be that the terms shift, e.g. if we say that something constitutes itself out of itself, we could mean several different things (out of its hyle, out of its potency to be, etc.), and all of them might highlight different aspects of constitution. This is probably a difficulty inherent in ontology).

This consideration prepares us for Hart’s remark that there are two different modes of standing-in-itself that are constitutive of the cosmos, the hyletic and the pneumatic. As constitutive of actual, finished entities, Hart cautions us against thinking of these modes themselves as actual, finished entities. Again, the notion of regions is not far. Conrad-Martius refers to the region of these potentialities that are the source of actual entities as the trans-physical potential realm (see section 3.5). In some sense, the distinction between the hyletic and the pneumatic seems to cut along the lines of living and non-living, although pneumatic in the strict sense refers to “the eidos of I-ness” (section 3.7)). Two qualifications are necessary: 1) we are talking about the sources of living and non-living beings, and so not of a living or non-living being. The basis for, e.g. the essence-analysis of matter is not empirical matter (e.g. the chemical elements). 2) It would be wrong to think of matter along the lines of dead, brute stuff. As Hart insists, finished material being like all nature is self-generative. The difference between living and non-living is more that essences of living beings are uniquely delivered over to them to become (88). The analysis of organic nature occupies much of the beginning of chapter four, which unfortunately I can’t consider further here. That discussion treats HCM’s position in debates within biology between wholism and preformism, her understanding of evolution and genetics, and the important concept of entelechy and related notions of causality, power, and energy. If interested, see sections 4.1-4.4.

Whereas not all finished entities share in pneumatic substance, all of nature participates in hyletic being (83). According to Conrad-Martius, there are two paradoxical but intertwined moments of material being. One is an ecstatic self-othering such that nothing remains behind; the other is an absolute sinking inwards. The first is a potency that “inexhaustibly releasing or scattering, the other is inexhaustibly sinking or centering” (102). The two are intimately bound together in a reciprocal relationship such that Hart can dub hyle a “selfless being-burdened-with-itself.” The primary reason for highlighting this distinction here is the important role that it plays in the context of several other discussions. It is crucial for her interpretation of quantum physics and the notion of aether (section 4.5), is generative of her conception of space, and representative of the various metaphysical regions of the cosmos. The treatment of space begins with a modified version of the Kantian antinomies. For her, the problem of infinite space—that I can neither conceive of space as ending nor of it as endless—is a product of the transcendental given-along-with of the milieu in perception. But it does indicate a paradox in the act of making space, namely that of how the untraversable because immeasurable, what HCM calls the apeiron, becomes traversable and measurable, or turns into metric space. I think what she is getting at is the problem of how, without a pre-existing definite dimension, a being comes to have definite dimensions. The solution is similar to the one we saw in the case of time. Just as time follows upon the mode of existence of a being, space follows upon the kind of being that something is (e.g. 182). More specifically, “space is the dimension created by hyletic being in its substantial self-transcendence” (84). Hart points out that the German verb räumen, the nominative of which [Raum] is German word for “space,” can mean to clear out or to make room, which is the fundamental meaning of space as the dimension that follows outwardly upon the ecstatic self-othering and inwardly on the sinking inwards of hyletic substance (85). For more, see section 3.8.

C. The Fundamental Structures: The Aeonic World-Periphery and World-Center. I have outlined HCM’s position that time follows on the mode of existence of a thing and space on the kind of being something is. I have pointed to the notion of “itselfness” as the potential for a being to be (existence) and to be what it is (essence), and have indicated that in each case, the question of sources, structures, and regions is not far. All of these topics together led to what is maybe the central topic of HCM’s philosophy of nature, namely the pre-finished sources, both actual and potential, that are responsible for nature’s coming to be and the regions that they inhabit. In chapter four (4.4), Hart treats the notions of causality and the relationship between actuality and potentiality. Central to the notion of causality is that the cause must be proportionate and appropriate to its effect. Otherwise, the effect can never come about. One of the ways in which a cause is proportionate to its effect is that in order to be capable of setting the power into motion, it must itself be in motion. This rehashes the ancient doctrine of actuality and potentiality. The question then arises: whence these trans-physical, trans-empirical pre-finished actualities that set the corresponding potentialities into motion such that we have, e.g., the motion of time, the paradoxical duality of matter, the generation of particular entities? Whence the potencies themselves? As Hart puts it, “a question that is at the heart of the cosmology and ontology of Conrad-Martius: What is the ontological place or point from out of which substantial being or the whole of nature unfolds itself into the essential forms of the cosmos? This is not meant to be a genetic question within or previous to finished nature. It is a question about essential structures” (80).

There is no way to do this question justice here. It’ll have to suffice to indicate in broad strokes the architecture of these regions. It’s worth saying again that the notion of “region” is metaphorical. The structures of finished nature are not themselves finished nature, and so are not 3D. Generally, all motions require an actualizing feature and a hyletic ground on, in, and through which to act. The motion of nature’s self-genesis with all of the other motions that this implies is no difference. For this, HCM conceives of two foundational regions (which correspond to matter’s ecstatic and instatic moments) of the world-center and the world-periphery. The world-periphery is the place of the essence-entelechies that actualize the world, as well as the ever actual source of the real motion of time (there is an interesting parallel here to Aristotle’s prime mover). The world-center, on the other hand, is the hyletic dimension on which the actualizing powers act. With the notions of regions, we come back to the theological promise I pointed to in the previous section, namely, that of finding ontological referents for Christian cosmological notions. Related to these regions are, for example, referents for the notion of the New Heaven and New Earth. This is a crude sketch of the cornerstone of HCM’s thinking, but it’ll have to do here. See chapter five for more.

Concluding Remarks

The remarks of the last section are by no means exhaustive, but give an overview of the major themes of Conrad-Martius’ thought as Hart presents it, which the interested reader should be able to use for orientation in the book. While I get the impression that Hart faithfully portrays Conrad-Martius’ thought, and while I don’t envy the task of summarizing the life’s work of a metaphysician, there are a few facets of the book that are underwhelming. As I indicated at points in the previous section, Hart’s exposition can be hard to follow. In a certain way, this is unavoidable. Part of the difficulty lies in becoming acquainted with HCM as a thinker, any evaluation of whom demands a thorough familiarity with the natural sciences. It’s also necessary to get used to her idiosyncratic terminology. In another way, however, there are sections in which terms are confusing, formulations are exchanged without explanation, and the explanandum sometimes seems to drop out of sight. It is not always clear when Hart is paraphrasing or providing commentary, so it can be difficult to parse out exactly what his contribution is verses what a given thinker is arguing (though I stress that materials are always adequately cited). I suspect that this is the culprit behind errors such as the one in the first full paragraph on pg. 11 in which the example changes halfway through from “cabinet” to “table.” On that note, there are numerous and frequent typographical errors that, because of their frequency, can be distracting. For stretches of the book, errors in punctuation occur on nearly every page and sometimes multiple times per page. One of the most frequent errors, substituting the word “or” when the context calls for “of,” occurs four times in the concluding five sentences of the book. Hart tells us in his preface that the book is the belatedly published version of his 1972 doctoral thesis and that, for practical reasons, he couldn’t update it. Many of these errors I think, are reflective of that.

At any rate, I am grateful to have the dissertation in published form. I mentioned at the beginning of this review that HCM is a marginally known figure, and that at the time of its publication it was the only extended treatment of Conrad-Martius’ thought in English. If the last few years are any indication, the situation is changing. Since the publication of Hart’s book, the Springer Series Women in the History of Philosophy and Sciences, of which Hart’s work is the fifth volume, has published another book-length collection of essays by Ronny Miron on Conrad-Martius’ thought.[1] The Center for the History of Women Philosophers and Scientists at the Universität Paderborn whose director, Ruth Hagengruber is an editor for the Springer Series, is conducting a project called “Women in Early Phenomenology,” one of the goals of which is to foreground and make available Conrad-Martius’ oeuvre.[2] There is also, of course, anecdotal evidence—a panel dedicated to her thought at a prominent conference, a reading group dedicated to her work, etc.—of an increasing interest.

Can her work gain broad traction? Hedwig Conrad-Martius is as unconventional a thinker as she is comprehensive and profound. As far as I know, she is the only western philosopher of the 20th century (besides maybe Whitehead) to attempt in conversation with the natural sciences a comprehensive philosophy of nature in terms of its essential structures. We may have to go back as far as St. Thomas to find someone else who attempts it from an explicitly Christian perspective. The climate in academia may not be amenable such a project. In an era of specialization, of general (warranted or not) suspicion of eidetic claims, following a century of the devaluation of philosophy in scientific practice, with all of the old doubts concerning the possibility of a Christian philosophy, this explicitly theological, comprehensive philosopher of the essence of nature might seem like an odd one out. In some ways, that is precisely what makes her extremely refreshing. And beyond the vicissitudes of the Zeitgeist, there are the perennial questions of the whence and whither of our coming to be, questions that Conrad-Martius is asking. I, for one, am eager to see her answers heeded.

[1]     Ronny Miron: Hedwig Conrad-Martius: The Phenomenological Gateway to Reality (Springer 2021).


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