Martin Jay: Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations

Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations Book Cover Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations
Martin Jay
Paperback £13.99

Reviewed by: Michael Maidan (Independent Scholar)

Martin Jay is a distinguished cultural historian, a pioneer of the study of the Critical Theory of the “Frankfurt School” with his book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1973), and a scholar who wrote on different aspects of Critical Theory, on the concept of totality, and on the problematization of vision in modern French thought. Splinters in Your Eye, his most recent book, is made out of eleven essays, most if not all already published in some form.  They explore aspects of the work of the Frankfurt School’s main theorists, paying attention to the inner tensions and the wirkungsgeschichte of the theses formulated by Horkheimer and his band of merry theorists.

In an essay published in a previous book, Jay defended the honor of the kind of intellectual history that he displays in the book. Two aspects of his defense are relevant in this context. Jay calls himself a “synoptic intellectual historian,” namely, one that believes that “it seemed a sufficiently challenging task merely to reconstruct the demandingly difficult arguments of the Frankfurt School and relate them to some issues about the life histories of its members.” Synoptic cultural history came in recent years under attack because it abridges and reduces a complicated, heterogeneous mass to an abstract, homogenous form. (Jay, Two Cheers for Paraphrase, 52). This synopsis excludes normatively and hierarchically everything outside of a homogenized and consistent paraphrastic account. The observation that this kind of account may be a disservice for some texts is particularly acute when the subject matter is itself suspicious of premature totalization, as it is the case in Adorno’s thought.  To face this challenge, Jay assures us that “by turning it on Adorno’s intellectual production and isolating what I saw as the five main forces in his own field or starts in his constellation—Western Marxism, aesthetic modernism, mandarin cultural despair, Jewish theology and … proto-deconstructionism—I attempted … a methodological or formal paraphrase of his work in order to illuminate its substantive tension (op. cit., 61-2).  So, paraphrase and synoptic approach can be gentle enough to respect the nature of its subject-matter without incurring in mimetic repetition.  In the introduction to Splinters in Your Eye, Jay returns to this problem, using Adorno’s aphorism “the splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass” (Adorno, Minima Moralia, 50). The splinter or the mote in question is an imaginative interpretation of the verse “why beholdest thou of the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”. This injunction is usually interpreted as a caution not to be judgmental. The “mote” is here converted, through the vicissitudes of translation, into a splinter. And the eye’s irritation, into a glimpse of truth (Jay, Splinters, xi).  It is through suffering, vicarious, or our own, that knowledge of society is possible, Adorno claims. In the same section, Adorno also refers positively to exaggeration. Jay will use this idea for the title of an essay on the Frankfurt School’s position regarding psychoanalysis.   Jay also refers to the provocative sentence that closes the section: “The whole is the false” (Minima Moralia, 50).  But if the whole is the false, what about critical theory? Adorno’s claim questions any attempt to bring the ideas of the different personalities involved in the Frankfurt School into a harmonic whole. Jay expounds further on the nature of the painful eye that it will avoid the illusion of a “panoptic vision.” This concept that Foucault borrowed from Jeremy Bentham’s speculations on a system of inescapable omniscient social control is the clearest counter-ideal to Critical Theory.  It is in recognition of the appropriateness of the fragmentary that Jay writes: “the exercises that follow are left in their unintegrated form, with no pretense to be a coherent narrative” (xvi).

What is a reviewer to do? To compound the fragmentations (from the subject-matter, the fragmentation of the intellectual historical account)? Or to try to suggest a synthesis that was already twice refused? Sometimes problems are best perceived by turning them around. In this case, by turning our gaze to a different approach, one which as hostile to Critical Theory as Jay’s is caring.

The last essay, “Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment,” places us on a different plane. In this chapter, Jay deals with a fringe movement whose members have made of the Frankfurt School, a scapegoat for the illnesses and rottenness of contemporary society. With a twist. Because what they perceive as negative is what many will call the positive signs of reparation of long due injustices: the fight against racism, against discrimination on the base of gender and sexual orientation, the inequality of opportunities for minorities of all kinds (see a complete list in p. 157).  This is more than ironic. As Jay comments in another essay, the Frankfurt School has been ofttimes criticized for its ineffectualness, for its failure to become practically engaged with mass social movements, for the lofty tone of its pronouncements, etc. These critics make the opposite claim.

Against the claim that castigates the Frankfurt School for its presumed role in the development of a counterculture which rejected and supposedly replaced the traditional American culture of the 40s and 50s, first in academia, then in the media and cultural industries,  and finally in society as a whole, the historian can proceed in two ways. The first will be to show that, maybe except Marcuse, the influence of the Frankfurt School in American academia and popular culture was, to say the least, limited.  The different “critical studies” and what is called in the humanities and social sciences “theory” borrows much more from French post-structuralist thinkers, and indirectly from Husserl, Heidegger, and Nietzsche than from Adorno and Horkheimer (Cusset, 2003).

Instead of following this road, Jay takes advantage of the opportunity to turn his regard into this distorted account in the hope that “something [be] revealed about the legacy of the Critical Theory—and, more importantly, about the current society that can turn it into a simplistic meme—” (161), a meme that under certain circumstances can turn deadly.  Jay refers here to the manifest written by the Norwegian neofascist Anders Behring Breivik before engaging in a terrorist attack that left 77 dead. Breivik, among other arguments to justify his acts, ranted against the influence of Cultural Marxism, referring even to Jay’s Dialectics of Enlightenment as proof for his claims.  Jay goes further to write that the situation calls for the kind of dialectical account that Adorno and Horkheimer devoted to the Enlightenment itself (166). If Jay does not offer us such an account, he lists references to different claims that distort and twist the legacy of the Frankfurt School. But he recognizes that to develop a critical theory of counter-enlightenment is beyond the scope of a single essay (167). Jay mentions a few attempts to apply the methodology devised by the Frankfurt School for their study of Authoritarian Personality (1950) to the current situation in the USA (168-9) but seems to have doubts on the merits of that methodology. Quoting a remark from Harvard’s historian Peter E. Gordon, he wonders about the appropriateness to assign individuals to personality types, as this mimics the reification of contemporary society (169). Maybe what this shows is that the Frankfurt School has many historians, but few disciples willing to follow in their path.  Only Habermas stands out as a continuation of sorts of the heritage of the Institute.

Was this fate foreshadowed in the early beginnings of the School?  Jay explores this question in the first two essays in the book. “Ungrounded” deals with the foundation of the Frankfurt’s Institute for Social Research (ISR), which through the particular circumstances of its origins and independence from party or government, gives rise to the accusation of being suspended in an abyss (Abgrund). Jay refers here to Georg Lukács, the Hungarian Marxist literature scholar and philosopher whose 1922 History and Class Consciousness influenced the group of young scholars that ultimately created the ISR, that gave origin to the Frankfurt School.  Lukács, as an orthodox Marxist, rejected the idea of a critical stance that is not anchored in a political party, which is itself the conscious will and vanguard of the working class. Instead of a privileged vantage point, Horkheimer and his comrades preferred a sort of “immanent critique,” which Jay describes quoting from one of Adorno’s translators: “immanent criticism turns the principle of identity…into the power for the presentation of the way in which  an object resists its subjective determination and finds itself lacking” (4).  Jay raises two potential objections to this approach. The first recasts Adorno’s objection that immanent critique cannot be fully grounded on itself as “the totality is never fully self-contained.” The second objection has to do with what Marcuse called “one-dimensionality” and Adorno “totally administered” society.  In such a society, apparent dissatisfaction becomes functionalized in the service of the status quo. Despite such doubts on the actual possibility of a critical regard into the society that is not immediately instrumentalized, the members of the School continued to elaborate their positions. What are, Jay wonders, the motivations for such an undertaking? Maybe, he wonders, that motivation reflects the particular circumstances of the establishment of the ISR?

Jay embarks in the already well-known stories of Felix Weil’s role as founder and financial benefactor of the Institute, and Horkheimer’s appointment as Director of the Institute. Toward the end of the essay, Jay turns to explore the possible debts of Critical Theory to the philosophy of Schelling (11). In particular, to Schelling’s early thinking. Horkheimer wrote on Schelling and Idealism in the 1920s, and also Adorno has a substantive debt to his thought (15). Jay observes that “Schelling’s critique of rationalist metaphysics was attractive to thinkers trying to extricate themselves from…[a] philosophy in which all contingency was absorbed into a relational system” (13).  Others have observed that Schelling’s philosophy seems to anticipate the Dialectic of Enlightenment (15).  And Adorno in Negative Dialectics quotes approvingly Schelling as an antidote to a rationalistic consciousness philosophy.  These considerations led Jay to affirm that the uncertainty of “Abgrund” (groundlessness) may be less damaging to critical theory and to emancipatory practice than one may initially suspect.

In “The hope that earthly horror does not possess the last word,” Jay reminisces on his early contacts with the leading members of the ISR during the research that led to his writing Dialectical Imagination.  Three points can be highlighted in this essay.  First, the degree to which the members of the Frankfurt School wanted to shape Jay’s narrative. Second, the different perspectives of the individual members. Finally, Jay’s interpretation of the feelings of the founders of the ISR about their Jewish origins, and about the influence of their background in the outlook and the public perception of the Institute.  One of many, the anecdote regarding the title of Jay’s book, is telling. Jay suggested the title “Permanent Exiles” (28-9).  Horkheimer and Weil criticized the title as not only unprecise but also dangerous because it lends justification to their many foes from the right.

The next chapter, “Max Horkheimer and the Family of Man,” explores the balancing act of Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s return to Germany. Horkheimer understood their public role as “reeducator of Germans, especially Youth, in the democratic values he had learned in exile” (35).  This understanding, and the realities of the Cold War, led to de-emphasize the earlier, more radical approach to contemporary society.  Jay exemplifies this with a close reading of Horkheimer’s talk at the opening in 1958 of the photography exhibits “The Family of Man” in the US-funded Amerika-Haus in Frankfurt. Jay emphasizes Horkheimer’s references to Kant, Emerson, and Dewey and their firm belief that man should count as an end and never as a means (36).

Further, Horkheimer characterizes the exhibit as “representative of all the forces that are now counteracting the…regressive movements that have occurred in Europe in recent years” (36). Jay notes the distance between the endorsement of the humanistic agenda of the exhibits and Horkheimer’s previous pronouncements in his writings of the late ’40s.  Also, Jay finds puzzling Horkheimer’s valorization of the power of images to give unmediated access to abstract philosophical concepts. After his return to Germany, Horkheimer increasingly endorsed the Bilderverbot, the biblical prohibition of images, which constitutes a central component of the Jewish faith (also to be analyzed in an essay comparing Adorno’s and Blumenberg’s position).

“Family of Man” approached the family at two levels. On the one hand, it showed pictures of couples and happy families from different cultures. On the other, it implied that humanity should be seen as one big family.  Jay deals with both levels and compares the underlying presuppositions of the exhibit with Horkheimer’s and Frankfurt Schools’ analysis of the family.  Jay also confronts Horkheimer’s remarks with Roland Barthes’ criticism of the exhibit. Jay sees the differences in approach mainly as a reflection of a difference in context.  Barthes was reacting against the danger of abstract universalism, whereas Horkheimer was dealing cautiously with the heavy heritage of Nazism and the war (45).

The “marriage” between Freud and Marx is the subject of the fourth essay.  The relationship of the Frankfurt School to Freud and psychoanalysis was complicated and not limited to the realm of theory. Horkheimer helped create a psychoanalytic institute in the University of Frankfurt and even invited it to share space in the ISR’s newly built building on the university campus. Horkheimer also lobbied the city of Frankfurt to give Freud the Goethe Prize in 1930. Even a few members of the ISR, including Horkheimer, underwent analysis.

Jay states four overlapping motivations that presided this matrimony. First, the hope that psychoanalysis may answer why orthodox Marxism, despite the widespread discontent with the status quo, failed in the 1920s’ Germany to generate a revolutionary practice. Second, to explain the emergence of Fascism, a social movement that traditional Marxism did not foresee. Third, in the case of Marcuse in particular, Freudism was expected to be a way to envisage a different civilization, beyond the one-dimensional one.  Lastly, in the case of Adorno and of Horkheimer, to build a plausible materialism. But, except for Fromm, their interest in Freud stayed mostly limited to his philosophical anthropology, and the members of the ISR remained indifferent to psychoanalysis as a therapy (53).

Jay surveys the different receptions of Freud in the Institute, from Fromm’s attempts to a build a social psychology which could be empirically verified and a tool to explore socio-political events, Adorno’s integration of Freudian insights into his analysis of the “culture industry” via de concept of fetishism, and Marcuse’s most explicit use of Freud for utopian purposes in Eros and Civilization (1955) (60).  In his work, and in the magazine Dissent, Marcuse attacked Fromm’s humanistic version of Marxism and his dismissal of Freud’s Metapsychology and instincts theory. Jay quotes Marcuse’s re-interpretation of Oedipal longings as archetypical of freedom from want, and his rejection of its surplus repression in the name of the reality principle.  Jay’s assessment that Fromm “never recuperated” from Marcuse’s onslaught in Dissent seems a bit extreme. Not only Fromm had a successful and long carrier, not only Marcuse’s name only become widely known after the 1968 student’s revolt, but Marcuse contributed a chapter to Fromm’s 1965 edited collection Socialist Humanism, indicating some level of agreement between the two.

Jay’s use of the metaphor of marriage to describe the attempts to bring to a synthesis Freud’s theory with Marxism or parts thereof also allows us to think a less blissful relationship, at least in Adorno’s late work (63).  Adorno was skeptical of a full reconciliation between the social and the psychological, and between the cultural and the natural.  He writes in his characteristic fashion: “The separation of Sociology and Psychology is both correct and false…correct insofar as it registers more intransigently the split that has actually taken place in reality than does the premature unification at the level of theory” (Sociology and Psychology, quoted by Jay, 64). The rejection of the premature unification of the social and the individual is supposed to prefigure a potential emancipatory outcome. He concludes this essay referring to Horkheimer’s work in post-WWII Germany to reintroduce the teaching of psychoanalysis and to renew the association of the ISR.

The fifth essay tells an enthralling story about the young Leo Löwenthal and his participation in the “Jewish renewal movement” in the 1920s. Löwenthal was very close to Rabbi Nobel, the charismatic rabbi that played a central role in developing the Freie Jüdische Lehrhaus. Jay discusses Nobel’s contradictions and how these allowed Nobel to be a magnet for highly educated and conflicted youth living through the turmoil of the first years of the Weimar Republic. Nobel had a refined German education, was an orthodox rabbi, a friend of the leading Jewish intellectuals of his time, and a gifted speaker.  Additionally, he helped Löwenthal financially during a bout of conflict between Löwenthal and his family.  Jay examines Lowenthal’s “Jewish writings,” which consists of an essay published in Nobel’s Festschrift (“The Demonic: Draft of a Negative Philosophy of Religion”) and a series of short articles on leading Jewish thinkers of modern times (Mendelsohn, Maimon, Heine, Marx, Lassalle, Herman Cohen, and Freud).  But, as Jay notes, Lowenthal’s energies were soon directed elsewhere (74). While there may be several reasons for this change of heart, the fact remains that Löwenthal’s interest in Jewish subjects faded, although maybe not entirely, as he republished his early essay on Heine in a 1947 issue of the magazine Commentary.

The sixth essay sets up a dialogue between Adorno and Blumenberg around the notion of “non-conceptuality.”  There are similarities between Adorno’s position in Negative Dialectics and Blumenberg’s criticism of the privileged role of concepts in philosophy. According to Jay, Blumenberg seems to have acknowledged his debt to Adorno. So, for example, Blumenberg gave a seminar on Negative Dialectics a year after its publication. While no transcripts from the workshop survived, the fact itself is meaningful.  Blumenberg used the notion of “non-conceptuality” in his writings of 1970, in what Jay considers a salute to Adorno.  Jay speaks of an “overlap” between the intentions of both thinkers to present an alternative to philosophy’s traditional preference for conceptualization (84).  Adorno and Blumenberg were both critical of Heidegger in general and of Heidegger’s attempt to offer a solution to the tension between conceptualization and content in particular. The title of the essay refers to the biblical Bildersverbot (prohibition of images), a common trope for a residual Jewish sensibility. Both Adorno and Blumenberg were of Jewish descent. Adorno’s father was Jewish, and so was Blumenberg’s mother. In the context of the Frankfurt School, the “ban on images” metaphor was used in two primary contexts. One, a refusal to engage in utopian speculation about an emancipated future society. The second, an affirmation of the irrepresentability of the Holocaust, as in Adorno’s ban on poetry after the Holocaust (90). Non-withstanding those similarities between the two thinkers, Adorno’s position is very different from Blumenberg’s.  As Jay shows it nicely, for Adorno, the non-conceptuality was historically bound, and a claim to redemption to be fulfilled in a different society. He quotes Adorno on Identity:

“To define identity as the correspondence of the thing-in-itself to its concept is hubris; but the ideal of identity must not be simply discarded … hidden in [the supposition of identity] is also the truth moment of ideology, the pledge that there should be no contradiction, no antagonism” (Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 149, quoted by Jay, 93).

Visual arts played no significant role in the work of the members of the Frankfurt School. Benjamin was the exception, and he was interested, among other things, in the “emancipation of color” in modern art. “Chromophilia: Der Blue Ritter, Walter Benjamin and the Emancipation of Color” brings together Jay’s interest in the history of visual arts in the early 20th century and his study of the Frankfurt School.

Using unpublished fragments from 1914-15, Jay presents Benjamin’s long-life interest in the color revolution. One opposes a child’s to an adult’s view of color. For the child, color is contour, but the adult sees objects only, abstracted from color fragment. Benjamin was, according to Jay, fascinated by the Blaue Ritter color experiments. In another fragment, Benjamin writes about the rainbow in contrast with graphic images, which with line and figure, separate the endless configuration of color.  Jay brings closer Benjamin’s reflection on color and his ideas about an Adamic language. WW I, which saw the death of two of the central figures of Der Blaue Reiter group, seem to have affected Benjamin’s hopes that the emancipation of color would foreshadow human freedom (111-12). In a following article devoted to Benjamin’s comments on stamps, Jay explores his own experiences in philately and its utopian dimensions.

The ninth essay expounds on the German American film theorist Miriam Hansen, the author of Cinema and Experience (2012). This one is the only essay in the book that deals with a thinker belonging to the younger generation of critical theorists.

As Jay puts it, Hansen’s problem is to develop a critical account of the film that goes beyond the blunt dismissal of the cultural industry characteristic of the first generation of critical theorists (including Krakauer). Hansen incorporated to her analysis the notion of a “counter-public sphere” in which technologically mediated distanced forms of interaction prevail. This notion elaborates on the ideas of Alexander Kluge and Oscar Negt (both associated with the Frankfurt School and with Habermas in particular) (125-6).  Hansen also rescues from the early Frankfurt theorist the idea of mimetic comportment and the ideal of the “renewal of experience” (126).  Hansen claims, according to Jay, for the existence of an alternative public sphere that can only realize itself through the destruction of the dominant, bourgeois public sphere. Jay is somewhat skeptical about the possibilities of such an alternative. Hansen showed an alternative public sphere realized through cinema only for a limited period, which corresponds to the early silent cinema.  Furthermore, Jay defends the rights of the public sphere in its Habermasian sense, as a place of rational discussion, even as an ideal for democracy (134). Paradoxically, the criticism of purposive rationality cannot make room for the straightforward enjoyment provided by imaginative identification.

Based on a paper presented at a Brandeis conference to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Marcuse’s One-dimensional Man, Jay explores the different ways in which this famous book can be said to be “ironic.”  First, there is the irony that this pessimist analysis of contemporary society, which forecloses all possibility of a challenge to the encroachments of instrumental rationality, is published at the very same moment when new avenues of resistance are opened.  That consideration leads to a review of the analysis of irony in Adorno, and eventually to the question in what sense the argument in One-dimensional Man is itself ironic.  In Minima Moralia, Adorno seems to deny that irony is still possible.  Irony for  Adorno “convicts its object by presenting it at what it purports to be” (quoted by Jay, 138). But, in our advanced industrial societies, “Irony’s medium, the difference between ideology and reality, has disappeared” (quoted by Jay, 139).  But, is this also Marcuse’s position? Jay probes different types of irony, with the object, ultimately, of examining if there is, in One-dimensional Man, a “more promising notion of irony” that avoids the flaws of the ones Jay already reviewed. Jay will look for an alternative in a notion of irony described by Christoph Menke, a member of the third generation of the School.  Discussing Oedipus Rex, Menke makes a difference between the “irony of the action” and the “the poets’ irony.” The first refers to the character Oedipus’ blind responsibility for his fate. The second, which we share as spectators, is our knowledge of the situation and our capability to foresee the outcome. Both irony positions are unified in Oedipus at the end of the play.

How are these insights important to evaluating Marcuse’s reflections on advanced capitalist society in a context which is quite different from the one we live today?  Taking stock of Marcuse’s work would require identifying what is living and what is dead. Marcuse himself, at the end of his book, offered a gloomy picture of, on the one hand, a critical theory unable to provide a bridge between the present and its future, and the other, the wretched of the earth, free of the encumbrance of theory but driven forward by their despair. Critical Theory need to remain solidary of those without hope, advises Marcuse, even though the system may be strong enough to defuse any confrontation: “The economic and technical capabilities of the established societies are sufficiently vast to allow for adjustments and concessions to the underdog.”  On his side, Jay concludes, “we can still find in…[Marcuse’s]  insistence on the superiority of a two-dimensional understanding of the human condition over its one-dimensional alternative something akin to … [a] committed pursuit of personal excellence … an ironic attitude that is neither cynical nor disengaged, … [that] resists accommodation to social pretense … It may not provide the reassurance of Socratic or dramatic irony at its most knowing, but in a world that will not grant us such knowledge, it keeps alive the negative power of two-dimensionality that Marcuse so eloquently defended.” (150)

Jay’s book carries the subtitle “Frankfurt School provocations,” asserting the longevity of the program of the early critical theory.  The attacks of the ultra-conservative factions add some credence to the luster of the ISR, and the blossoming of a third and fourth generation of thinkers who declare some degree of fidelity to the original vision of Weil, Horkheimer, Pollock, and others should at least provide a modicum of hope.




Cusset, François. 2003. French Theory. Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et es mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux État Unis. Éditions La Découverte, Paris.

Jay, Martin. 1988. “Two Cheers for Paraphrase: The Confessions of a Synoptic Intellectual Historian.” In: Martin Jay, Fin-De-Siècle Socialism. Routledge, New York and London, pp. 52-63.

Marie Luise Knott (Ed.): The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem

The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem Book Cover The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem
Marie Luise Knott (Ed.). Translated by Anthony David
University of Chicago Press
Cloth $45.00

Reviewed by: Michael Maidan

Those familiar with the names of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem are likely aware that they were on opposite sides of the polemics around Arendt’s book on the Eichmann trial. But they may be less acquainted with the extent of the intellectual and deep personal relationship between them.  As it is explained in Marie Luise Knott’s useful ‘Introduction’ to this volume, only when we take into consideration the whole series of letters that they had exchanged over the years, ‘does a fuller portrait of their friendship emerge’ (vii). The value of this exchange is not merely biographical. Both Arendt and Scholem witnessed, at times participated in, and overall reflected on some of the more dramatic events of the first half of the 20th century. Their reflections at time intersected, and at time influenced each other, sometimes in imperceptible ways.

In 1963, Gershom Scholem wrote to Hannah Arendt a letter harshly condemning Arendt’s positions in her recently published Eichmann in Jerusalem. The controversy created by her book and its influence on the life and work of Arendt was recently dramatized in Margarethe von Trotta’s film Hannah Arendt (2012).

Scholem points out that Eichmann’ in Jerusalem really deals with two subjects: (1) Jews and their behavior during the Holocaust (Scholem writes: the ‘Catastrophe’); (2) Eichmann and his responsibilities (Letter 132, p. 201). Regarding the question of the behavior of the Jews, Scholem mentions the many years which he devoted to this question, and not just in the context of the Holocaust, but the course of Jewish history in general, and its prior catastrophes. On this question, his position is that:

There are aspects of Jewish history (and this is what I have occupied myself with for the past fifty years) which are hardly free of abysses: a demonic decay in the midst of life; insecurity in the face of this world (in contrast to the security of the pious, whom your book, bafflingly, does not mention); and a weakness that is perpetually confounded and mingled with trickery and lust for power. These have always existed, and it would be odd indeed if they didn’t come to the fore in some form at times of catastrophe (201).

Scholem intimates that this is indeed an important and grave subject, much more important thanthe question why the Jews did not defend themselves against the Naziaggressor. But, we lack the required historical perspectiveto address this subject. He finds that Arendt in her book ‘addresses only the weakness of Jewish existence’, and that to the extent that weakness there was, her emphasis was ‘completely one sided’ (201). Furthermore, her account obscures the problem. The form of the narrative substitutes itself for the content. It is Arendt’s language, more than the content itself that makes people angry with the book. Scholem points out to the ‘lighthearted style, by which I mean the English word “flippancy,” that you employ all too often in your book. It’s inappropriate for your topic, and in the most unimaginable way.’ But, if Scholem finds parts of the book frivolous, it is, first and foremost, because of a ‘lack of love of Israel’, a lack of empathy for her own people, which Scholem claims is quite common among Jews which had been members of the Left.

Arendt replied with a letter that curtly dismisses Scholem’s criticism. She rejects as uninformed the idea that she had ever been a member of the Left (Letter 133, p. 205). And regarding the more general claim that she lacks ‘Ahavat Israel’, Arendt responds unambiguously that she never hides the fact that she is Jewish: ‘That I am a Jew is one of the unquestioned facts of my life’ (206). But, for Arendt this fact belongs to the realm of the pre-political. She cannot refrain herself from antagonizing Scholem and asking about the history and meaning of ‘Ahavat Israel’ (love of Israel), a question that certainly would not contribute to mend fences with Scholem. She goes on and rejects the notion of love to a collective or to an abstract idea. She finds the idea of ‘loving of Israel’ baffling, as if loving herself, something that she claims to find impossible.

This exchange of letters and their publication by Scholem ended thirty years of mostly epistolary relationship between the political thinker and philosopher and the leading scholar of Jewish mysticism and kabbalah. Between 1939 and 1964, Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem exchanged close to 140 letters, ranging in content from the mundane to dealing with the tragic events of the thirties and forties, and to their early efforts for the salvaging and reconstruction of the remains of Jewish communities of Western and Eastern Europe after the Holocaust.

Walter Benjamin first brought them together. And Benjamin’s tragic death, the fate of his unpublished work, and the pious will to eventually publish his work and rescue it from oblivion cemented their relationship and is an invisible thread stitching the letters together.

In the immediate postwar period, both Arendt and Scholem were personally involved in a complex process to reclaim the Jewish cultural heritage from the ruins of Europe. Many letters in this volume reflect their travails in this period, ranging from official memorandums to more personal letters in which they exchange information about the progress in their joint work.

Arendt and Benjamin became friends during their exile in Paris. Arendt fled to Paris in 1933, after having been briefly detained by the German police. The same year Benjamin left Germany, first for Paris and then for Ibiza, returning finally to Paris. Some of the earliest letters in this book refer to Benjamin. Letter 1 makes this shared connection clear:

I’m really worried about Benji. I tried to line up something for him here but failed miserably. At the same time, I’m more than ever convinced how vital it is to put him on secure footing, so he can continue his work. As I see it, his work has changed, down to his style. Everything strikes me as far more emphatic, less hesitant. It often seems to me as if he is only now making progress on the questions most decisive for him. It would be awful if he were to be prevented from continuing. (3)

Letter 4 shows the confusion and hopelessness of the refugees, trying to make sense of the defeat of the French army and the capitulationof the Third Republic. Writing from New York, Arendt shares with Scholem the information she has about Benjamin’s suicide, and the events preceding the tragic outcome. The letter ends with a reference to a question that will surface again and again in the correspondence: the fate of Benjamin’s literary estate, who has it, and to whom it belongs. To ponder on those questions at that time may seem totally irrelevant as Benjamin was virtually unknown outside of Germany. The undercurrent to this preoccupation is, at that point, Arendt and Scholem antipathy for Adorno (referred in this letter by his real last name: Wiesengrund), and their suspicions that the Institute for Social Research will try to bury Benjamin’s legacy deep into their archives.

In letter five, Scholem complains to Arendt of the lack of response from Horkheimer and Adorno to his questions regarding Benjamin’s estate.  In letter seven, Arendt tells Scholem of the small mimeographed homage to Benjamin prepared by the Institutein 1942. She notes that the only part of the estate that it contains is the Theses, a copy of which was given to Arendt by Benjamin. Scholem in the following letter complains of not having received anything from anybody. Arendt replies promising to send Scholem her only copy of the Theses and refers to her conversation with Adorno and with Horkheimer.  The latter confirmed to her that the Institute has a crate with Benjamin papers, that they are kept in a safe, and that the Institute does not know what is inside, something that Arendt does not believe to be true. The same complaints return time and again throughout the correspondence. Their misgivings are not only consequence of misinformation (Benjamin entrusted several of his manuscripts to friends in Paris, and some were only recovered in recent years, while other papers were apparently lost or destroyed) but also ideological suspicion.  Scholem makes it clear to Arendt that he believes that Horkheimer’s analysis of antisemitism—probably a reference to Horkheimer’s 1939 The Jews and Europe —is ‘an impudent, arrogant, and repulsive load of nonsense without a shred of intelligence or substance’ (20). In another letter, Arendt mentions to Scholem that ‘meanwhile, the [American Jewish] Committee has charged Mr. Horkheimer with the task of battling anti-Semitism. Putting the fox in charge of the henhouse is only one of the many amusing aspects of the story. Incidentally, aside from his repulsiveness, Horkheimer is even more half-witted than even I had thought possible.’ (Letter 13, p. 25). This is a reference to the project which resulted in the publication by Adorno and others of The Authoritarian Personality (1950), and of several monographies on the nature of antisemitism and authoritarian tendencies in general and in America in particular.

Several letters in the late 1940’s deal with a failed attempt to bring an edition of Benjamin collected writings in English. While Arendt agreed to put together the volume, she declined to write an introduction and requested one from Scholem. After invoking different excuses, she gets to the real issue: ‘I still haven’t been able to come to terms with Benjamin’s death, and therefore over the subsequent years I’ve never managed to have the necessary distance one needs to write “about” him’ (72). Indeed, she will only write about Benjamin in the short introduction to her edition of his collected works in English, published in 1968.  Benjamin collected works were finally published in 1955 in Germany, edited and introduced by Adorno (Letter 112, p. 183), followed by an edition of his letters, edited by both Scholem and Adorno.

 Many of the letters document Arendt’s and Scholem’s involvement with efforts to rescue Jewish cultural and religious objects that were looted by the Nazis and stored in different locations, particularly in what become the American military occupation zone. Arendt participated in this effort as Executive and Field director of CJR, Inc., a not for profit organization which acted as cultural affairs executor for the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization (JRSO), an organization established by the leading Jewish organizations in the US, Mandatory Palestine, Britain and France to assist in the restitution of ownerless Jewish property in Germany and the occupied countries of central Europe. The ‘Introduction’ presents a detailed reconstruction of this period in Arendt’s life that is not well documented in her standard biography by Young-Bruehl.Arendt involvement started with a study about the Nazi’s policies to pillage and destroy Jewish culture commissioned by historian Salo Baron 1942. In her study she documented not only the pillaging in Germany and Austria, but also in occupied Poland and France. She later worked between 1944-1946 as a researcher in the European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (CEJCR), an organization created by Baron. Her task was to gather information and prepare a list of Jewish cultural organizations existing in axis-occupied Europe, which included also information on the properties owned by these institutions. Three years later, Baron hired Arendt as executive secretary of a successor organization, the JCR.

If Arendt’s role in the work of the JCR was at the organizational level, Scholem participated as a scholar of Judaism, as an individual personally familiar with the holding of the major Judaic libraries in Europe before the war, and as a representative for the Hebrew University in the just recently established State of Israel. Benjamin wrote in his Theses on the Philosophy of History (a copy of which he entrusted with Arendt before his failed attempt to cross the French-Spanish border) that ‘even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious’.  Scholem’s and Arendt’s efforts, as well as the efforts of their many partners in this mission, were directed to prove Benjamin wrong on this count, by rescuing whatever could still be rescued, and by making sure that the intellectual and cultural treasures recovered did not become mere archaeological remnants but played a renewed role in a living history.

This section of the letters alternates between the businesslike to the personal. Accordingly, someof the lettersare formal, others relaxed and friendly. Some, combine both aspects. In letter 5, Arendt reports on different matters related to their common work in JCR, but then the letter ends with a copy of an early poem by Benjamin.  While a detailed study of these letters will only be of real interest for an historian of the post-war Jewish communities in Europe, even a superficial reading conveys both the gloom and the determination of those involved in this project to do whatever possible to salvage the material remains of European Jewish culture. The book includes also four extant field reports (Number 12 through 18) and a final report to the JCR Commission.

In a letter from 1942, Scholem informs Arendt that his book Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism has been recentlypublished, and copies sent to United States. He asks Arendt to read the book and invites her comments, not as an expert in the subject matter, but as a ‘reflective reader’. Two years later Arendt mentions having sent a review to the journal Menorah (276, note 4), which she claims she wrote for Scholem’s eyes, but decided to publish because, even if she felt inadequate to the task, other readers would have been even less adequate (22).   The review was never published, and the manuscript apparently did not survive. Arendt will have the opportunity to discuss the revised second edition (1946), in her Jewish History, Revised (1946). Arendt reads Scholem’s metahistorical conclusions drawn from the history of Jewish Mysticism in the light of her own hypothesis about the failed nature of Jewish emancipation and assimilation to the majority cultures of Eastern and Central Europe which she elaborated in her biography of the Berlin Jewish salonnière, Rahel Varnhagen and in her essay ‘The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition’ (1944).

Arendt’s critical assessment of Jewish emancipation brings into play three ideal types of modern Jews: the pariah, the parvenu, and the conscious pariah. She adopts from Max Weber the notion of pariah peoples, i.e., ethnic minorities characterized by a specific social and economic role and kept separated from mainstream society. But she does notconduct her analysis on sociological, economical or historical terms, but through the mediation of literary characters which incarnate these ideal types. Hence her reliance on Heine and Kafka, which represent—according to her interpretation—forms of rebellion against the pariah status and of rejection of the ways of the individualistic parvenu. These thinkers and artists reject assimilation, including assimilation by identification with revolutionary struggles, as many Jews did in the early 20th century. Arendt concludes her essay with the following reflection, which exposes the tensions within her view of politics:

only within the framework of a people can a man live as a man among men, without exhausting himself. And only when a people lives and functions in consort with other peoples can it contribute to the establishment upon earth of a commonly conditioned and commonly controlled humanity (Arendt, The Jew as Pariah: The Hidden Tradition, Jewish Writings, 2007, 297).

Scholem is skeptical. He rejects Arendt’s interpretation: ‘I’d really like to lead off with a discussion of your thesis of the pariah’ he writes to her and adds: ‘to my inner “Rashi”—a reference to one of the most important medieval rabbinical interpreters of both the Bible and the Talmud—the texts speak a different language’.  He adds that ‘in order to squeeze them into the concepts you employ you end up leaving many things out that don’t fit.’ (24). He rejects Arendt’s interpretation of Heine and Kafka, two authors and are central to Arendt’s thesis. But Scholem excuses himself of any detailed discussion, adducing exhaustion and lack of energy at that time to engage in any serious intellectual dispute.

The intellectual, political and emotional differences between Arendt and Scholem emerge clearly in their disagreements about the nature of Zionism. Arendt seems to believe that Scholem is close to her position or at least understands sympathetically her point of view. On close reading, nothing seems to be farther from the truth.

Arendt’s criticism of Zionism is twofold. She criticizes the transformation of the Zionist idea into an ethno-political nationalism. On this point, she feels close to Scholem’s ideas of a cultural Zionism. Her other criticism relates to the strategy of the Zionist movement vis a visthe Palestinian Arab population. Also, in this matter she felt that she could expect a warm interlocutor in Scholem, who was one of the founders of the short-lived Brit Shalom (Peace Alliance) movement, who advocated for Jewish and Arab peaceful coexistence in Palestine.  Her main essay on this matter was published in 1944, under the title ‘Zionism reconsidered’. In her article, she criticizes the positions adopted in by ‘the largest and more influential section of the World Zionist Organization’in 1944, advocating the establishment of an independent Jewish national state in Palestine. Scholem’s reply comes in a letter from early 1946, several months later.  He thanks her for the paper, but expresses his concerns about her essay, which he dismisses outright.  ‘In vain I asked myself what sort of credo you had in mind when you wrote it’ he,writes. ‘Your article has nothing to do with Zionism but is instead a patently anti-Zionist, warmed-over version of hard line Communist criticism, spiced with a vague Diaspora nationalism’ (42). He continues refuting each of Arendt’s central claims in a detailed way, concluding in a stern although amicable way.

Arendt replied a few months later. She first alludes to an attempt to publish some of Benjamin writings in English. After concluding the business that ‘the two of us can agree on’, she moves to their disagreements about Zionism. She first attempts to establish a ground level for their discussion, explaining her two main concerns. On the one hand, a rejection of any ideology or worldview, which she opposes to a ‘political standpoint’. She rejects ‘Zionism’ as an ideology but approves of Scholem’s decision to emigrate to Palestine (which is the practical content of the Zionist idea!). And while she rejects Zionism, she claims that her rejection is grounded in her concern with the Jewish settlement in British mandatory Palestine and not because of any ideology. Having established that, she proceeds to restate her arguments in Zionism Reconsidered, the main being her rejection of the concept of an ethnically based nation-state (49-50), the idea of the identity between state, people and territory. She even states that her opposition to the idea of a Jewish state is not limited to the issue of the Arab population and their opposition to such a Jewish state, but because a multinational state ‘is the most rational political organization’ (50). She also re-states her position regarding the failure of the Jewish organizations to stand behind the call for a Jewish supranational army combatting Germany alongside the allies, somewhat along the lines of the free armies of the German occupied countries that combated under their own uniforms within the allied forces.

Eichmann in Jerusalem: An essay on the banality of Evil markthe final break between Arendt and Scholem. To the letter we discussed earlier, Arendt replied with a strong rebuttal in Letter 133.  Arendt rejects Scholem’s characterization of her as being a former leftist. She claims not be interested in her youth on history or politics, but only in philosophy. And that only recently she had the opportunity to study Marx. Furthermore, she claims to have never negated her Jewishness, which she interprets as a ‘brute fact’.  Nevertheless, this does not translate, as Scholem’s seems to imply, into a form of generic solidarity with other Jews, what Scholem described as ‘Ahavat Israel’ (love or concern for the fate of other Jews).  Arendt claims that she has never experienced such abstract love for any‘collective’. Furthermore, such ‘love’ would have been suspect to her, as a sort of self-love. She illustrates her point with an anecdote from a conversation she had with Golda Meir. Arendt expressed to Meir her concern about the lack of separation between the State and religion in Israel, whereas Meir answered that while she herself does not believe in God, she believes in the Jewish people. And Arendt adds:

This is a horrible comment, in my view, and I was too shocked to offer a response. But I could have replied that the magnificence of this people once lay in its belief in God—that is, in the way its trust and love of God far outweighed its fear of God. And now this people believes only in itself! What’s going to become of this? (207)

The underlying question is, as Arendt puts it clearly, one of patriotism.  And for Arendt patriotism is not possible without criticism, i.e., without considering that ‘that injustice committed by my own people naturally provokes me more than injustice done by other’ (207). The letter addresses then a number of claims  made against the book which she considers to be invalid: that she turned Eichmanninto a Zionist, that she asked why Jews in axis occupied countries did not defend themselves, that instead she really addressed the question of the collaboration of the Jewish appointed authorities during the period of the ‘final solution”, that if Jews had no material possibility to defend themselves in an active way, they should have embraced a policy of complete refusal to collaborate.  The only point in which Arendt claims to agree with Scholem is Eichmann’s sentence. She agrees that it should have been carried out, even if she disagrees with most other issues.  In fact, Scholem disagreed with the carrying out of the sentence (213).

The letter concludes with a discussion of the idea of ‘banality of evil’.  Arendt explains her idea: evil is not radical, it is shallow, even if some sorts of evil can be extreme (209). She promises to develop later this idea, which she does, at least in part, in her study of Kant.

Scholem responds to Arendt’s option of non-collaboration in a long paragraph in Letter 135.  Scholem observes that, first, such a notion is used by Arendt to create a moral and political yardstick that is totally unfounded: ‘By presenting as a feasible humane and political strategy, and not for individual Jews but for millions of them, you end up elevating into a kind of postfestum measuring stick of judgment’ (212).  But he leaves open the door to a discussion of evil, which he interprets in terms of bureaucratization of behavior, although he makes clear that he believes that this idea is an unrealistic description of the actual events: “The gentlemen enjoyed their evil, so long as there was something to enjoy. One behaves differently after the party’s over, of course (214).

The next exchange of letters is cordial but more reserved. Finally, the exchange ends with a letter from Scholem announcing a trip to New York to speak on Benjamin at the Leo Baeck Institute. Did they meet? In any event, no further letter is extant.

Paul Ricoeur: Philosophical Anthropology. Writing and Lectures, Volume 3

Philosophical Anthropology Book Cover Philosophical Anthropology
Paul Ricoeur. Edited by Johann Michel and Jérôme Porée. Translated by David Pellauer
Polity Press
Paperback €25.53

Reviewed by: Michael Maidan

This volume, much like its two predecessors, gathers Ricoeur’s miscellaneous papers and conferences; and this is all the more true for the French edition, as almost all the papers in this particular volume have already been published in English. The first volume in this collection is dedicated to psychoanalysis, and the second to hermeneutics. Subject matter is what unifies the papers in the first book, while in the case of the second the unity is predicated on the method. As for the third book, unification comes from its object, but what kind of object are we exactly talking about here?

In this publication’s introduction, the scope and limitation of the title chosen for this particular collection is explained as follows. On the one hand, Ricoeur rarely used the expression ‘philosophical anthropology’ to refer to his own work (ix) except in the essay that opens this book: ‘The Antinomy of Human Reality and the Problem of a Philosophical Anthropology’. In his intellectual autobiography, included in the series The Library of the Living Philosophers, Ricoeur refers to the Philosophy of the Will as a project of philosophical anthropology but adds that the program remains unfulfilled (ix-x). On the other hand, the major themes of Ricoeur’s philosophy seem to belong to a philosophical anthropology.

The book is composed of 16 papers, divided into three sections, representing the many stages in Ricoeur’s thought. Within each section, papers are arranged mostly by chronological order, though at times the editors chose to emphasize the thematic to the chronologic. This is the case of the first paper, which was selected as an introduction to the whole, and one of the rare ones to discuss, in an introductory paragraph, the project of a philosophical anthropology (1). Ricoeur’s claim is that there is urgency to the task of a philosophical anthropology because man is being pulled apart into the naturalized form prevalent in the sciences, the metaphysical retreat to ontology (possibly a reference to Heidegger), and the diagnostic of an alienated man in the criticism of modernity (possibly a reference to Marxism and to the theories of alienation). Nevertheless, the paper focuses on one issue, ‘both specific enough and revelatory enough to show what makes it a problem’ (2), the ambivalence in which man finds himself ‘tended between an infinite and a finite pole’. Ricoeur rejects the idea that finitude is the central concept for a philosophical anthropology, and suggests instead the triad ‘finitude-infinitude-intermediary’. Accordingly, we cannot start from something simple, such as perception, but from something double, perception and language, or maybe better, the prephilosohpical richness that exists in language, symbol and myth. But because philosophy can only partially elucidate this richness, a philosophical anthropology is a task that can never be completed (19).

The opening section, on Will, comprises four papers. The first one, on attention —Ricoeur’s first published philosophical work— is a revised and expanded version of a talk he gave in 1940, shortly before joining the army at the wake of WWII, during which he will be imprisoned in a German camp for the rest of the war. This paper is particularly interesting for its exploration of Ricoeur’s relationship to Husserl’s phenomenology, which is mentioned several times. But Ricoeur does not appear, at that time, committed to the phenomenological approach, which coexist with references to other thinkers and schools in the text (Wundt, behaviorism, William James, Gestalt psychology, etc.).

The second paper, on the phenomenology of the voluntary and the involuntary, is contemporaneous with Ricoeur’s doctoral thesis, published as Philosophy of Will, I. The Voluntary and the Involuntary (1950). Ricoeur states that the study of the voluntary and the involuntary moments of consciousness have to be guided by the ideal of the unity of the human person (53). This study has also the intention to address the big philosophical question of the relationship between nature and freedom by proposing a practical mediation between them (54). Ricoeur approaches the problem carefully, sidelining the ontological problem, engaging in a second-order reflexion on the reflexive aspects of the will.

This goes on in two additional papers focusing on the philosophy of Will, marking Ricoeur’s realization of the need to combine the phenomenological approach with an approach inspired by the analytical philosophy of language and with an hermeneutic approach, each having their own domains of legitimacy and justification (73). This is accomplished in the fourth essay in this section, which is devoted again to the relationship between phenomenology and philosophy of language.

The second section, on Action, opens with ‘The symbol Gives Rise to Thought’, which presents Ricoeur’s distinctive philosophical approach. Playing with the multiple meanings of the expression in French, Ricoeur claims that ‘the symbol gives; I do not posit its meaning; it is what gives meaning, but what it gives has to be thought, has to be thought through’ (108). The immediacy represented in the symbol is already mediated in Ricoeur’s approach, as he takes his examples from the domain of the history of religion, psychoanalysis, and poetics (110). This material is further refined in a three staged process, a phenomenological, a hermeneutical and finally, a properly philosophical one. His approach starts with symbols but steers clear of allegorical interpretation (120). Ricoeur explains this point with an example taken from his Fallible Man, published the same year. Ricoeur claims that in order to speak about guilt we need to have recourse to certain symbols (e.g., pollution, deviation, erring, hybris, etc.). According to Ricoeur, these symbols do not add to the original experience of evil, but are the experience of evil. The symbol truly opens and uncovers a domain of experience (121, and philosophy should ‘decipher human beings starting from the symbol of chaos, of intermixture, and of a fall’ (121). In this context Ricoeur refers to Kant’s essay on ‘radical evil’ (a recurring reference in other papers), and refers to his philosophical approach as a form of ‘transcendental deduction’ (122). But the ‘symbolic turn’ does not end at the anthropological and reflexive level. Ricoeur tasks philosophy with the challenge to surpass anthropology, and reintegrate human beings in a totality (123). He does not elaborate about the meaning of such totality, which does seem to point to a religious dimension.

The next two papers in this section, respectively on freedom and myth were written for the Encyclopaedia Universalis, a French offshoot of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. They illustrate Ricoeur’s combination of a philosophy of language and the hermeneutics of symbols.

In ‘The Symbolic Structure of Action’ Ricoeur argues that ‘there is no human action unless it has already been articulated, mediated, and interpreted by symbols’ (176). This is valid not only for social action but also for elementary actions, insofar as singular agents can confer meaning to them. Ricoeur proposes to postpone to a second stage the study of how an individual, a group, or a culture represents the symbolic conditions of its existence (representative symbolism), and to look first at symbolism as constitutive of action. He achieves it by temporarily bracketing the difference between symbol and signification. Signification is analytically present in action, insofar as we understand action as being different from an event. Action refers to intention, motives, agent, i.e., to the language game of action. The next step is to ask what it is exactly that the symbol adds to this signification. Ricoeur lists six features: (1) the term symbol accentuates the public character of the signifying; (2)the symbol introduces us to the structured character of action; (3)the symbol introduces us to the idea of a rule; (4) the symbolic order is ruled-governed, and the rule for rules is exchange, a notion that Ricoeur borrows here from Levy-Strauss; (5) A symbolic system provides a context for the description of particular actions; (6) Finally, we can speak of symbolism as a readability of action. But is it legitimate to speak of the symbolism of action as a discourse? Ricoeur underlines a few potential objections but concludes that, within a certain limit, it is possible speak of a culture as a discourse (186). The second part of the paper focuses on symbolism as representation of action. The problems exposed here concern the ‘representative gap’ between the symbolic order and the order of action. Citing a famous section of Marx and Engels’s German Ideology, Ricoeur suggests that the real problem is not the presumed gap between the material praxis and its imaginary representation, but ‘the passage from constitutive symbolism [in Marx’s text, ‘the language of real life’ MM]…to representative symbolism’, i.e., from one symbolism to another (188). This change does not preclude the existence of a gap between these two symbolisms, which Ricoeur studies briefly in the following sections on narrative fiction and on ideology. Ricoeur concludes his paper with a reflexion on the role of the philosopher in identifying and condemning the hijacking and perverse use of symbolism and discourse for a rhetoric of domination (194)

This section concludes with Ricoeur’s address to the 1988 World Congress of Philosophy. Entitled ‘Human Beings as the Subject of Philosophy’, this paper is probably the closest that Ricoeur comes to offering an account of his philosophical anthropology. This paper follows closely the argument which will be later presented in Oneself as Another, published in 1990.

Ricoeur begins by asking what kind of discourse on human beings is the philosopher’s own. He goes on saying that this restriction of the field reflects the linguistic turn adopted by most contemporary thinkers, but even from there it ‘cannot proceed in a direct…immediate and intuitive fashion’ (195). Rather, we would need to take a number of stages in an itinerary that starts with the almost neutral idea of a person, until we progressively reach the complex determination of the self. Ricoeur suggests here three levels: linguistic, praxeological and ethical. The linguistic level is itself divided into a semantic and a pragmatic level. At the semantic level, we can speak of an individual as just an entity we can refer to (197). It is only at the pragmatic level, a level that takes into account the context of interlocution, that the individual appears not only as something that can be spoken about but also as the one who speaks, as in the illocutionary act. But the self shown in the speech acts is still mired into paradoxes, which cannot be resolved at this level, without involving a form of pre-understanding, similar to the one presented in Husserl and Heidegger’s philosophy. According to Ricoeur, the relationship between the results of analytical philosophy and phenomenology is that of a ‘reciprocal implication’ (201).

The transition between the linguistic and praxeological level is somewhat abrupt. Ricoeur explains: ‘I propose to make concrete the characterization of the person as a self, by tying the notion of a speaking subject to that of an acting and suffering subject’ (201). Human action is action that is spoken about, but action cannot immediately be reduced to the philosophy of language. The theory of action has a certain degree of autonomy. This section concludes with a reaffirmation of the necessary entanglement between phenomenological approach and philosophy of language, already stated at the end of the prior section.

From the theory of action Ricoeur moves to the ethical level in the next section, which centers in the experience of moral imputation. Imputation, a judgment that a person is responsible for the consequences of his or her actions, presupposes not only the linguistic and practical aspects of the self previously accounted for, but also to consider the ‘logical, historical and teleological structure of action’. Ricoeur also refers to the need to elucidate the role of self-evaluation and to account for the potentially conflictual nature of action. Ricoeur ends his exposé with two methodological comments. In the first one, he explains his journey as a cumulative one, as a grafting procedure, whereas the ethical is added to the practical dimensions, as these were previously added to the linguistic ones. In the second one, he offers, in a few lines, a brief but stern defense of philosophy’s role elaborating the presuppositions of any empirical science of man (208).

The third section is composed of Ricoeur’s late papers. The first three focus on Ricoeur’s reworking of the analytical discussion of personal identity. A fourth paper explore a phenomenology of the uncanny, concentrating on the experience of the foreign or Other.. This last paper is followed by a conference talk, presenting a two-fold interest. First, it is one of the rare occasions in which Ricoeur addresses explicitly the question of religion in a philosophical context, as opposed to his many confessional writings; second, it is possibly the first time that Ricoeur uses the notion of the ‘capable man’, appearing first in the subtitle and then as the headline of the essay’s first section.

Ricoeur begins in agreement with the organizers, stating that what constitutes the modern understanding of religion is the shift from ontology to ethics. He goes on considering his contribution as the exploration of a region of human experience, the experience of the capable man, and of the way religion can be said to address this experience. In the short development that follows, Ricoeur presents the discourse of capability as a discourse that precedes the ethical discourse, while intimately bound to the hermeneutic of selfhood. Capability appears as the primary ground, reflecting different types of inabilities or incapacities. It also appears as the presupposition of imputability, defined here as the capacity of an agent to be subject to an imputation, and the capacity of an agent to submit his or her action to the requirement of a symbolic order (271) –the most important aspect of which is an agent’s capacity to place his or her action under the role of justice. Capability is not an ontological trait, but a belief that is more than an opinion (275). This belief coexists with its opposite, disbelief, where Ricoeur now places much of what he placed before under the umbrella of the fallible. Ricoeur then goes on presenting religion in its interaction with man as capable man, though we should note that he does so under the form of the ‘incapable’. Ricoeur lists several points to this interaction: (1) Religion touches man at the level of a specific incapacity; (2) Religion purports to bring help and liberate a buried capacity; (3) Religion brings about this regeneration by specific symbolic means that reawaken fundamental moral capacities (276).

Ricoeur here analyzes over several pages Kant’s notion of a radical evil, reframing the problem of evil from an ontological stance into an anthropological and phenomenological one; rendering evil as a crisis of attestation, one whose origin is inscrutable (286). But even if man is corruptible, there is hope insofar as man possesses also a good will. Here, hope is primarily mediated by religion, a mediation that includes also tensions that may develop between hope and its institutional and symbolic instances. Finally, Ricoeur states, together with Kant, that hope is beyond the alternative of ontology and ethics, it is the ‘opening to a dimension alien to the dichotomy’ (289). Ricoeur’s considerations certainly reflect his deep personal beliefs, but the reader may wonder if he is not inadvertently crossing the fine line between a phenomenology —albeit one instructed by a negative hermeneutics— of religion and theology here.

The epilogue of this compilation is a short text prepared by Ricoeur for the award of the Kluge Prize in 1994. Ricoeur’s paper examines the ‘bases of his humanism’ (290). In the first section Ricoeur describes the notion of capacities while developing a typology of basic capacities: capacity to say, capacity to act, capacity to recount, imputability and promising (291), presented from the morally neutral to the explicit moral pole, in which the capable subject attests to himself or herself as a responsible subject. The second section focuses on the correlative nature of these capabilities, where each of them requires a vis-à-vis. But this correlativity is not immediately mutual, nor is it without conflict, and this introduces the question of the struggle for recognition. In the final section, Ricoeur wonders if the social bond can be established solely in the basis of a ‘struggle for recognition’, or whether is not also based on a prior experience of ‘good will’, based on the resemblance of one person to another, on practices of compromise and of generosity. As it is always the case with Ricoeur, such possibilities are raised and carefully examined, but the question remains unanswered.

The conference talks and articles gathered in this volume offer an overview of the manifold aspects of Ricoeur’s work around the possibility of a philosophical anthropology. But this collection is not a propaedeutic for such a discipline. As stated in the ‘Translator Note’, the main objective of this series is to give the English reader access to Ricoeurs’s important ‘early texts or previously not widely known’. This has certainly been accomplished here.