In this addition to the venerable SUNY Series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy, Josh Robinson seeks to problematize and subsequently re-construct the concept of ‘form’ as it relates to literature – and the sphere of the arts taken in general – through recourse to both Theodor W. Adorno’s aesthetic theory at large, and to the precise and manifold studies of practitioners which Robinson gathers from a thoroughly close reading of Adorno’s Gesammelte Schriften, including the Philosophie der neuen Musik (1949), Noten zur Literatur (1958-1961) and his posthumous projects Ästhetische Theorie (1970) and Beethoven. Philosophie der Musik. Fragmente und Texte (1993).
Robinson provides many of his own translations throughout the book, seeking to preserve and amplify the nuance of Adorno’s distinct German idiom whilst maintaining readability and eloquence. Despite his – unfair – self-criticism in the introduction (22), Robinson has done an admirable job of rendering some of Adorno’s more abstruse terminology, such as erfüllen – which Robinson translates as ‘imbue’ rather than ‘fulfil’ – in ways which retain their literal meaning, whilst allowing him to comment on the tensions or ambiguities inherent in these lexical choices (69). As such, Robinson’s translations do not appear incongruous alongside his selections from Edmund Jephcott and Robert Hullot-Kentor’s work, and in some cases surpass these canonical translations in lucidity. These translations of his own are noted, helpfully, in the list of abbreviated works which precedes the introduction.
The introduction lays out the overall aims of the publication in clear detail, which is characterised by a three-fold objective. Firstly, it seeks to support the development of the ‘New Formalism’ in poetics, outlined by means of tracing the history of this emerging field as it responds to dominant trends in literary theory – the New Criticism of I. A. Richards, Harold Bloom et al., and the New Historicist studies inspired by the work of Stephen Greenblatt and others – which is perhaps best characterised through its approach to the close reading of the internal elements of the text qua historically contingent features and functions, the study of which enables a more textually-grounded literary and cultural historicism. Robinson’s support for this New Formalism comes by way of a rigorous reflection on its underlying principle of artistic form. Rather than accepting the pre-supposition that one knows what is being dealt with when we speak of certain elements of the text as instantiations of the concept of form, Robinson seeks to elaborate on precisely what the ‘formal’ elements of a literature are, and how the consideration of form is itself able to shape the analysis of literary art and artworks.
Secondly, Robinson proposes to support his more practical-critical goal outlined in the paragraph above by way of critical philology of Adorno’s writings. As an aesthetician, Adorno had a “somewhat uneasy influence […] on the New Formalism,” in Robinson’s characterisation (8). In his analyses of music, the visual arts and literature, we see a diversity of uses to which Adorno puts form—as an explication of the activity of a practitioner as they shape the lexical, physical or phonic materials out of which their art is made, as the manifestation of that shaping activity – the artwork itself – and, as the tradition or convention within which that objective manifestation is placed alongside others, the genre which draws different works together. By focusing on Adorno’s claim that form is ‘sedimented content’ in the artwork, and that artworks are “products of social labour[…],” Robinson seeks to provide a basis from which we can think of forms, and consequently what those forms might tell us about the form of life specific to capitalist social and property relations (25-26).
Robinson’s third and final aim is to lay the groundwork for a future study of specific works of art and their attendant form, what this poetics of form may illuminate in the texts and other artworks to which it is applied, and the implications of this approach for the theorising of art’s possible intervention into, and relationship with, society and the political economy.
His first chapter, titled ‘Form and Content,’ goes ahead to critically assess Adorno’s thinking of form through an analysis of the polemical rift between Adorno and Martin Heidegger, noting that although Adorno is guilty of mischaracterising Heidegger’s argument, his issue with Heidegger’s attempt to engage with the question of art is in fact a pointed critique of his method. In Heidegger we see that the question of what an artwork is cannot be answered by starting from the question ‘what kind of thing is an artwork?’ (30), whereas Adorno insists that the artwork’s thing-hood is that which enables it to be more than a mere thing—that their tangible qualities, accessible through sensory observation, simultaneously reveal elements which cannot be fully understood through that sensory observation or ‘anschauung.’ Much like Heidegger, Adorno focused a considerable portion of his writing on the lyric poetry of Johann Friedrich Hölderlin; Robinson notes, however, that Adorno’s criticisms recognise the tendency in Heidegger’s discussion of this work towards a metaphysical separation of form and content, which is then followed by the philosophical investigation of content to the detriment of any inquiry into the form of the work. This philosophical investigation into the content of the work is necessary, posits Robinson, but must begin with what is left behind after the philological analysis of form has been undertaken, in response to the “aspects that are philologically most challenging” (36).
Adorno’s rejection of Heidegger’s theorisation starts here: any separation of form and content in Adorno’s work is first and foremost a conceptual separation which is only ever temporary, and the philosophy which attempts to uncover the truth-content of the work of art thus ought to be carried out in relation to the poem as it is experienced (36) in philological analysis, a philosophy commensurate with and sensitive to the requirements of the work. Such a philosophy would side-step Adorno’s criticism of Heidegger’s method, that it would not ‘infiltrate’ the poetry with philosophy from the outside, risking the possibility that the analysis would tell us more about the philosopher’s presuppositions than the “object of enquiry[…]” (29).
Robinson carries on to clarify Adorno’s notion of form as sedimented content, whereby form is characterised as coming into being as the particular way the artist deposits content in the work:
“Form is thus the result or mark of the process by which the work of art is made, but never appears as merely subjective or arbitrary. […] What is significant for understanding the relationship between form and content is that the separation is arbitrary. […] Sedimentation refers here to a process whereby the content of what come to be artworks […] ceases to be relevant (or even exist), while the objects continue to be made with the same or similar features.” [Emphasis added] (44-45).
As such, if the critic minimises the role of form in the artwork to the emphasis of content, they disregard what the whole aesthetic content of the work is, and simultaneously miss the way in which truth-content in the work is characteristically shaped by the intentions of the artist. Form has its origins in the content of the work of art, insofar as propositional content is only one half of the picture, the other half fulfilled by the formal content in the work. Discussing Adorno’s essay on punctuation marks in the Noten zur Literatur, Robinson suggests we see a clear example of the way in which form functions and takes on meaning, as distinct from the functioning of propositional content in the work. The punctuation in a work does not signify, Adorno insists, but rather fulfils a performative function in that they direct the subjective experience of reading, in that they encourage the reader to slow down, speed up, halt, and so on—and thus the language in the work is “itself[…]” able to enter “into communication with the reader” (52).
Chapter two, ‘Form and Expression,’ continues this thread of argument, investigating the relationship between artist and expression. Form and expression, Robinson contends, are fundamentally observable phenomena in the work of art (67). If form is something which is refined by the work of the artist, as set out above, then it is also that which mediates the expression of the artist in the manifestation of the work, by way of its being imposed on the expressive impulse (69). However, if this is the case, then the observable form of the work is itself a presentation of the expressive impulse within the work; in Robinson’s words, “the form that subjugates expression itself becomes expression […]” an “immediate subjectivity that masquerades as object” in even the most stringently realist work (78-80). There is something of a reciprocity in the work of art, that is, there is a palpable subjectivity inherent in the work, even if the expression which is presented in the work is necessarily seen as an objective content. This formal mediation of expression in the work of art means that the expressive impulse outlined here is distinguishable from that of the individual artist themselves, characterised by Robinson as the ‘subject of art,’ which in Adorno’s words “speaks out of art[…]” and is not merely “presented by it” (78).
This is perhaps best portrayed by recourse to Robinson’s discussion of Adorno’s critique of Expressionism. In attempting to bypass aspects of tradition or convention – and, by extension, form writ large – by way of the ‘intensification’ of the principle of expression, aiming at an immediately “subjective expression as its content,” by means of an “unstylised recording of psychic or emotional content,” the Expressionist work appears as merely a contingent, arbitrary ‘experiential impression,’ as it is through the process of forming that “the subjective presence of the artist exists within the work,” as the subjective power to form which is distinguished from the expression of the subject of art (73-78). In Robinson’s words, through the “elimination of the objective content of expression, expression can no longer be subjective, and at once ceases to express and is transformed into objective content. […] a subject free of all mediation through the object—is no subject at all” (74-78).
Robinson’s concern in this chapter is primarily given over to the notion of mimesis in Adorno’s aesthetics; that the artworks whose realism comes closest to the world are not necessarily works of Expressionism or Realism, considered as attempts to describe the – subjective or objective – world, but rather in the works of artists such as Samuel Beckett, and particularly in the short stories and novels of Franz Kafka, as artists whose works imitate the world and as such draw attention to the process of reification, which “makes the web of delusion knowable” in Adorno’s interpretation (85). In a masterful reading of Kafka’s Das Schloss (1926) and Der Process (1925) we see our own estrangement or alienation “come to expression” in light of the author’s “rejection of the techniques of literary expressionism[…]” in the form of Kafka’s works “their realistic element crystallizes;” that is, in the ‘sober’ depiction of brutal oppression and bureaucratic absurdity alongside the ‘interior’ sensations, thoughts and feelings of his characters we see imitated our own condition of social repression, the ‘scattered shards’ of reality which compose an enigmatic, thoroughly expressive image (82-84). Mimesis, as such, is tied to the composition of artworks and how works make meaning: a specific bearing towards the work, and towards the world. Through the mediation of their particular expression by way of the formal aspects of the work, the examples of Kafka’s work briefly stated here achieve, to paraphrase Robinson, mimetic, “objective form.”
In chapter three, ‘Form and Genre,’ Robinson turns from his focus on the notion of form as it is manifest in particular works to how form is able to offer a way of thinking through the individual work to the shared character of different works. Each artwork that is worthy of the name, Robinson notes, ought necessarily to challenge and redefine the limits of its genre—and as such genre is shown to be historically contingent, characterised by its shifting frontiers. As each artist employs diverse techniques of composition in the process of creation they reconfigure the material available for future artists to shape, with consequent significance for the general category to which the work belongs. Pace Marx, Adorno suggests that artistic production is not a mere epiphenomenon of changes in industrial production, rather asserting that the means of artistic production are mediated through the relations of production, in much the same way that the means of industrial production are mediated through the relations of production. If “labour constitutes the principle means of relating to nature, at once enabling and restricting human life,” then the relations of production constitute the logic by which that labour is organised (100), and artistic labour is just as receptive to this mediation as industrial labour.
Individual developments in the particular form of art have an effect on the ‘universal’ tradition or genre within which it is placed, but this is more than a simple contribution. It is in the aspect of the individual, particular work of art which is hostile to the very notion of genre – the ‘abstractness’ and ‘limitedness’ of the concept –that this “tendency to strive against and break down the generality of the subordinating concept starts[…]” (108-109). Robinson considers here Adorno and Horkheimer’s treatment of the products of the culture industry as illustrated in Dialektik der Aufklärung (1947), suggesting that the significance of the consideration of these products – instantiations of the ‘commodity form’ (116) – for Adorno’s wider aesthetic theory is in their instrumentalisation of art. In short, the commodity form is a means by which the work uncritically assimilates and as such supports the state of things as they are; products of the culture industry are best depicted in opposition to the ‘worthy’ artworks outlined above in that there is an absence of the tension between particular and universal which characterises the individual work of art. By way of their “fidelity to this [uncritically accepted] reality they abandon that which distinguishes them from it, renounce their claim to be different from the world,” to restate Robinson’s explanation (117). Thus it is not the products of the culture industry which are the cause of the taking-up of the commodity form; rather, it is the development of the culture industry and automated production under late capitalism which has caused the shift in socio-economic conditions and thus enabled the commodity form to function.
Of course, it is not simply the products of the culture industry which have been denigrated under this mode of production. In a case which appears as the opposite of the mimetic expression of Kafka’s work, the novel under capitalism has typically served not to draw attention to the reification of oppressive social-property relations, but to be in alliance with reification by means of a ‘realistic’ demystification of the world, an “uncritical absorption of and hence support for things as they are” [emphasis added] (118-119). The universal, generic artistic form, Robinson asserts, develops and evolves in response to the given social conditions of the historical ‘moment,’ conditions which demand a certain expression and ‘mode of address’ of the particular work, manifest in the ‘capitulation’ to a reality which cannot be transfigured under late capitalism (124-126). Those ‘worthy’ works draw attention to this state of alienation, to the “hollowing out of subject and reality,” even if they reject realism outright (125).
Chapter four, ‘Form and Material,’ sees Robinson turn to questions of the relationship between works and the materials out of which they are formed, engaging more closely with questions of technique and process. If “content, broadly speaking, is an aspect of existing artworks[…]” [emphasis added], then the material of which those artworks are created – the colours from which the painting is fashioned, the sounds from which compositions are hewn, the words from which the poem is constructed – can be understood as “in some way pre-artistic, that out of which not-yet-existing artworks are made” [emphasis added] (136). This distinction between form and material and content and material is, much like the distinction between form and content, not a metaphysical separation, but an abstract and conceptual one which again serves to temporarily allow for investigation of the aspects of art which are present in the experience of the work. In Robinson’s words:
“Material can no more be thought of as contentless than content as free from the material in which it is expressed; the meaning of a poem cannot be divorced from the words and sounds and traces of which it is made.” (136)
The physical properties of a given material do not merely lend themselves to the production of a given artwork, but, as a pre-artistic and pre-productive condition from which those particular works are fashioned, must also and to a significant degree determine the way that the particular work – and, by extension, the universal, generic form in which that particular work is placed and modifies – develops. Though these materials pre-exist the work of art, the range of material which appears available to the artist is and must be, as Adorno suggests in the Ästhetische Theorie, “historical through and through” (ÄT, 223). For how could it be any other way? To take an Adornian tack, the material available to the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, such as the stochastic or random process which he applied in his musical arrangements, pre-existed his use of them – indeed, they pre-existed our uncovering of them, considering that ‘stochastic processes’ merely delineates and enables the description of various physical and biological phenomena such as the motion of particles through space – but they were not apparent and available as an artistic material until they were theorised as being applicable in the work of composition, and they did not become part of compositional tradition until the 1957 premiere of his piece Pithoprakta. In Robinson’s terms, “each new composition not only opens up new possibilities but also[…] sets new restrictions for future musical development;” and, by extension, future artistic development in general (140).
Artistic technique and material, for Robinson as for Adorno, are mutually interdependent; technique is attentive to the constraints and “demands of the material, but also by the content of the work that is to be created” whilst the material available for use is determined by the results of prior artistic technique (144-145). Even the most oppositional technique which seeks to fight against “form’s tendency to settle and stagnate” is complicit in the creation of a new form, which will consequently be opposed by even newer forms (147). Technique is not merely an addition to working the available materials of artistic production, but is also present to the future artist as a constraint, inhering in a form which becomes material to be opposed in this future productive activity. Contingency enters into the picture here in the shape of “influences or interruptions from external factors” which destroy or modify the material available to the artist—here one could think of the potential artistic materials lost when the artist’s studio burns down, for instance (160).
In chapter five, ‘Artistic Form and the Commodity Form,’ Robinson highlights “the antagonisms that permeate bourgeois society[…]” insofar as they are reflected within the concept of form (163). In doing so, Robinson is able to bring his discussion to a close through a return to Adorno’s discussion of artworks as products of social labour, characterised not by their relationship to exchange-value through ‘commodity-producing labour,’ but rather as it refers to an activity which deliberately sets out with the “purpose of improving human existence,” the form of human labour prior to its transformation into a type of mutually-reinforcing abstract, alienated labour through the reification of social domination, hierarchy and the logic of the capitalist mode of production (168-170).
Even under the conditions of this society – our society – there exist forms of labour which are able to realise a different kind of sociality (170). The making works of art is such a process, although it is one in which the product is never wholly disassociated from the commodity form—whether that is through the techniques of mechanical reproduction which are deployed in industry before being co-opted by artists, or by the use of tools such as the internet, developed within a military context. It is in the experience of the artwork, however, in our experience of the particular work, that we see the potential of art manifested:
“Artworks[…] exemplify the actuality of a social labour that is liberated from compulsory abstraction […] in doing so they not only serve as a reminder that it is possible to resist the totalising claims of abstract value and its logic of exchangeability, but also present a kind of social labour that does not efface the particularity of the activities that constitute it. […] The artwork as we encounter, experience, and conceive it, that is, is a consequence and a phenomenon[…] of capitalist society. Absent this coercive, violent sociality, the artwork ceases to be thinkable as we think it, as both a mode of resistance and a promise of something better […] Artworks are thus a kind of clearing within a world dominated by instrumental reason, opening the way for emancipation from it.”[Emphasis added] (176-177)
Artworks, in Robinson’s final analysis, come to be defined in opposition to the logic of the capitalist mode of production, yet this is always already a definition which sustains a connection between the work of art and the society in which they were a part; in even the most radical rejection of the principles which govern that society and its mode of production one cannot wholly separate the work from its negation of the society out of which it was created—capitalist social-property relations remain in the work as a trace, or mark, or echo. Robinson’s utilisation of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) is a notably clear example of this quality of artworks: freed of the functional rationale of instrumentality in which it would have otherwise been found – in this case, the ‘mens room’ – our experience of the work nevertheless calls to mind the location and instrumental reason from which it has been freed by means of the subjective activity of the artist (179). This recursive and referential relationship to reality is reflected in the form of the work, a reality it simultaneously maintains and abandons, a reality which “form thus helps render[…] thinkable” (179). Referring back to Adorno’s demand “that life imitate art,” we see that the poetics of form which Robinson draws out of Adorno’s aesthetic theory is one which enables the reading of artworks as a means by which the possibility of a different mode of production, and thus a different kind of sociality, is not realised or actualised, but is postulated as possible. This illuminates Robinson’s claim that Adorno’s aesthetic theory is an poetics of “the wrong state of things;” that is, that his reconfiguration of the work of art “opens up the possibility of the emergence of a transformation out of the existing order[…]” and as such, the work of art effects a “formulation of the complexity of the relationship between commodity society and a successor[…] that is worth wishing for” (186-187).
In his conclusion, ‘Lyric, Form, Society,’ Robinson considers the implications of the arguments outlined here, and the elaboration of Adorno’s ‘poetics of the wrong state of things’ for the study of literature. In this study, forms are grounded as “a token or[…] a deposit for a wide range of connections between us and the worlds to which the work connects us: it lies at the nexus of these connections,” the sensitivity to which means that, through our experiential engagement with the work of art, we keep in sight the prospect of a different world, or the realisation of a different set of social-property relations in our present one (209). Robinson’s analyses indeed fulfil his goal of gesturing towards a conception of the work of art, as outlined above, in which particular works are able to intervene into the social and economic form of a given society, whilst not restricting this functional possibility to ‘political’ works of art, or the ‘revolutionary art’ which Trotsky sets out in his Literature and Revolution (1924).
Adorno’s poetics of form appears to present a means by which we can theorise the relationship between artworks and shifts in the fabric of society by imbuing those works with a kind of agency: by means of the function outlined in the discussion of chapter two, these works are able to embody “emancipatory social practice,” clearing away the reification which attends the capitalist mode of production, a means of thinking beyond oppressive social structures towards a “non-hierarchical life in the world” (218-222).
In Adorno’s Poetics of Form, Josh Robinson carries out a necessary and fruitful investigation into the way we think about art, and the potential embedded in particular works. His reconstruction of Adorno’s wider aesthetic theory – considered beyond the remit of his Ästhetische Theorie – is masterful, and establishes a strong foundation on which the thinking of literary form, and artistic form in general, can take place. It is able to stand alongside projects such as Fredric Jameson’s The Ancients and the Postmoderns: On the Historicity of Forms as setting the stage for a contemporary Marxist aesthetics, whilst being of practical value for literary critics and art theorists alike. The immediate criticism which could be made of Robinson’s publication, a choice which was no doubt necessitated by the requirements of brevity and the focus of the project, is that it perhaps gives Walter Benjamin’s arguments in support of Surrealism, outlined in a short paragraph in chapter two, rather short shrift; similarly, his discussion of labour and the creative process in chapter five would have benefitted from a discussion of Benjamin’s Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (1936). For a reader well-versed in the internal debates – both voiced and unvoiced – between the thinkers within and on the periphery of the Frankfurt School, this work was likely in mind, however, for the reader just setting out on their investigation of Adorno’s aesthetics, to understand what he was responding to in his collaborator’s work may provide additional insight into what sets Adorno’s project apart.
These minor criticisms notwithstanding, Robinson has produced a highly readable and accomplished contribution to the scholarship on Theodor Adorno’s aesthetic project as it pertains to the question of form, and a thought-provoking reformation of the Marxist theory of art.
It is well know that Friedrich Nietzsche was decided not to have heirs or disciples. Ironically, he was one of the most influential thinkers in history. The history of philosophical thought is actually made up by legacies – sometimes also by kinship. This was the idea underlying the title of the intellectual historian Richard Wolin’s book “Heidegger’s Children”. The book, published in 2001 and reissued in 2015, meant this kinship provocatively and of course not in a biological sense. Following this provocation, a conference on the topic “Cassirer’s Children” has been organized in Turin on February 8 and 9, 2018 by Sebastian Luft, Professor of Philosophy at the Marquette University (Milwaukee), and Massimo Ferrari, Professor of the History of Philosophy in Turin University. The conference, financially supported by the Humboldt Foundation in the frame of its Alumni Program and organized in collaboration with the Philosophy Department of the University of Turin, offered Cassirer’s scholars from Germany, France, Italy, Spain, USA and Canada the opportunity to gather in Turin.
The speakers took seriously the provocation about the kinship. Many of them confronted the question about the different possibilities of describing the relationships of intellectuals and thinkers from the 20th Century with Ernst Cassirer: rebellious or “turbulent” children? Legitimate or not? Outspoken or “hidden” heirs? At the end a variegated portrait emerged, focusing on an important segment of 20th century philosophy not only from Germany but also from the USA, Italy and Japan.
As the title suggested, the conference aimed at reconstructing the influence exerted by Cassirer directly or indirectly. At the same time, the assumed personality-based criterion allows building a discipline-based map of the philosophical science in the 20th Century, in which Cassirer’s trails are detected. So, for instance, Rudolf Makkreel and Muriel Van Vliet explored the implications of Cassirer’s thought for aesthetics. More precisely, the first one investigated the meaning and function of arts, particularly of music, and their connection with myth and symbols, according the interpretation of Susanne Langer, an American philosopher 21 years younger than Cassirer, but strongly influenced – clearly acknowledged by her – by his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. The name of Langer appears also in the second paper, devoted to the “turbulent child” of art history, i.e. Edgar Wind, whose intuitions regarding the cognitive status of art and art history and the possible contamination between mathematics and art are sketched. Van Vliet’s conclusion is fruitful: «Who is the master, who is the pupil? Who is the son, who is the father? Cassirer, Panofsky and Warburg find with Wind a son who inspires them as much as he was inspired by them. Wind presented himself at the same time as a classic, as wise child and as an innovator, a turbulent child».
Following the discipline-based criterion it is possible to remark that anthropology attracted the attention of two other speakers. The anthropology of the American scholar and University Professor Clifford Geertz, who was influenced by Susanne Langer and Talcott Parsons, is in the center of Sebastian Luft’s talk. The paper was organized in a symmetrical way: if the first part elucidates Geertz’ understanding of anthropology in its proximity to philosophy, the second part, devoted to Cassirer’s position on anthropology, describes in detail the relationship between culture and nature but also the dangers and limits regarding the connection between experience and thought, culture and philosophy of culture. The conclusion at which the paper arrives is that the link between Cassirer’s philosophy and anthropology is to be depicted in the terms of a sibling relationship. A critical assessment about the philosophical anthropology of Hans Blumenberg in his “Auseinandersetzung” with Cassirer is delivered by Andrea Staiti. If, on the one hand, Enno Rudolph practices the reconstruction of intellectual relationships to Cassirer as an opportunity to provide an ambitious outline of the 20. Century philosophy – his reference names in his frame are Nelson Goodman, Pierre Bourdieu and Jürgen Habermas –, then Massimo Ferrari, on the other hand, detected the traces of Cassirer within the history of science and the development of scientific thought. On the basis of Cassirer’s monumental work on the Problem of Knowledge in modern science and philosophy and of Individuum and Kosmos in der Philosophie der Renaissance, the contributes and remarks of Émile Meyerson, Léon Brunschvicg, Edwin Arthur Burtt, Alexander Koyré, Raymond Klibansky and Paul Oskar Kristeller are taken into consideration and critically connected with each other. The history of science is at the core of two other papers as well, although they focus on the philosophy of one single thinker, Arthur Pap. David Stump identifies the “Neo-Kantian elements in Pap’s Philosophy”, while Thomas Mormann puts in connection Pap’ necessity and his functional A Priori with Cassirer’s critical determinism. In his view the intellectual link between Pap and Cassirer, both German and both emigrated to the USA, allows one to contrast the pessimistic assessment affirming that the clash between “the analytic” and “the continental tradition” has become irreconcilable.
From Germany to the USA – and beyond. The geographical extension of Cassirer’s influence is enriched by two other contributions. Saverio Ricci emphasized the implications of Cassirer’s understanding of culture and cultures for the Italian tradition of historiography and historical thought applied in philosophy. Reference point of his presentation is Eugenio Garin. Away from Europe, Steve Lofts presents Cassirer’s family in Japan. His detailed and well informed paper about “the influence of the Marburg’ School and Cassirer on the foundations of Japanese philosophy” gave the opportunity to make the acquaintance with a series of Japanese intellectuals and thinkers belonging to the Kyoto School and normally unknown or neglected by our West oriented studies.
In the end, the conference offered the chance to Cassirer’s scholars spread all over the world to meet each other, just at the moment when Cassirer’s philosophy and scholarship experience a rediscovery and a veritable renaissance.
Report by Elena Paola Carola Alessiato (Università degli Studi di Torino/University of Turin – Italy)
What an honour it is to review Artifacts of Thinking: Reading Hannah Arendt’s Denktagebuch, especially as the Denktagebuch was originally published in German in 2002 (and republished in 2016), and has not been translated (as yet) into English. The editors, Roger Berkowitz and Ian Storey are respectively the Academic Director and Associate Fellow of The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College and Artifacts of Thinking is the result of a week-long workshop held there in the summer of 2012. They have gathered together a collection of nine stellar contributions that allow readers a glimpse into the fascinating mind of arguably the greatest political theorist of the twentieth century. The German edition of the Denktagebuch is divided into 28 books dated between June 1950-1973. 22 of these were written between 1950-1958, with books 23-28 written from 1958-1961 to 1973, with a final contribution on Kant. As the Editors make clear, it is difficult to classify the Denktagebuch as a ‘thought diary’, as “the Denktagebuch makes evident how closely Arendt read the work of her interlocutors, records previously hidden sources, and displays the dynamic, evolving nature of Arendt’s thinking” (Storey, 1).
In the first chapter ‘Reconciling Oneself to the Impossibility of Reconciliation: Judgment and Worldliness in Hannah Arendt’s Politics’, Berkowitz notes Arendt’s Denktagebuch “begins and ends with reflections on reconciliation” (10). Berkowitz argues that reconciliation is a key and guiding idea that enriches understanding Arendt’s conception of politics, plurality and judgment. He seeks to demonstrate that the judgment to reconcile with the world comes from Arendt’s engagement with Heidegger on thinking, forgiveness, and reconciliation which are part of a complex interplay with Arendt’s personal and intellectual reconciliation with Heidegger (11). Berkowitz presents nine theses around the theme of reconciliation that he discerns from his reading of her Denktagebuch (12-33). The first four theses distinguish reconciliation from forgiveness, guilt, and revenge. Reconciliation is understood “as a political act of judgment, one that affirms solidarity in response to the potentially disintegrating experience of evil” (11). Theses 5 locate her discussion in her engagements with Hegel and Marx. Thesis 6 examines the key role of reconciliation in Arendt’s book Between Past and Future arguing that the “gap between past and future” is the location of Arendt’s “metaphorical space for a politics of reconciliation understood as a practice of thinking and judging without bannisters, as she put t, in a world without political truths” (12). Theses 7-8 focus upon Arendt’s engagement with Heidegger, arguing that her articulation of reconciliation within an evil world is a direct response to Heidegger’s erroneous worldless thinking. The last theses examines Arendt’s final judgment of Adolf Eichmann, arguing that Arendt’s refusal to reconcile with Eichmann’s actions demonstrates the limits of reconciliation and that her demand for his death is a paramount example of political judgment. Berkowitz concludes that reconciliation and nonreconciliation are at the centre of Arendt’s understanding of thinking and judging in politics and that “both are judgments made on the battlegrounds of past and future and thought and action” (33).
Ursula Ludz, one of the two editors who compiled and annotated the German publication of the Denktagebuch, examines one key section in the Denktagebuch for insights it can provide on one of the most controversial periods of Arendt’s life and work: the trial of Adolf Eichmann and the fallout of her five instalments on the trial published in The New Yorker in 1963. Ludz locates the discussion in Notebook XX1V under the title ‘Wahrheit und Politik’ (Truth and Politics). The section has 43 entries and, for Ludz, two merit special attention (10 and 21) as they are directly related to Arendt’s personal case and also note 44 (Weihnachten 1964), which Ludz examines in detail (40). “Like Entry 21, Entry 44 is unique, but this time because it reveals some of Arendt’s inner life, which in principle she keeps hidden almost all through her thought diary” (43). She also notes that Arendt begins the section with two important distinctions: (1) Truth vs. lie and (2) truth vs. opinion (37). Ludz uses the three sections to provide insights into why Arendt chose to respond to her critics collectively and from a distance. Moreover, Ludz discusses what the Denktagebuch adds philosophically to the claim that Arendt apparently understood Eichmann’s banality as a simple factual truth. This is further elucidated as Ludz’s reading examines what constitutes factual truth in Arendt’s consideration of the Eichmann trial (46), a question she claims “haunted the seminar discussion and indeed many of the essays in this volume: What is “truth on a factual level”?” (39).
Wild begins his engagement with the question of whether there is a way of thinking that is not tyrannical. Like Berkowitz, he engages with the themes from the first Notebook, themes that would encapsulate Arendt’s central political concerns of the 1950s. “The question of the relationship between tyranny and thought is a political and theoretical one” (52). Wild is keen to demonstrate the way in which Arendt diagnoses an “unprecedented break in history and tradition” developing new ways of writing and expression that examine the political structure of thinking, especially its reduction to reason and logic. Wild’s reading of the Denktagebuch seeks to demonstrate the way in which Arendt sought to describe what was in front of her. “She does not refer to a pre-existing system of conception, nor does she deduce a theory to present her thoughtful observations. Her way of writing describes a process: ‘to face and to come to terms with what really happened’” (54). Wild identifies Arendt’s approach as a mode which is not chronological, intentional or causal. In the Denktagebuch she takes the word ‘band’ and uses it differently. “It is not the coercive logic of reason but rather the imagination that forms a ‘band between people’” (54). He describes Arendt’s system of writing in the Denktagebuch as creating constellations: “It is a collection and juxtaposition of notes, excerpts, reflections, fragments, quotes, poems; assemblages that establish connections and leave them open, because they are being questioned; or figurations, whose traces are reworked in Arendt’s texts, from The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) to The Life of the Mind (1977)” (58). This key characteristic of Arendt’s modus operendi, has remained, ‘largely without response” (58).
Similarly, in ‘Thinking in Metaphors’ Cornelissen recognises that the Denktagebuch cannot be read as a book and is better to be thought of as a series of ‘thought fragments’, because there is no single theory or set of propositions (73). He constructs a dialogue between the Denktagebuch and The Human Condition, specifically the way in which the fragmentary nature of the Denktagebuch makes readers aware of the fragmentary nature of her other published work (74). The essay addresses the question of how Arendt “conceives of the activity of thinking without the model of making (Herstellen) (76). Cornelissen locates three different motifs of thinking which he identifies as “condensed meanings, as wanderings through her writings” (76). Firstly, dialectical thinking (the inner two-in-one), secondly, representative thinking as a type of thinking that attempts to ‘represent’ the plurality of perspectives in the public realm preparing the formation of opinions and judgments about past happenings and future events, and finally, ‘thinking poetically’ which refers to the recognition that thought occurs in language, and that the nature of language is metaphorical (77). In her later work, Arendt speaks of ‘meaning’ rather than ‘truth’ and according to Cornelissen, her reflections upon metaphor stay largely consistent (77). He notes that traditionally the activity of thinking is conceived on the model of cognition (seeing or beholding the truth). In contradistinction to cognition, Arendt proposes a different metaphor based upon understanding thinking as an endless activity. Arendt proposes there is a correspondence of thinking to “the sensation of being alive” as well as a cyclical motion, both metaphors she derives from Aristotle (78), yet she admits these metaphors are not entirely satisfactory. Cornelissen notes that rather than search for an alternative metaphor, Arendt shifts her attention to another question – What makes us think? He says “I have always found this a rather abrupt shift” (78). The rest of the essay outlines the correspondences between thinking and political speech (78-82) and the correspondences between thinking and poetic speech (82-85). The essay concludes where it began with the question of how Arendt conceives of the activity of thinking without contemplation (85).
Anne O’Byrne in ‘The Task of Knowledgeable Love: Arendt and Portmann in Search of Meaning’ examines the influence of Portmann, a Swiss zoologist, in terms of their parallel concern with appearance. She notes that the Denktagebuch entries on Portmann “turn out to be entrances onto the realm of life or, more to the point, onto a distinctive and dynamic thinking of life” and she asks the question of what drew Arendt to Portmann’s work and what status did Arendt give the insights he offered?(89). Portmann’s accounts of the natural world paralleled her own approach to understanding the political world. Arendt “engages his work as a fellow thinker of the human condition, a fellow member of the reading and writing public” (90). A key connection reading “through her Denktagebuch notes and The Life of the Mind to his thinking of life leads us to their meeting place in the question of meaning” (90). Arendt brings a ‘phenomenological sensibility’ in reference to Portmann’s morphology and Portmann appears in the Dengtagebuch between 1966 and 1968. O’Byrne notes that early in The Life of the Mind, Arendt’s thinking encounters Portmann’s and that what is important “is that appearances are sensed and that sensing is the province of all sentient beings” (91). O’Byrne traces the scientific tendency to understand the world via truth “but the gap between knowing and being….persists and generates the distinction between truth and meaning. Along with a desire to know, we have a need for meaning, which is pursued through the activity of thinking” (91). Arendt resists philosophy’s metaphysical tendency and regards modern science “as giving new life to this old tendency” (94). “This move beyond appearance is not our only alternative. Indeed, for Arendt, it is no alternative at all” (94).
In “Vita Passiva: Love in Arendt’s Denktagebuch” Tommel claims that the Denktagebuch “is certainly the richest source of her thought on love, richer even than her dissertation about the concept of love in Augustine” (106). She cites passages form the Denktagebuch from May 1955 and acknowledges that although Arendt’s main work concern the active life and the life of the mind, “she did not neglect the personal and intimate life, as it has often been suggested” and claims the Denktagebuch “makes clear that the vita passiva must be understood as an independent mode of life” (107). Tommel asks the questions: “What is love according to Arendt? What are we doing when we love? Where are we if we are neither alone with ourselves nor equally bound to all other people but entirely focussed upon one person?” (108). The chapter seeks to give an overview of Arendt’s core thoughts on these questions. She suggests that “Arendt’s ambivalent, partly paradoxical thinking about love emerges from a – never systematic – differentiation between various forms of love” (109). She identifies four different kinds of love in the Denktagebuch that intersect but cannot be subsumed into a single understanding and says Arendt’s important notion of amor mundi is beyond the scope of the chapter and cannot be understood without taking into account Arendt’s understanding of volo ut sis (118). With regards to love as passion, Tommel argues that Arendt’s separation of love and the world is not as absolute as Arendt suggested, and further, that the fourth notion of love, love as unconditional affirmation, provides further insights into the paradoxical relation between love and the world (109). In conclusion, Tommel notes that like Lessing, Arendt did not feel obliged to resolve the difficulties raised by her work (119) and does not advocate blurring the distinction Arendt made. In fact, she advocates embracing the importance of these distinctions as “it is the plurality of love that guarantees the mutual protection of the public and intimate spheres. We need them both to turn a desert into a world” (119).
Tracy Strong’s “America as Exemplar: The Denktagebuch of 1951” begins with Arendt herself, arriving in America in 1941 as both a European and a refugee. As an outsider, Arendt had been struck by the difference between European nation states and America. Having become an American citizen in 1950, Strong traces Arendt’s scholarly attention in attempting to make sense of what had happened to her, with the publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism to understanding her new environment in America. He notes that she begins a series of entries in her Denktagebuch from September 1951 referring to America as “the politically new” and these notes go on to become On Revolution (124). Strong outlines Arendt’s concern with sovereignty and what a human society would be if it were truly political (125). He notes that what is striking about Arendt’s discussion is that she approaches the question through the explicit lens of European philosophy. “Thus, she is attempting an answer to the question of ‘can we determine the particular excellence of the American polity by viewing it through the lenses of European thought?’”(125). Strong claims the thinkers Arendt invokes are important as she first mentions Marx, and then Nietzsche, whom Arendt understands as having key roles in the end of Western philosophy, as Marx inverted Hegel and Nietzsche inverts Plato (125). “The point of her analysis of Marx and Nietzsche is to assert that they released thought from its bond to the ‘Absolute’” (125). Strong goes on to investigate what the implication is of Arendt’s claim that contract (or covenant or compact) is the “highest law” and the specific excellence of America (128). His discussion engages Nietzsche, Kant, Derrida and Weber in extending understandings of promising (which is a contract) and performatives to conceptualise Revolution as, in working with Nietzsche, this is something further understood as hyper-performative (131). Strong’s reading of the earlier parts of the Denktagebuch provide us with an understanding of how important America was to Arendt as an exemplar of what the political could be (126).
Jeffrey Champlin’s “Poetry or Body Politic: Natality and the Space of Birth in Hannah Arendt’s Thought Diary” examines one of Arendt’s most central contemporary concepts, the concept of natality. As Champlin notes, the term only appears in the Denktagebuch once before it appears more centrally in The Human Condition (1958). “The puzzling, even obscure, presentation of the term in the Denktagebuch challenges interpretive protocols that depend on a linear development” (144). Champlin argues that the entry ‘deserves attention’ “because it shows Arendt transforming a political metaphysics of the body through an alternative conception of corporeality. Maintaining Rousseau’s attention to the clash of language and ontology, Arendt shows that the body bears a specifically earthly form of freedom” (144). Champlin notes that it is tempting to approach the Denktagebuch from the tradition of western philosophy but he wants to suggest that Arendt’s early entry of natality “requires a focus on its specifically literary aspects, understood as the particular ways in which she constructs it through arrangements of language” (144). Champlin argues that this entry on natality helps us comprehend the striking originality of Arendt’s understanding of politics and emphasises the way in which “a careful reading of the explicit reference to natality in the Denktagebuch and nearby references to figures of birth can help understand how Arendt uses the narrative and poetic dimensions of the idea to expand the philosophical concepts of novelty and change. Natality, as a condition in Arendt’s sense, is related to, but different than, a concept, an anchor, and an ontological principle” (145). Ultimately, “Arendt offers a poetry of the body politic” (158), and as Champlin astutely points out, Habermas’s claim “that Arendt falls back on the ‘contract theory of natural law’ rings false, though. He leaves us little else to support his accusation, and it seems to be a sort of stopgap approach to closing the important questions raised by his description of Arendt’s conception of power” (152).
The final contribution in Artifacts of Thinking is Ian Storey’s “Facing the End: The Work of Thinking in the Late Denktagebuch”. He seeks to explore the last substantive section of Arendt’s Denktagebuch the twenty-seventh notebook. Storey notes that Notebook XXVII is “preoccupied with thinking about ends, and Arendt weaves the multiple senses of the word in both English and German together into a series of mediations on the relationships between thinking, death, and purpose” (162). As Storey notes in the Introduction to the book, “It asks what can be learned by looking on the Denktagebuch as a rear-view mirror on Arendt’s thought as well” (8). For Storey, the mediations in Notebook XXVII, with the central focus upon ends, provides a way of bringing to the surface aspects of Arendt’s published work, particularly The Human Condition and the various iterations of Culture and Politics, as well as providing threads for rethinking aspects of her work across different periods. He notes that instrumentality and the orientation towards particular ends were a key concern of Arendt’s work in the 1950s and 1960s and this explains the rise in the popularity of her thought in political theory and philosophy more generally. Storey moves within the complex interplay of ‘what might have been’ and ‘what might yet be’ when he considers Notebook XXVII having been written in the shadow of the “terrible interruption” of Heinrich’s death and Arendt’s own declining years (176). He poses the question as to whether Arendt’s work on reconfiguring the place of good in the world of appearances may have led to “a new vision of political conscience” or “have become a fully-fledged ethics, in the book Judging that was never to be? Or would this line of reason simply have become mired in all the basic moral dilemmas that “aesthetic” accounts of politics have been accused of creating” (176).
I said at the beginning of this review that it is an honour to have the opportunity to review this edited collection. And it has been. Each contributor provides important insights into how the Denktagebuch illuminates Arendt’s oeuvre and stunningly original approach to thinking politically. This edited collection is especially significant given Arendt’s Denktagebuch is not available in English translation as yet. It means serious scholars of Arendt’s political theory can glimpse into the extraordinary mind of Arendt to further complement their understanding of Arendt’s key texts written in tandem during these particular historical periods. Overall, a crucial and significant contribution to the legacy of the political theorist who is Hannah Arendt.
Interpretation of Nietzsche’s Second Untimely Meditation (INM) is a translation by Ullrich Haase and Mark Sinclair of a seminar conducted by Martin Heidegger in Freiburg over the Winter Semester 1938-39. Originally published as GA 46, the text consists of a collection of lecture notes and diagrams that loosely correspond to the topical sections of Nietzsche’s essay. Throughout the course Heidegger deepens his critique of Nietzsche, revisits the question of animal life, offers a lengthy reflection on the connection between truth and justice, and extends his reflections on the unity of temporality, historicality, and Being.
The title describes the contents perfectly: these lectures record Heidegger’s thoughts on Nietzsche’s “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.” Readers should be familiar with the latter work to get the most out of Heidegger’s text. Needless to say, readers will also want to know a fair bit of Heidegger, starting with Being and Time (BT), but The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude (FCM), and Contributions to Philosophy: From Enowning are also advised. While Nietzsche scholars may find some items of interest, and should take Heidegger’s overall critique seriously (more below), this text will be primarily of use for scholars and students of Heidegger.
These lectures appear at the tail end of Heidegger’s decade-long rumination on Nietzsche’s philosophy, a period also marked by Heidegger’s so-called Turn (Kehre). In Being and Time it’s clear that Dasein oscillates between authenticity and inauthenticity, but through the Turn Heidegger began to view these transitions historically through the destiny (Geschick) of Beyng (written so in order to accentuate the verbal, eventful meaning of the term). That history is punctuated by certain epochal figures, of which Nietzsche is the last, marking the transition from the ‘first’ to the ‘other’ beginning. The sort of considerations that guide Heidegger’s thinking through the turn are not the focus of this text but they are evident as background assumptions that shape certain lines of questioning. As Haase and Sinclair note in an insightful article that can be read as a companion piece to the book[i], Heidegger alters his approving evaluation of Nietzsche in Being and Time[ii] to a more confrontational mode in these lectures.
It’s refreshing, given the expansive nature of some of Heidegger’s other writing from the period, to find a text so focused on a single topic. While often repetitive and enigmatic, the text is content to take its cues from Nietzsche’s essay and simply to reflect on what is offered. Rather than itemize these all and run down a list, I’m going to review some of the most important themes so that readers get a sense for what the text at its best can offer.
Nietzsche begins his second Untimely Meditation (UM) famously envying the cattle in pasture for their incessant forgetfulness. These meager creatures with their uninspiring lives achieve an effortless happiness, while we, even in our most joyful moments, suffer the awareness that all moments necessarily pass. The cause of this melancholic existence is our inability to forget, which is why we are historical and animals unhistorical. This distinction marks Heidegger’s first major point of contention. It is incorrect to call animals unhistorical, he says. Just as only beings who exist essentially with others can be alone, and only beings who are essentially determined by speech can be silent, so Heidegger claims that only essentially historical beings can exist unhistorically: “only that which is historical can be unhistorical”.[iii] Rather than unhistorical, Nietzsche’s cattle lack history altogether, Heidegger says.[iv] This is not just a pedantic point, for important consequences follow.
Nietzsche’s analysis implies that humans and animals occupy distant points along a continuum, from total forgetting to total remembering (later in his essay Nietzsche worries about an oversaturation of historical knowledge). For Nietzsche, the key is not to settle at some sensible mid-point, but to acquire a horizon that let’s one retain just the proper amount of historical consciousness necessary for life.[v] Heidegger complains that this encourages us to think that the problem is one of how much or what sort of things to forget, whereas there is a kind of forgetfulness that characterizes Dasein’s inauthentic, unhistorical way of being that has nothing to do with the amount or kind of memories Dasein retains. In fact, Heidegger says, being unhistorical is itself a way of being historical, in parallel with (or as another way of framing) the relation between authentic and inauthentic existence. After the Turn, machination and reification take over the role played by inauthenticity, where rather than structural features of Dasein these are increasingly understood as being-historical tendencies in the destiny of Western metaphysics. These lectures explain that we ought to understand Dasein’s unhistorical being not as some nearer approximation to animal life but as contemporary Dasein’s inauthentic way of being historical.
This is important because contemporary Dasein is unhistorical despite a flood of historical information and historical awareness. The massive increase in historical knowledge—Heidegger and Nietzsche agree—is not the result of exogenous improvements in the technology for discovering and disseminating historical facts (quite the reverse actually) but due to contemporary Dasein’s dominant self-interpretation as historical. Contemporary Dasein has so much historical information because it seeks it out and interprets itself accordingly. The rise of historicism in the German academy only reflected the rise in historical consciousness through which Western Dasein increasingly came to understand itself over the course of the 19th century. Many of Heidegger’s and Nietzsche’s contemporaries believed that this increase in historical awareness and information resulted in a manner of conduct and self-evaluation showing unique historical sophistication, as if modern Dasein were more in touch with its history than its ancestors. Heidegger and Nietzsche both dispute this idea. For Heidegger, it is clear that our scientific mode of framing and retaining historical knowledge– not the amount or kind–paradoxically blinds us to our historical existence. We know ever more about the past but by this very mode of knowing turn away from it.
In Being and Time Heidegger believed that this mutual distrust of historical science indicated a deeper philosophical agreement with Nietzsche. He claims that Nietzsche’s distinction between three modes of history—monumental, antiquarian, and critical[vi]–shows that Nietzsche had achieved—though left unsaid—an insight into the original unity of authentic temporality. Nietzsche claimed that the historicism of his day overlooked the fact that history is in service to life, and Heidegger seemed to detect an affinity between this claim and his own warnings against scientism as the de-worlded representation of beings in the mode of the present-to-hand.
A decade later, these lectures show that Heidegger has substantially revised his understanding of Nietzsche’s project. Rather than revealing the ground of authentic historicality, Nietzsche now represents the final forgetting of Being. Specifically, Heidegger believes that, behind an ostensible critique of science and objective historiology, Nietzsche surreptiously announces the culmination of the scientific, technological enframing of Being.
The first sign of this re-evaluation is obvious in early sections of the text. Nietzsche argued that the proper approach to history should strive for the right balance of memory and forgetting. Specifically, historical memory ought to be measured by the life-affirming values it enhances in the present–via inspiration, reverence, and liberation, corresponding to the three modes of history. Heidegger reflects on different kinds of memory and forgetting–anticipating such distinctions as semantic, episodic, and observer memory–but the general conclusion is that Nietzsche only understands memory as ‘making present’ and thereby conceals its essence. Heidegger points as evidence to Nietzsche’s conflation of Historie with Geschichte. Historie for Heidegger is more than just the academic writing of history, and might better be described as telling history, something constitutive of any human community. In Being and Time he argues that it is important that such telling arise as an authentic expression of Dasein’s gechichtliches way of being grounded in ecstatic temporality. In these sections of INM Heidegger’s comments seem trade on a distinction familiar from Husserl. Husserl distinguished Gegenwärtigung from Vergegenwärtigung, the latter often translated by the somewhat clumsy ‘presentifying.’ Memory–or ‘recollection’–is a paradigmatic ‘presentifying’ act for Husserl, an act which presents its object as absent in its absence. Husserl was clear that presentifying acts presuppose and take as their content prior, original intuitive presentations, so recollective acts are founded on and take as their content direct, intuitive retentions. Heidegger, both here and in Being and Time, argues that a similar relation obtains between the telling of Historie and Dasein’s original, geschichtliches way of being. Heidegger does not mean of course that Historie is answerable to Geschichte in the way that propositions are answerable to facts. “Mere making present and remembering are fundamentally different,” he explains, later clarifying that to ‘make present’ is to ‘take up into the present,’ whereas ‘to remember’ is “placing oneself into that which has been and as belonging to it”.[vii] So unlike Husserl, who grounded recollective memory on intuitive perceptions, Heidegger’s Historie is grounded in Dasein’s ontological involvement with or (as he frequently puts it in this text) ‘belonging to’ the past. Nietzsche, by effectively writing Geschichte out of Historie, erases Dasein’s ontological foundation in the past. Whatever meaning the past has for Nietzsche is written back into it from the present, and whatever has no present use ought to be ‘forgotten.’[viii] There are parallels here (not coincidentally, given that these texts are composed in the same period) to the way that enframing in the mode of Gestell projects the being of beings as standing reserve for the will, so ‘making present’ in Nietzsche’s sense displays a similar enframing projection of the past.
There are more entries on life in this text than on any other topic. In Being and Time Heidegger implicitly associates Nietzsche’s thinking about history with Wilhelm Dilthey’s philosophy of life and defense of the originality of Geistwissenschaften, but especially following the rigorous analysis of life in FCM, Heidegger no longer thinks that life is an appropriate concept for understanding Dasein’s way of being and has concluded that Nietzsche’s thinking about life stands directly opposed to Dasein’s fundamental historicity. Many of the statements about life in this text repeat the analysis from a decade earlier. Animals are ‘captivated’ by their milieu (Umfeld) whereas Dasein understands its ‘environment’ (Umwelt). Animality, says Heidegger, is not grounded in any intrinsic property of organisms but by the ‘absorbtion’ and mutual determination of organism and environment. Although this should not be understood causally, animals are merely responsive to their environment whereas Dasein is in some sense free. Animals do not transcend their milieu and so are “bound to the moment”.[ix] By elevating life to the name of being as a whole, Nietzsche projects all of being through this totalizing presentism.
Heidegger’s claims about animality remain controversial and the focus of ongoing research.[x] Scholars will not find anything in this set of lectures to contradict or add nuance to claims about the ‘world-poor’ existence of animals. However, readers will acquire better insight into the kinds of considerations that motivated Heidegger to undertake those analyses in the first place and the context they occupy for him. Recent interest in Heidegger’s remarks about animality has been driven by growing contemporary attention to animal rights and a broader critique of anthropocentrism, but as this text makes clear, those are not part of the frame that Heidegger brings to these issues. Instead, this text shows that foremost in his mind is combatting–what Heidegger believed to be–the confusions and regressions of Lebensphilosophie, historicism, scientism, rationalism, and the technological projection of being. He is especially concerned to awaken an attunement to the existential potential of historically transcendent Dasein. Richard Polt, in a recent lecture at Emory University organized around the Black Notebooks, states that during this period Heidegger began to interpret the barbarism around him as a regression to a form of animality that formed the counterpart to the calculative rationality of enframing.[xi] This sentiment is consistent with what one finds in INM.
This text also covers ground familiar from Heidegger’s more famous writings on technology and earlier set of lectures on Nietzsche. Looking beneath the surface of Nietzsche’s frequent critique of consciousness, moral motivations, and objective truth, Heidegger claims to find an even purer expression of modern rationalism. As Heidegger would explain in the Question Concerning Technology (QCT), what defines technological rationalism is not consciousness per se but the projection of being as standing reserve for the encompassing presentism of the subjectum. Nietzsche’s ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ might undermine the epistemic self-certainty of consciousness but only to the effect of extinguishing any remaining resistance from beings themselves to ‘life’ and thus the erasure of being into nothing. Being itself is nothing but the projection of life. Thus “despite the enmity with Descartes,” Heidegger writes, Nietzsche “only replaces the cogito by a vivo and thereby raises the subjectum to the highest level of preeminence”.[xii] This story, as I’ve mentioned, will be familiar to readers of Heidegger’s other writings on Nietzsche and technology, but this text adds a specifically historical inflection to that critique.
That inflection sets the context for one of the more noteworthy sections of the text where we find Heidegger offering a sustained reflection on justice. The original connection–between life, truth, history, and justice–is not Heidegger’s but Nietzsche’s. In UM, Nietzsche describes, in his usual complex way, the drive for an austere objectivity in history as a kind of justice. Unlike other areas of science, we cannot remain indifferent to the results of history. (Feigned indifference, modeled on scientific dispassion or aesthetic indifference, always dissembles ulterior, self-aggrandizing motives, Nietzsche believes). I have no particular stake in the specific atomic weight of some element, but to discover that the revered founder of my country was a kleptocratic murderer, or that your friends have never really respected you, can be profoundly affecting. It requires a rare and special sort of fortitude, Nietzsche imagines, to look directly at historical truth nonetheless, calling that a kind of justice. Normally, Nietzsche assumes, we use the past for precedents and excuses, for scapegoats and reassurance, a tendency at both the individual and collective level. Those few who are not seduced by such drives possess what Nietzsche calls a “dreadful virtue” that confers the right to be a “regulating and punishing judge”.[xiii] But even this drive for justice must be wed to an artistic drive to create lest it undermine the very life it expresses. As Heidegger explains, Nietzsche’s notion of justice is not about what is or has been but about possibility, the ability to posit new goals and ideals.[xiv] Without such goals, this dreadful justice only destroys. Nietzsche points to the withering effects historical criticism had had on the spiritual power of religious figures like Jesus, and today we might point to contemporary histories that turn an unflinching eye toward the details of the oppressive and unjust legacies of our own past. When in service to a life-affirming ideal, the dreadful virtue of historical honesty can be creative, but most of us never achieve or even aspire to such historical virtue. Instead, we are motivated by “boredom, envy, vanity, the desire for amusement,” etc.[xv] Nietzsche mocks the careful historians of his day (and he could easily be talking about our own) for judging the deeds and opinions of the past by standards of the present and calling that ‘objectivity,’ work he derides as the attempt “to adapt the past to contemporary triviality”.[xvi]
In Being and Time Heidegger saw in this accusation of banal anachronism a connection to his own critique of publicness, but in these lectures he finds something else. The drive towards justice–even the austere, virtuous kind that Nietzsche admires (and would practice with his method of genealogy–belongs rather to life than truth. Nietzsche will persist using the word ‘truth’, but Heidegger argues that his failure to see past metaphysics nullifies his right to that term. Nietzsche’s claims to truth are a ruse: “The will to truth belongs to “life” and in this belonging it is precisely the will to untruth, to appearance.[xvii] Truth is really untruth, which is to say, no truth at all, only life.
For all of his criticisms of how philosophers talk about truth, the need for truth remains one of Heidegger’s deepest and most persistent commitments. It is a commitment Nietzsche cannot share because, Heidegger claims, Nietzsche continues to think of truth through the metaphysical opposition of being and becoming.
“What Nietzsche here grasps as “will to truth”—always from the perspective of the human being—is it not simply the will to the “true,” that is, to what is “fixed,” and therefore precisely not will to truth as an essential will to the question-worthiness of the essence of the true?”[xviii]
For all of his ability to see through the pretensions and self-deceptions of philosophy, Nietzsche still cannot see how that which changes—that which has a history—can be true, and so he rejects truth—and with it, being—for the sake of something he calls life. (Heidegger includes several interesting asides cataloguing the inconsistent ambiguities in Nietzsche’s use of that term in connect with similar ambiguities in his uses of ‘justice’ and ‘truth.’)
Heidegger scholars will find this text frequently fascinating if also enigmatic and frustrating. As this review illustrates, it stays for the most part on the level of critique. But a positive understanding of being-historical is intimated between the lines of this critique, and begins with the aforementioned notion of historical truth. Understood within the framework of traditional epistemology the very idea is barely intelligible. How could truth change? Historical relativism or some sort of temporally-indexed contextualism are insufficient. Either way, truth itself is not ‘historical’ but relativized into fixed frame or constantly shifting perspective. This suggests that we should look elsewhere than traditional epistemology to get a sense of what truth as historical might mean. The first step is to recognize that truth is a guiding, constitutive feature of Dasein’s existence—lived out more than known, enacted rather than objectively grasped. As Haase and Sinclair note, this is a sense of being-historical already laid out in 1919/20 in Phenomenology of Religious Life. As I write, my country—the United States—confronts a deep crisis about the kind of country it has been, is, and will be. And familiar arguments over our history have once again become public (Are we an immigrant nation or an ethnic one? A liberal and progressive nation or reactionary and conservative?) It is a mistake to assume that the past is fixed, or that history unfolds a fixed essence. But it is equally wrong to assume that there is no ‘truth’ to the matter or that historical truth is confined to the present. The past not is a set of facts, but one ground for the possibility of meaning, a possibility that also includes the present and the future. The meaning, for instance, of the Constitutional Convention is not found only in the facts of what occurred in Philadelphia in 1787, but in the meaning that those facts continue to have today for those of us responsible to them, and that meaning in turn is not just found in the present facts of today but in who we become in the future. We right now are aware of all this right now and thus our present is this responsibility towards our future by way of our past. The truth is not something we create, nor something we find, but something for which we are responsible. It is—and this is my final observation—this notion of responsibility that Heidegger implies is missing from Nietzsche’s philosophy. For Nietzsche the past and the future are consumed by a drive for power into a totalizing present: “‘life’ is posited in advance as life-intensification, as the consuming desire for victory, spoils, and power, which in and of itself means: always more power”.[xix] Is this a hint at Heidegger’s so-called subtle ‘resistance’ to National Socialism in his Nietzsche lectures? If so, it is an important datum for intellectual historians trying to gauge Heidegger’s precise sympathies, but all the same, must strike us now as pathetic and insufficient.
[i] Haase, Ullrich and Sinclair, Mark. “History and the Meaning of Life: On Heidegger’s Interpretations of Nietzsche’s 2nd Untimely Meditation.” Heidegger in the Twenty-First Century. Springer: 2015.
[ii] See especially BT, Division II, Ch. 5.
[iii] INM, 24.
[iv] “The animal is not unhistorical, but much rather without history [historielos] – and these are not the same.” (INM, 24). See also: “The human being is in its very essence characterized and distinguished by the historical. At the same time, the unhistorical has a primacy within human life.” (INM, 18)
[v] “A living thing can be healthy, strong, and fruitful only when bounded by a horizon.” (UM, 63). Heidegger questions why Nietzsche seems to equate the ‘horizon limitation’ with ‘being able to forget.’ (INM, 115)
[vi] See UM.
[vii] INM, 33. And elsewhere: “representing–bringing before oneself–derives from a mere making present (free and unrestrained) which is not carried and goverened by remembering (the being concerned by what has been, being affected by it)” (INM, 92).
[viii] “…for Nietzsche, ‘history’–when he does not simply equate it with historiology–is what first of all comes into being by means of objectification on the part of historiology” (INM, 78).
[ix] INM, 16.
[x] See Calarco, Matthew. Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida. New York: Columbia UP, 2008; Derrida, Jacques, Michel Lisse, Marie-Louise Mallet, and Geoffrey Bennington. The Beast & the Sovereign. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011; Padui, Raoni. “From the Facticity of Dasein to the Facticity of Nature: Naturalism, Animality, and Metontology.” Gatherings. The Heidegger Circle Annual, 3 (2013): 50–75; Tanzer, Mark. “Heidegger on Animality and Anthropocentrism.” Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 47.1 (2015): 18-32;
[xi] “Inception, Downfall, and the Broken World: Heidegger Above the Sea of Fog.” In Heidegger’s “Black Notebooks”: Responding to Anti-Semitism, ed. Andrew J. Mitchell and Peter Trawny. New York: Columbia University Press, forthcoming 2017.
[xii] INM, 114.
[xiii] UM, 88.
[xiv] See INM, 144-5.
[xv] UM, 88.
[xvi] UM, 90.
[xvii] INM, 118.
[xviii] INM, 119.
[xix] INM, 178.