Christopher Kul-Want (Ed.): Philosophers on Film from Bergson to Badiou: A Critical Reader

Philosophers on Film from Bergson to Badiou: A Critical Reader Book Cover Philosophers on Film from Bergson to Badiou: A Critical Reader
Christopher Kul-Want (Ed.)
Columbia University Press
2019
Paperback $35.00 £28.00
368

Reviewed by: Michael Deckard (Lenoir-Rhyne University)

The Impenetrable Gaze

Images and stories provoke desire. To use an example from chapter 13 by Jean-Luc Nancy of this book under review, a group of refugees after an earthquake install a television antenna in order to watch the World Cup in their tents. “The filmmaker (character) asks him: ‘Do you find it appropriate to watch television these days?’ The man answers: ‘Truthfully, I myself am in mourning. I lost my sister and three cousins. But what can we do? The Cup takes place every four years. Can’t miss it. Life goes on.’” The Soccer Cup is for him, for them, pure image: television screens, as well as soccer imagery for all those who around bad balls on terrains of fortune, while dreaming vaguely of distant fame, of the kind achieved by Maradonna.” (246) This connection between images, stories, and desire are constitutive of what it means to think about film. When desire is invoked in viewing or making a film, eros pervades the gaze (see this earlier review for discussion of the gaze). The gaze can be impenetrable—is it of the camera, the viewer, the director, or culture at large? Is it one of acceptance or critique, analyzing or to accepting the images that come into being through the eye (I)? As seen in this book, feminists Irigaray and Kristeva describe films that toe the line between different gazes, surveying through male or female enjoyment, treading on each form of impenetrability. Yet each of these chapters attempt to penetrate the gaze. The same follows for other forms of intersectionality, whether it be orientalism, class, regionalism, etc. Exemplifying impenetrability, the theory or philosophy does not easily allow the viewer (or the film-maker) their own power/ agency in viewing or understanding film. Here is where several authors, names which include Bergson, Adorno, Merleau-Ponty, Benjamin, Lyotard, Agamben, Deleuze and others, can help or deter us. This collection, edited by Christopher Kul-Want, includes the history of film philosophy in 18 chapters, and exemplifies the impenetrable gaze—all that one could desire from 20th century philosophy and cinema.

Bergson uses the term image to relate a “dynamic, interrelated, and mutually affective relations…memory, as we have tried to prove, is not a faculty of putting away recollections in a drawer, or of inscribing them in a register. There is no register, no drawer…it follows us at every instant; all that we have felt, thought and willed from our earliest infancy is there, leaning over the present which is about to join it, pressing against the portals of consciousness that would fain leave it outside.” (37) Memories are “messages from the unconscious” – our character contains the “condensation of the history that we have lived from our birth” (38) – images, poems, music. This time period can tell us something about our reality now. What Adorno shows is the absolute force culture has on our consciousness. Did this not exist in the same way in previous centuries? Certainly advertising and media did not have the same power it has now. Adorno and Horkheimer continue, “When the detail won its freedom, it became rebellious and, in the period from Romanticism to Expressionism, asserted itself as free expression, as a vehicle of protest against the organization. In music the single harmonic effect obliterated the awareness of form as a whole; in painting the individual color was stressed at the expense of pictorial composition; and in the novel psychology became more important than structure.” (88) When each art form becomes precisely that, a form of manipulation or device – that is a sellable, buyable, transferable thing – then the work of art is no longer a magical or transcendent object. Film is one powerful example of this. “Real life is becoming indistinguishable from the movies.” There is no room for imagination or reflection, they write. We are transfixed, brought into a world for which there is no escape. “[T]he film forces its victims to equate it directly with reality.” Eager to find the next fix in any film, it doesn’t matter which one, the viewer empties himself of subjectivity. Not a single artist escapes censure. Orson Welles alongside Schönberg and Picasso, Wagner alongside Mozart. These are all of a piece, to express a sound, a picture, an image that sells, is consumed, and bought and sold for a few to gain thereby. And the sad fact of the matter is that most people who consume the art are not aware that they are being manipulated so. “[T]he workers and employees, the farmers and lower middle class” are the consumers, Adorno and Horkheimer point out (91). Film may capture this better than any other medium. But film also manipulates, curves desires towards it, leaving the perceiver dumb-founded (or shocked) by the tactile. “Such an experience of shock, Benjamin says, interrupts cognition, and leads the spectator to conclude, “I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images.” (8)

For Merleau-Ponty, his film work is rather brief, one essay from 1945, the same year he published Phenomenology of Perception. When he discusses Descartes’s famous passage in the Meditations in which “hats and coats” pass by me on the street, Merleau-Ponty differentiates himself from the 17th-century philosopher and classical psychology by defending gestalt theory. “By resolutely rejecting the notion of sensation it teaches us to stop distinguishing between signs and their significance, between what is sensed and what is judged,” he writes (104). While many current psychologists might not recognize this thought as their own, Merleau-Ponty held a chair of child psychology at the Sorbonne and is often misread in philosophy circles. Reading this essay helps repair his view of how film as perceptual object follows a “temporal gestalt.” He finds much meaning in cinematographic rhythm: “Since a film consists not only of montage (the selection of shots or views, their order and length) but also of cutting (the selection of scenes or sequences, and their order and length), it seems to be an extremely complex form inside of which a very great number of actions and reactions are taking place at every moment.” (107) The rhythm exists as much for images as sounds, Merleau-Ponty thinks, and what both of these contains is “expressive force.” If Bergson seems as much a biologist as philosopher and Adorno bends his analysis towards sociology, Benjamin toward literary theory (as we now call it), then Merleau-Ponty is the psychologist of the group. The sight and sound together bring a “new whole” just as reading each of these thinkers separately allows us to think about the film in discrete but overlapping ways. Cinematography gains true allies if it is to be both critiqued and appreciated, and it requires the film maker(s) as much as the audience to recognize this. These first four chapters set the stage for the whole, encompassing 1907-1945, and alongside Kul-Want’s introduction (see 108) provide us enough context to see where the rest of 20th century film analysis will go.

The next five chapters, encompassing 1970-1985, take a leap since nothing from the period of Krakauer among others is included here. Jean Baudrillard’s “On Contemporary Alienation or the End of the Pact with the Devil” (1970) contains a detailed discussion of the film, The Student of Prague (1913, 1926). When teaching this chapter in a philosophy of film class, most students really resonated with this film and analysis. The plot is a recognizable one: a student sells his image to the Devil in order to be accepted and to have pleasure. How one sees oneself in the mirror by means of commodity culture shapes one’s identity and the more we buy an image of ourselves the more we are alienated from ourselves. Baudrillard writes, “The mirror image here symbolically represents the meaning of our acts. These build up around us a world that is in our image. The transparency of our relation to the world is expressed rather well by the individual’s unimpaired relation to his image in a mirror: the faithfulness of that reflection bears witness, to some degree, to a real reciprocity between the world and ourselves.” (117) Since marketing has become so powerful, even Baudrillard thinks this modern Faustian story is outdated since there is no originary subject from which we are alienated. The bargain with the devil is so complete that there is no going back to some authentic self free of the market. “For Baudrillard, the devil in these fables can be read as the capitalist system of commodification, while the loss of the protagonists’ likenesses (in other words, their very souls) to the devil represents the alienation and objectivization of labor power in the market place, ‘the image is not lost or abolished by chance: it is sold.’” (114) The more one buys, the more one is alienated. The dramatic demonstration of this alienated human being “is a being turned inside out, changed into something evil, into its own enemy, set against itself. This is, on another level, the process Freud describes in repression.” (119) This is what drives a human or a culture to its death or to madness. But it is still possible, says Baudrillard to save one’s soul. We have dominated nature so completely, our sexual drives and human relations, “including even fantasies…is taken over by that logic…in which everything is spectacularized…there is no longer any soul, no shadow, no double, and no image in the specular sense.” (120-1) We are purely and entirely haunted by this ancestral fable, the Devil being just a filmic memory of what used to be, “there is only a shop window—the site of consumption, in which the individual no longer produces his own reflection, but is absorbed into the order of signifiers of social status, etc.” (121)

Luce Irigaray, in “The Looking Glass, From the Other Side,” achieves a new language in speaking of film, exemplifying l’écriture feminine through what Kul-Want calls “performative writing.” This chapter, originally published in 1973, becomes the first in her This Sex Which Is Not One and provides a fine-grained and profound analysis of the film The Surveyors (Les Arpenteurs, 1972). A review such as this cannot do justice to her style. Irigaray’s lyrical form, displaying women’s libidinal desire and gaze, cannot be that of the surveyor in Soutter’s film and “is rooted in a critique of patriarchy and its conception of identity as formed by means of a metaphysical, structural opposition between the One and its lack.” (124) Such thinking needs to be dissolved, says Irigaray, “conceiv[ing] of the notion of woman as a radical absence of identity—zero rather than One—for which there is no definition.” (ibid.) The point of a woman discovering herself without seeing herself through the man’s gaze:

So at four o’clock sharp, the surveyor goes into her house. And since a surveyor needs a pretext to go into someone’s house, especially a lady’s, he’s carrying a basket of vegetables. From Lucien. Penetrating into ‘her’ place under cover of somebody else’s name, clothes, love. For the time being, that doesn’t seem to bother him. He opens the door, she’s making a phone call. To her fiancé. Once again he slips in between them, the two of them. […] Does his intervention succeed? Or does he begin to harbor a vague suspicion that she is not simply herself? He looks for a light. To hide his confusion, fill in the ambiguity. Distract her by smoking. She doesn’t see the lighter, even though it’s right in front of her… (127)

The analysis of this scene of The Surveyors points to missed and captured attention, unfettered desire, and the subtleties of consent and patriarchy brought into the light. The play of characters, male and female, stand in for mirrors, front and back. Here is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from the other side. As Kul-Want perceives,“[W]oman puts into question all prevailing economies and their calculations since ‘she’ does not possess an identity and nor does ‘she’ lack one.” (17)

Jean-François Lyotard claims that the importance of movement in cinema has two forms, a static and an excessive, and that even the gaze is not simple voyeurism. As in “gaps, jolts, postponements, losses, and confusions,” the pyrotechnics of film ensure that the “entire erotic force invested in the simulacrum be promoted, raised, displayed, and burned in vain.” (145, 143) The static movement, however, is not only immobilizing since the image “give[s] rise to the most intense agitation through its fascinating paralysis.” (149) Crucial to his line of analysis is the point of view of the director, how the director sees the thing which we wishes to represent in terms of these varied movements. Cinematography, then, captures e-motion in the way that Agamben in a later chapter will describe gesture. They are each in their own way expanding upon Merleau-Ponty’s “understanding of the genealogy of the Kantian philosophy of subsumption beyond Descartes, proposing that it underlies the very notion of identity in the West as this pertains to all aspects of subjective experience and thought.” (14) As in Žižek’s analysis below, and following Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), the “unfettered libidinal drives” and “unconscious investments—formless movements of jouissance—are denied by the culture industries in their relentless interpellation of the consumer.” (16) For the sake of space, I will not discuss the two chapters on Deleuze here, but Kul-Want’s selections and introductory material are really valuable for the student trying to approach these themes for the first time.

Philosopher, literary critic, and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva may help with some of this frustration of understanding impenetrable thoughts in her chapter, “The Malady of Grief: Duras,” taken from her book, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (1987). Along with Cixous and Irigaray, Kristeva has done more regarding the term jouissance than almost anyone, barring possibly Lacan. “Such jouissance in these contexts is violent and painful and yet, part of the violence of this experience, its excess, is that it is also joyful and ecstatic.” (200) Grief encompasses the experience of watching a film and the “despoliation of nature” (202). Kristeva is interested in interrogating the existence of states largely overlooked: “Psychosis, depression, manic-depressive states, borderline states, false selves.” Among others, Dostoyevsky and Hans Holbein are inspirations for her work. Another person she believes to have looked into grief is Marguerite Duras, whose script for the film Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), allows one to think about postwar melancholy and the future of our emptiness as a national and global community.

Slavoj Žižek looks at Hitchcock through a Lacanian lens. He doesn’t repeat here his analysis in the documentaries, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and Ideology, but supplements them. Hitchcock’s storytelling pervades what Žižek calls the “continuous filmic gaze” (226), that is, referring to the title of this chapter which originates in Racine’s Phèdre, “In his bold gaze my ruin is writ large.” While much of this chapter is an analysis of Psycho (1960), Hitchcock’s earlier film, The Lady Vanishes (1938), is also discussed. What Žižek tries to show, in Kul-Want’s words, is how in the latter film “the window function as a symbolic screen lining ‘diegetic reality’ and thwarting the Real, while the writing upon the screen are signifiers […] —that is, symptoms— of a subjective void that cannot be framed and represented but around which signification revolves: in this instance the vanished lady. […] As Lacan says, language speaks (ça parle, it speaks) of an absence within itself.” (220) The narrative of desire is that we are always already driven and will be forever by different objects, different stories. Curiosity for the new and the hidden accentuate this desire. When we want to see more than we are allowed to see by the gaze that is all powerful, our ruin is writ large. The reality of what we are looking at destroys us. “In the guise of the Other’s gaze,” he concludes,

Hitchcock’s entire universe is founded upon this complicity between ‘absolute Otherness,’ epitomized by the Other’s gaze into the camera, and the viewers look—the ultimate Hegelian lesson of Hitchcock is that the place of absolute transcendence, of the Unrepresentable which eludes diegetic space, coincides with the absolute immanence of the viewer reduced to pure gaze. (234)

Norman of Psycho is “the quintessence of the disembodied drive” (22), but the filmic gaze points beyond to the space between the symbolic and the Real. The themes of desire, otherness, and ideology are brought together and yet hidden from our view.

The sheer amount of analysis of film can become overwhelming. In Jean-Luc Nancy’s chapter, “And Life Goes On,” the emphasis is on “ideas of withdrawal, spacing, and separation.” (241) The film Nancy uses to show this is by the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, Life and Nothing More (1992). Following the earthquake and the men who watch football mentioned in the first paragraph above, the film reveals how the flow of life continues after mourning and catastrophe. The automobile is a major character in the film (“it moves by itself, it moves ahead, outside of itself, it carries what presents itself, toilet seat or stove, occasional passengers…” (248), as is the landscape and the rubble. In addition to human interaction, the villages have been broken by faults, both inside and between. Nevertheless, “the film remains a film, and never lets us forget it—precisely by means of its contrasts and its insistence on the framing—always the car, its windows, its doors, and the sides of the road, always on the verge of being out of focus; but also and just as well the patient arrangement of everything…[as] a document about ‘fiction’: not in the sense of imagining the unreal, but in the very specific and precise sense of the technique, of the art of constructing images.” (249) This film between documentary and fiction does not Orientalize or Romanticize. Rather, “[i]t is their simultaneous continuation and the continuation of each other: the road, the automobile, the image, the gaze” that goes on like “the vast, permanent expanse of the countryside and its people.”

The right to tell one’s story and the search for story is behind much of 20th century film and philosophy. In Contesting Tears, Stanley Cavell analyses American films from the 1930s and 1940s that concern themselves with “the female protagonists [who] desire recognition from their partners, not just in the private, domestic sphere of their lives, but in the public realm too.” (18) Unlike Laura Mulvey’s famous “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” (1975) Cavell defends the gaze as when the protagonist of Stella Dallas (1937) “watches her daughter through a window that is framed like the proverbial cinematic silver screen.”  How marriage, divorce, and finding one’s father or mother can be both Freudian and reconciling in a peaceful rather than conflictual way allows one to mirror filmic selves by recognizing aspects of characters (for example, Greta Garbo in Camille, 1936) who find themselves in the film story that reinvents “love [as] mysterious, in its crossing of torture and bliss.” (268) A definition of marriage as a “meet and happy conversation” defended by Cavell through two genres of film where the distinction between desire and law in relation to the past and memory becomes elemental in understanding power relations. In one of the best passages if Contesting Tears, Cavell writes, “the struggle between the sexes can play itself out without interruption (for example, by children, or by economic need), on the sublime level of difference mutually desired and comically overcome. In the melodramas the education of the woman is still at issue, but within their mood of heavy irony, since her (superior, exterior) knowledge becomes the object-as prize or as victim-of the man’s fantasy, who seeks to share its secrets (Now, Voyager), to be ratified by it (Letter from an Unknown Woman), to escape it (Stella Dallas), or to destroy it (Gaslight), where each objective is (generically) reflected in the others…” (265) There are very few American authors on film who can measure up to many of the philosophers in this book, but Cavell can.

In the last four chapters, we are brought from the 20th into the 21st century. Jacques Rancière analyses one film in detail, Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1955). The film is a fable of “the bodily movements and exchange of glances that cast these schemers into always unstable relationships of inferiority or superiority.” (276) Each of the characters produces a mask to hide their own power. The way in which film is capable of reproducing this fable contrasts Deleuze’s account since for Rancière, “[film] is composed of a constant tension between classical narrative construction, ultimately derived from Aristotle’s idea of a ‘story well told’ (muthos), and its visual and sensate affects that have the potential to exceed signification (opsis).” (26) This means that cinema not only reproduces ideology, but potentially arrests it such as when “the murderer stands like a parent beside a young girl in front of a shopwindow…for a few moments, these scenes in front of shopwindow displays are not simply pauses or moments of rest in the narrative but an ‘empty time, the lost time of a stroll or the suspended time of an epiphany’ that changes the very meaning of the notion of an ‘episode.’” (272) The notion of mimesis as in any way linear is put into question. Lang inverts Aristotle. The notion of the gaze becomes a point of dissension and yet a “change from ignorance to knowledge” (in the Aristotelian sense of recognition) requires a comprehension of Oedipus Rex: “here’s the man that was the child.” (277) The lost time of the stroll and the time of projects or the time of narrative are put into opposition. The way in which “speech,” “gaze,” and “hands” operate between the camera and the living room, the murderer and the lover, the projection and maturity all come into focus, as when Rancière describes the scene: “Mobley faces the murderer as he would face his kid brother who never left the stage of intellectual and manual masturbation and of papa and mama stories, and is still wondering whether it was for wanting him that a man and a woman performed the series of movements known as making love.” (285-6) As a German emigrant to America, the scene is one of recognition and disillusionment, knowledge and loss by means of the “new apparatus of the visible that cinema as such has to confront.”

Alain Badiou, in his Cinema as Philosophical Experimentation, also believes that cinema thinks. It can challenge and prod us to move beyond – but it is also a product of capitalism and thus can equally captivate and numb. It is a question of image, time, painting, music, and novelty. All of these are equally political and ethical, since “cinema deals with courage, with justice, with passion, with betrayal.” (297) As examples of this thinking and this challenge, Badiou discusses Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Rebecca, Rosellini’s Journey to Italy, and others. He speaks here of the ‘event’ meaning radical political events such as 1968 and changes within epistemology. “Truth-event” is his word for Plato’s Idea of absolute truth, as Kul-Want points out, and yet for Badiou, “the event is true in an absolute sense because it is radically multiple, irreducible to its causes and conditions.” (292) Like many of the authors in this collection, Badiou believes cinema to have the power and the capacity to transform our fantasies. Cinema as philosophy means the love and the truth contained in its origins, and films such as Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai or Mizoguchi’s The Crucified Lovers exemplify a difference between cinema and philosophy, learning from each other through “rupture.” Cinema is a transformative ‘event’ (as Benjamin, Adorno and Horkheimer thought) “that both reinforces and reproduces the fantasies of the social imaginary.” (27) By engaging the audience in a struggle against oppression, “something almost miraculous happens when cinema manages to extract a little bit of purity from all that is worst in the world.” (306)

In Technics and Time, 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise, extracted here, Bernard Stiegler, who passed away tragically while writing this review in 2020, begins by taking up the desire for stories, which he thinks is an ancient desire. Modern society is “animated by the most complex, and most secret, of social movements.” This is precisely what Adorno and Horkheimer mean by culture industry, which now “constitute the very heart of economic development, whose most intimate power is clearly always the most ancient desire of all stories.” All of cinema and media then, for Stiegler, with their “technics of image and sound—now including informatics and telecommunications—re-invent our belief in stories that are now told with remarkable, unparalleled power.” (311) The important point here, which I cannot emphasise enough, is how Stiegler takes up the history of philosophy, including Plato, Kant, Husserl, Heidegger and others alongside Simondon and Leroi-Gourhan, and reads the history of technology, that is, the relationship of techne and episteme, and considers how it affects our consciousness, including and perhaps especially children (see his Taking Care of the Youth). He writes, “Consciousness is affected in general by phenomena presented to it, but this affect occurs in a special way with temporal objects. This is important to us in the current investigation because cinema, like melody, is a temporal object. Understanding the singular way in which temporal objects affect consciousness means beginning to understand what gives cinema its specificity, its force, and its means of transforming life leading, for example, to the global adoption of ‘the American way of life.’” (318) Consciousness, and thus the gaze, is already cinematographic, Stiegler claims, combining a form of montage through a unified flux. Stiegler’s use of films like Fellini’s Intervista, Kazan’s America, America, or Resnais’s My American Uncle are cases in point “in which memory is a dense fabric of cinematographic citations.” (324-5) Kul-Want describes this process in the following way: “for Stiegler, the flow of temporality involved in listening to music or watching a film is always a matter of ‘imaginative’ and selective recombinations of experience through what Stiegler refers to as a tertiary form of retention, that is, in actual fact, constitutive of primary and secondary forms of retention. Such shifts in consciousness depend on the important fact that memory is a process of forgetting.” (310) Our notions of consciousness are not only impacted by what we watch and take in technologically in our everyday lives, but also by what we have forgotten as when we watch a film we’ve seen before and do not remember what happens. New stories then emerge such that the “American mythmaking” or Streetcar Named Desire (1951) or Gone with the Wind (1939) become more real than reality, a “symbol of freedom and hope…by virtue of being a land of emigrants who do not have a mythical shared oriding upon which a regulated, common future can be founded.” (311) This essay by Stiegler can be compared to that of Agamben’s “Notes on Gesture”, which Kul-Want points out “is also informed by the reproducible as a singular event involving forgetting and loss.” (20) For Agamben, then, we can even unlearn gestures and bodily postures or movements due to this forgetting. A decomposition of film, as in Marey, Muybridge, or the Lumière brothers, in which 24 frames per second define movement, intersects with experimental psychology and Nietzsche’s “ballet of a humankind” (213) The image is both broken off from and includes the whole. “And when the age realized this, it then began (but it was too late!) the precipitous attempt to recover the lost gestures in extremis. The dance of Isadora Duncan and Sergei Diaghilev, the novel of Proust, the great Jugendstil poetry from Pascoli to Rilke, and finally and most exemplarily, the silent movie trace the magic circle in which humanity tried for the last time to evoke what was slipping through its fingers forever.” (213) Cinema, says Agamben, is gesture and not image, thus belonging to ethics and politics.

The final essay, by Kaja Silverman, brings us back to where we began in Bergson. When Bergson wrotes, “What are we, in fact, what is our character, if not the condensation of the history that we have lived from our birth, since we bring with us prenatal dispositions…from this survival of the past it follows that consciousness cannot go through the same state twice,” (38) the same can be said for the gaze. In Silverman’s analysis, using Proust alongside Sartre and Merleau-Ponty as well as the Belgian filmmaker Chantal Ackerman, the gaze (le regard) is transformed into ‘the miracle of analogy’. Merleau-Ponty’s word for this is chiasmus, which Silverman says is the “name for the ontological thread stitching the seer to what is seen, the toucher to what is touched, and sight and visibility to touch and tactility.” (331) This intertwining at the heart of Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible means that there is not an “I” cut off from another: we are touched when looking and art allows us, says Proust, “to emerge from ourselves.” (332) The entire history of film (and of philosophy) can be contained in this imagined image of the gaze, to be able to see oneself through another lens transforms the self and the other. Silverman’s use of Ackerman’s The Captive (2000), a take on Proust’s À la recherche, vol. 5, explores “non-invasive” sexual pleasure and the meaning loving a lot, or loving well. In place of possessive grasping or obsessive jealousy, the camera “relies heavily upon the shot/reverse shot formation.” (336) While this technique is typically used to construct sexual difference, concealing the presence of the camera, Ackerman uses it to reveal the fourth wall: “Ariane and Andrée are separated from Simon by the fourth wall, so they shouldn’t be able to return his look, but they miraculously do. After he acknowledges the interdependence of his desire for Ariane, and hers for Andrée, and affirms the girls’ right to say ‘je vous aime bien’ to each other, they respond by smiling first at each other, and then at him.” Ever since Ackerman’s La chambre (1972), she has proven herself as a filmmaker of extraordinary innovation and a living incarnation of the miracle of analogy; though Ackerman passed away in 2015 we may still “see” her work. “Acgkerman shows these two looks meeting at the site of Ariane’s body, like the landscape invoked by Proust, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty. If we were to translate this meeting into language, it would read: ‘je…vous…je vous.’” (337)

All of the themes of 20th century film and philosophy are contained brilliantly within Kul-Want’s collection. I cannot speak highly enough of its range and depth. Beginning with Bergson’s 1907 Creative Evolution and ending with Silverman’s 2015 The Miracle of Analogy, with Christopher Kul-Want’s aid all along, we can follow a trajectory of thinking and viewing without losing ourselves in the mindlessly numbing, not to mention impenetrable, weeds of the gaze.

Hermann Cohen: Writings on Neo-Kantianism and Jewish Philosophy, Brandeis University Press, 2021

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Diana Gasparyan: The Philosophic Path of Merab Mamardashvili, Brill, 2021

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Roberta de Monticelli: Towards a Phenomenological Axiology, Palgrave Macmillan, 2021

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Tao DuFour: Husserl and Spatiality: A Phenomenological Ethnography of Space, Routledge, 2021

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Karl Kraatz: Die Methodologie von Martin Heideggers Philosophie

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Reviewed by: Nikolaus Schneider (Kingston University, London)

In a recently published very short introduction to philosophical method, a British philosopher recounts an Italian continental colleague wondering about the Anglo-Saxon’s understanding of philosophy not being primarily confined to historical research and conduct. His line of thought proceeds as follows: “I am sometimes asked which philosopher I work on, as though that is what any philosopher must do. I reply Oxford-style: I work on philosophical problems, not on philosophers.” (Williamson, 2020, 103)

With regard to philosophical methodology, however, one’s understanding need not be confined to the exclusivity of either the formation of a problem or a purely reconstructive-historical approach. Rather, how problems and historicity are interwoven and, in particular, what counts as a contemporary problem is more often than not determined by a particular understanding of historical conjectures or, at a more abstract level, of historicity itself. A case in point is the work of Martin Heidegger, whose understanding of the relation between historicity and philosophical methodology is put to the test in the recently published dissertation of Karl Kraatz, Die Methodologie von Martin Heideggers Philosophie. Über die Grenzen der neuzeitlichen Wissenschaft und die Möglichkeiten der Philosophie. This work constitutes an exciting case in quarrels concerning the alleged irrationality of Heidegger’s work and questions over the absence of methodology. This discussion, arguably in place ever since the publication of Being and Time in 1927, becomes much more pronounced with the idiosyncratic later philosophy and culminate in Heidegger’s complicity, it is argued, with National-Socialism and his status as a main inspiration for the alleged ‘postmodern‘ destruction of reason and the legacy of the enlightenment. Notwithstanding the constructed character of some of these allegations, Kraatz’s work serves as a defense of Heideggerian philosophy against its harsher critics by offering a walkthrough of selected texts and lectures of the German philosopher’s oeuvre tied together by the questions of truth, justifiability, and cognition. Kraatz’s underlying premise is the ongoing continuity of Heidegger’s work, whose transition from Heidegger 1 to Heidegger 2 is less motivated by a fundamental ‘turn’ than by a deepening and radicalization of previous concerns. Die Methodologie von Martin Heideggers Philosophie serves, in this sense, as a reminder to envision the radicality and uncompromising – though by no means impeccable – impetus of its protagonist, all the while offering a compelling interpretation of Heidegger’s philosophy. To demonstrate the continuing allegiance of Heideggerian philosophy to justifiability, it is Kraatz’s aim to show its necessary thematization of the philosophizing I, something that he terms the “methodological necessity for the experience of individuation” (17, [methodische Notwendigkeit der Vereinzelungserfahrung]). The Heideggerian ontologization of the I and the connection of world to I constitute, for Kraatz, the fundamental thread running through the work of the German philosopher. In particular, it is the I’s avoidance of the full responsibility that is thereby conferred upon it that leads to the formation of various ‘defense mechanisms’, whose negativity is to be overcome to drive the process of philosophizing further (19). It is this thesis that will guide the author’s reconstruction of Heideggerian method throughout the book. Die Methodologie von Martin Heideggers Philosophie is comprised of four parts, with part two being further partitioned into a and b, and accordingly, they don’t amount to equal argumentative importance. I will provide a summary of each of the parts before going to comment more on the composition of Kraatz’s book and his reconstruction of Heidegger’s methodology.

Chapter one acts as an introduction to Kraatz’s thesis, the individual’s retreat of being by way of various mechanisms of delusion or typification so as to yield a ‘happy consciousness’. This is developed primarily through a historical reconstruction of Heidegger’s early lectures and culminates with Being and Time. These reflections are ignited through the central problem of phenomenology: the self-reflective exploration of to what extent cognition is structured by its origin in factual life (30f). Tying together transcendental philosophy with an investigation of the structures of experience it is the question of the scientific nature of this enterprise that proved pathbreaking for the young Heidegger. Phenomenology’s primary subject matter, factical life, preserves character traits that are irreducible to conceptions of modern scientific rationality, for which, in conjunction with the reifying character of science and the corresponding mediocrity of the everyday, a particular method is necessary to philosophize adequately (38). Heidegger proposes an equivalence between the tendencies for typification (or the reification of daily life through routine and mundane monotony) and the continuous prevalence of the theoretical in life. Both cause the suppression of the I. This deadlock can be broken through the merger of a hermeneutic of facticity, or factical life, and a hermeneutic of the self so as to methodologically ground cognition and non-reified objectivity (47). It is the motivational character of the hermeneutic of facticity that elaborates the next step in the argument. Having located the common denominator in the suppression of the I, of which the aforementioned tendencies are examples, these typifications need to be removed to arrive at a true conception of self – a methodological requisite (54f). ‘Something’- as of yet unobtainable – causes the self to seek the bios theoretikos and to avoid self-knowledge, which, in this tradition, amounts to a proper knowledge of the world altogether (68). One can anticipate the central method of Heidegger in its relation toward recovering the I: destruction. Phenomenologically, destruction is accomplished by removing the layers of typification, which are of one common origin, and are the condition of possibility for reencountering the I. What initially sounds like armchair psychology becomes, however, more elaborated upon over the course of Heidegger’s philosophical development and it is to Kraatz’s credit that he pushes the texts for an actual rationale that ties the hermeneutic of the self and of facticity together in a convincing manner (106). It is the conception of the self’s relation to being that eventually enables the German philosopher to merge the hermeneutic of facticity with the self and, subsequently, the further identification of the tendencies for the suppression of the I with the reified status of life as antecedents to the suppressed I (108). The world’s dependence upon the being of the I accounts for the former’s transformation in terms of the configuration of the latter. In Being and Time, where these concerns are most explicitly developed, the method of destruction becomes initiated through the function of care, which drives the investigation further to the negativity of anxiety and being-towards-death (112). Anxiety’s undirected negativity reverses into a positive function, once Dasein grasps its individuation from das Man and can be authentically. This existential is, however, nothing more than the further realization of one’s being as being-towards-death (141). Kraatz puts this into perspective with the consciousness of Dasein’s empty groundlessness. The lack of Dasein is the fact that its thrownness amounts to nothing more than being-towards-death. Inauthentic Dasein takes flight from this realization through the described tendencies of typification, which constitutes its culpability (154).  Conversely, if realized, these characteristics function as modes of foundation in the double sense for Heidegger. Because the world is functionally dependent upon the being of the self, whose access is phenomenologically obstructed, it has to be recovered by realizing its lack, which accomplishes destruction and sets the self free to found the disclosure of the world. In turn, the task is set for Dasein after accomplishing destruction to answer to being’s groundlessness through an authentic grounding of being, letting-be. Only the authentic realization of this relation can ground a true opening of sociality, justifiability for being and, in turn, community.

Kraatz’s reconstruction of Being and Time makes the case to conceive of uncanniness, anxiety and being-towards-death as inhabiting a productive negativity and is, in this sense, of quintessential methodological importance. It is, however, rather negligent of the role of temporality in this process. Insofar as being is time the inversion of the self is to be accompanied by the temporal ecstasies whose elaboration takes place at the end of the book. The precise role of Dasein’s temporal self-differentiation for the role of methodology are, given Kraatz’s concerns regarding his thesis of flight, however, underdeveloped. This significance has been elaborated upon in relation to methodological issues brilliantly by Karin de Boer’s Thinking in the Light of Time. Whereas Kraatz views the counter-ruinant tendency of anxiety and being-towards-death as experiences, de Boer manages to address the temporality of these functions as the opening up of the horizon through which the formal indications of these concepts can be attained (De Boer, 2000, 106ff). For instance, once destruction is initiated through the realization of being-towards-death, Dasein has already entered a mode of ecstatic temporality, being-ahead-of-oneself (De Boer, 2000, 110). This thematic focus notwithstanding, Kraatz’s account of the methodological position of these paragraphs is convincing. The ensuing manifold of conceptions of being is termed Seinsrelativität (being’s relativity), establishing Being and Time as the metaontological fundamental ontology, comprising different regional ontologies (165). Through it, beings remain relative to respective conceptions of the I. This is the methodological function granted to the self-knowledge, which is preceded by the yet ahistorical enforcement of destruction, the removal of the layers of typification, yielding disclosure.

The avoidance of potential misunderstandings and the overall cohesion of the first chapter is the aim of the second. To do so, the need of the Heideggerian account of the relativity of being and his conception of the I to others is underscored. Clearly, the constitution of Dasein is not to be understood as a Tathandlung but binds the conception of a ground of being sui generis together with the concrete engagement of phenomenology. Kraatz deploys the notion of an originary synthesis so as to render intelligible the constitution of the self through being (173). The danger of circularity is managed through the notion of thrownness, which acts as an anchor towards facticity and responsibility. Keeping the original insight of transcendental philosophy, Dasein entertains a ‘theoretical’ and an ethical side to it. Kraatz subsequently draws on the work of fellow Heidegger scholar Steven Crowell to demonstrate Dasein’s sociality and the justifiability constitutive of normative claims, a characteristic allegedly lacking from Being and Time and one taken to be missing from Heidegger’s work generally. The being of the self is taken to be an essentially normative one, leading to the cultivation of a true ethical life and an ideally well-founded community on responsible conceptions of being and self by way of the truthful character of letting-be as disclosure (183ff). Because the I is the ground of the world in the sense of fundamental ontology, Dasein bears responsibility for the being of others, which Kraatz circumscribes, citing Crowell, with the dictum that care is prior to reason (182). Attention is drawn to the similarity of Adorno’s conceptions of a non-instrumental rationality and the interplay between contemplation and normativity and it is in this sense that responsibility functions as the properly a priori foundation for any rational discourse – at least as Kraatz, following Crowell, develops it (195). Against claims for the incoherent character of Heidegger’s work, Kraatz rather demonstrates that it renders legible the constitutive aspects of rationality and normativity altogether. This line of thought, again very much inspired by Crowell, appears almost Brandomian in intention as the making explicit of the conditions of possibility of normativity and rationality.

Part b of the second chapter elucidates on the notion of the relativity of being more broadly conceived and takes the published writings after Being and Time into account. Kraatz summarizes its content aptly by the “fact that the being of the world is dependent on the being of the I,” a move attainable through the ontologization of the I (165). Letting-be functions as a stand-in for the Heideggerian notion of truth as disclosure and ties the ethical and temporal-existential (‘theoretical’) sides together. In passing, Kraatz addresses the frequent strawman that labels Heidegger as a fatal relativist by both sketching out the merely potentially disagreeable properties of relativism and demonstrating how the transcendental approach avoids them. Through the accountability of Dasein, the Heideggerian self is rather the precise opposite of the threat the relativist bogeyman is supposed to embody. Rather, morality and rationality are jointly implicated in this fundamental approach (203). The remainder of the second part of chapter two is devoted to Heidegger’s philosophical development from the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, where the relation of the grounding self and the historicity of factical life is expounded. This is further developed through the metaphysical ontic, metontology, which asks fundamentally – ontologically after beings (221). Dasein’s self founds its own thrownness. So as to further thematize Dasein’s relation to thrownness, the modalities of ground take center stage. Sketching a theory of ontological constitution leaves Dasein as the placeholder for the responsibility of ground that is conferred upon it. This decision is described in inherently voluntaristic terms, as one toward transcendental freedom and ground. Hence, responsibility functions as a methodological concept, as it ties the decision towards freedom and the grounding function together (254ff.). As fundamentally tied to facticity this decision takes, however, not place in pure sphere of principles, but in the historical realm of freedom, leading to the formation of a “transcendental-ontological genealogy” (224). The thesis of the flight remains intact, largely unaltered. The tension between thrownness and transcendentality remains constitutive of the ensuing reflections, in particular the three-fold modality of ground or grounding. Part two is concluded with the transition to beyng-historical thought, wherein primary thrownness is attained by way of the event of beyng (283ff.). Accordingly, the responsibility and the concomitant culpability that is conferred upon Dasein is only potentialized: “It is now localized in the ontological dimension, which deals with the possibility of letting-be logical spaces of modalities” (286, [Sie wird nun in der ontologischen Dimension verortet, in der es um das Seinlassen und Nichtseinlassen von Möglichkeitsspielräumen geht].)

Part three carries this walkthrough almost seamlessly forward. Kraatz’s reconstruction commences until Contributions to Philosophy, where these issues are elaborated in a new manner. Relatively little attention is devoted to Heidegger’s second major work regarding its composition and re-formulation of older investigations. The distinction between the ontological and historical dimension of the event, so central to Contributions to Philosophy, appears somewhat flimsy and neither the terminological shift from Dasein to Da-sein is mentioned or explained. (Heidegger, 2012, passim) Rather, convinced to have demonstrated the possibility to move past these shifts and accentuations, Kraatz devotes his attention almost exclusively to the diagnostical parts in Heidegger’s book. Clearly, paragraphs on machination serve more than a cursory function, something that Kraatz acknowledges when he speaks of them as methodological (294).  Subsequently, Dasein is stripped of its (however weak) voluntarism and the relativity of being reconfigured as the release of beyng in historical epochs or conceptions. This later conception aims at filling out all possible onto-logical spaces while itself remaining mostly obscured or, as Heidegger would say, withdrawn. Kraatz devotes comparatively little attention to the historicization of truth this conception accomplishes, other than by way of invoking the transcendental ontological genealogy, but no attention is devoted to whether this undertaking might be in need of new methodological underpinnings other than remaining relative to the self. Taking only Heidegger’s ‘critical accomplishments’ into account, the fourfold or the later seminars in Thor and Zähringen are not mentioned at all. Having conceptualized beyng as the totality of all logical spaces of possibility he continues his critique of the tendencies of typification, the now historical configuration of modernity, to prove the continuity of destruction and its relevance for the self as method (286). Individuation, which the aforementioned process is to accomplish, pushes forward into the concrete, historical situation which can then, presumably, be transformed (288ff.). Kraatz follows Heidegger in declaring modern science as the best possible option for Dasein to conduct its flight successfully. The method deployed mirrors in this respect the one already used beforehand: demonstrating that an otherwise merely negative aspect of analysis is, in fact, crucial to an elaborated issue or could not have been adequately theorized at all were it not to be counter-posed through its negation

Having demonstrated the need for the self to take flight from the ontological responsibility the ground (beyng) confers upon it, modern science and modernity, whose essence the former is supposed to constitute, come into the picture. The ground of all regional ontological spaces – beyng – and the accompanying culpability and responsibility are too much for the lacking being that the I is and, accordingly, invents a mode of worldmaking that obscures this characteristic (278). Kraatz terms this product the ‘implicit ontology’ that underlies modern science and that becomes further obscured as it progresses (308). While the author admirably demonstrates the overall cohesion of said critique in the greater context of the Nietzsche lectures and attempts to relate enframing to the formation of data-science as the pinnacle of that process, the chapter appears rather tame in comparison to its precursors both in terms of significance for the book’s overall topic and contribution to scholarship (385ff). It acts, rather, as an exemplary demonstration of the possibility of this beyng-historical destruction, tying together the critique of technology or machination with the reading of Nietzsche as the closure of metaphysics and the advent of modern science. Though admirable in depth and rigor, it does rather little in comparison to push the investigation of methodology further in thematic terms.

Chapter four ties the aforementioned questions over methodology and justifiability together. Refuting the influential claims of the irrational character of Heideggerian philosophy made by Habermas in the Philosophical discourse of modernity acts as the threshold for setting Heidegger’s philosophy and functions as a summary and conclusion of the survey – something that is achieved thoroughly and convincingly. To recap, Heidegger’s method is conceptualized as a process of individuation through the mechanism of an experience of destruction which aims at removing layers of said experience and enables a formal indication of different concepts. The conceptuality of philosophical cognitions is thus not abandoned; Heidegger merely transforms the concept sufficiently so as to yield a different understanding of experience and of itself. What it achieves is a conceptual demonstration of the freedom of Dasein. Kraatz frames this as individuation and the struggle of a self toward existential orientation or, more negatively, the avoidance of that experience. The later Heidegger’s chief merit lies in historicizing that experience or relation between Dasein and its ontological epistemology by making recourse to an inaccessible origin or absolute ground, beyng. As has been mentioned, the different ‘negative’ instances of typification drive the analysis itself forward as ‘obstacles’ to be overcome and are, in this sense, themselves of methodological relevance, as Kraatz repeatedly insists with regard to, for instance, modern science. For the author, the innovation and radicality of the German philosopher lie thus in the possibility to provide justification of both practical and theoretical instances while avoiding the counter-intuitiveness and abstraction of more traditional framings of transcendental philosophy. Against what might be perceived as an all-too sympathetic approach, Kraatz does lament the tendency of Heidegger to largely abstain from clarifying these methodological and grounding theoretical attitudes as well as his continuing denial to expose oneself to criticism from other philosophical positions. While this abstinence is philosophical it does make for appearance of esotericism and a secret doctrine.

While Kraatz’s book is admirable for its insistence for justification towards and competence of Heideggerian philosophy, what remains missing, however, is an explicit reconstruction of the Heideggerian methodology within the greater context of historical approaches to the subject. Although a brief paragraph addresses the “historio-philosophical place of Heidegger’s philosophy” (416) this glance refers only to Husserl and, given the similar thematic of a critique of reified life, developments from the Frankfurt school. This is all the more surprising given the title of the chapter. In the following one, Kraatz once again reiterates the basic concepts of Heidegger’s philosophical methodology cognition, truth and justifiability. An elaboration of the extent to which the method of the German philosopher is to be conceived of as a radicalized version of neo-Kantianism, phenomenology or existentialism would have shed light on its novelty. This would involve a negotiation of these different forms of philosophy and their respective methods, read with recourse to Heidegger’s engagement with the former two and how he remains potentially indebted to them. Despite the fact the Heidegger’s philosophical development marked of course decisive breaks with both Neo-Kantianism and phenomenology it would have been interesting to see the extent to which his attempt of releasing himself from the metaphysical tradition was eventually reflected in his approach to methodology. This concerns in particular the Neo-Kantian notion of a history of problems whose similarity to the ‘history of beyng’ is rather apparent. This omission is all the more unfortunate given the various programmatic titles of Heidegger’s lecture courses and publications such as The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, and the frequent invocation of philosophy as ‘questioning’. This reflects in the last instance Kraatz’s own concept of methodology, which, although frequently invoking the triad of justifiability, cognition and truth, does not seem to take this aspect of Heidegger’s philosophy worthy of further investigation. Hence, terms such as ‘problem’ or even the more Heideggerian ‘question’ are largely absent in terms of thematic concern.[1] Guiseppe Bianco contraposes this difference and similarity succinctly:

Heidegger’s philosophy started to be dominated by a series of structuring oppositions: he juxtaposed the Neo-Kantian conception of the history of problems (Problemgeschichte) with his history of being (Seinsgeschick), and philosophical “problems” (Problemen) with a set of ontological “questions” (Fragen). In a regressive series he related the “guiding question” (Leitfrage) proper to philosophy qua metaphysics (“what is the being of entities?”) to a “basic question” (Grundfrage) concerning the ground of metaphysics (“what is the meaning of being?”), which he then related to a final “ontological question” (Seinsfrage) concerning being (“what does it mean to be?”). […] Heidegger’s dual operation of the “repetition” (Wiederholung) of problems and “destruction” (Destruktion) of concepts inherited from the philosophical tradition consisted in the syncretism of religious hermeneutics and philology, resulting in an erudite but mostly uncontrolled appeal to etymology. This method attempted to remove (from the Latin de-struere) layers (or strues) that, through time, ossified as concepts, in order to return to “original experiences” and “grounding questions.” (Bianco, 2018, 20f.)

While it would seem unfair to demand a properly historical recontextualization of Heideggerian method in the overarching trajectory of early twentieth century philosophy from a book whose primary concerns are exegetical, such an undertaking would perhaps, with the advantage of hindsight, make of Heidegger a more conventional and, in turn, more a comprehensible author. While Kraatz does achieve an eventual tying of the philosophy of Heidegger with the themes of rationality and reasonability it remains open whether historicizing him would not have been the more fruitful approach rather than to provide textual coherence. This circumstance is reflected in the literature the author draws primarily on: with the few exceptions of avowed names of Heidegger scholars or pupils the book makes reference primarily to the quasi-analytical reconstruing of Heidegger in certain places of Germany and the United States. Crowell is a case in point here. This fact is not necessarily one to be lamented – it just puts Heidegger closer to someone like Brandom than, say, Derrida.

This criticism notwithstanding, Kraatz’s study is remarkable in its rigor, clarity and cogency. Whether one concurs with Kraatz’s central thesis that Heideggerian philosophy ultimately occupies a therapeutic, almost ‘eudaimonic’ relevance for the self or not, his reading is remarkably coherent in terms of exegesis and formulates a new approach in Heidegger scholarship. Although the later part of the oeuvre is put in second place pursuing the outlined approach and devoting an independent study of it might shed even more light on the constructive part of Heidegger’s work and Kraatz’s reconstruction. While the aspect of methodology proper is primarily viewed in the purview of destruction and its relation to the negativity of the tendencies of typification, or their methodological position, the account exposes various options for developing its approach further and in different directions. The book constitutes a valuable resource concerning the legacy and continuing relevance of its subject and puts a challenge to all those negligent approaches and readers who dismiss Heideggerian philosophy out of hand because of its mere appearance.

Bibliography

Bianco, Guiseppe. 2018. ‘The Misadventures of the “Problem” in “Philosophy.” Angelaki 23 (2): 8-30.

De Boer, Karin. 2000. Thinking in the Light of Time. Heidegger’s Encounter with Hegel. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Feher, Istvan M. 1997. ‘Die Hermeneutik der Faktizität als Destruktion der Philosophiegeschichte als Problemgeschichte. Zu Heideggers und Gadamers Kritik der Problembegriffes.’ Heidegger Studies 13: 47-68.

Heidegger, Martin. 2012. Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Kraatz, Karl. 2020. Die Methodologie von Martin Heideggers Philosophie. Über die Grenzen der neuzeitlichen Wissenschaft und die Möglichkeiten der Philosophie. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann.

Williamson, Timothy. 2020. Philosophical Method. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


[1] Feher provides an elaboration of the preference of questions over problem for Heidegger’s methodology, although this issue would need to be configured differently for the later philosophy.

Robyn Horner, Claude Romano (Eds.): The Experience of Atheism: Phenomenology, Metaphysics and Religion, Bloomsbury, 2021

The Experience of Atheism: Phenomenology, Metaphysics and Religion Book Cover The Experience of Atheism: Phenomenology, Metaphysics and Religion
Robyn Horner, Claude Romano (Eds.)
Bloomsbury Academic
2021
Hardback £76.50
216

Rolf Kühn: Der Erst-Lebendige: Christologie leiblicher Ursprungswahrheit, Karl Alber, 2021

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Seele, Existenz und Leben, Band 37
Rolf Kühn
Karl Alber
2021
Paperback 34,00 €
208

Philipp von Wussow: Leo Strauss and the Theopolitics of Culture

Leo Strauss and the Theopolitics of Culture Book Cover Leo Strauss and the Theopolitics of Culture
SUNY series in the Thought and Legacy of Leo Strauss
Philipp von Wussow
SUNY Press
2020
Paperback $33.95
402

Reviewed by: Andrew Oberg (Associate Professor, Faculty of Humanities, University of Kochi, Japan)

The “Faith”-ful Social: von Wussow on Leo Strauss’ Legacy

 

I. Orienting: A Premise

Philipp von Wussow has given us an excellent and engaging study of Leo Strauss’ oeuvre in his compact and accessible Leo Strauss and the Theopolitics of Culture (SUNY Press, 2020). In the below, although I will consider the book generally, particular focus shall be given – as von Wussow himself does – to the centrality and importance of Philosophy and Law, Strauss’ publication of 1935, and then to a lesser extent his 1967 talk/essay “Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Reflections”, which repeated Philosophy and Law’s underlying thematic thrust. With the reader’s permission I will endeavor to do so from my own perspective, one prompted both by Strauss and by von Wussow’s interaction with Strauss, a viewpoint which situates itself around the idea that, as with every human structuring, politics of course always gets involved in religion; but further: religion itself (as revelation, as a social(ly-oriented) phenomenon) is political. What this means for praxis, ritually and conceptually, we shall try to draw out, and thus we join the game of Strauss that von Wussow teaches and illumines. While we may be unlikely to find any hard conclusions therefrom, we might nevertheless arrive at some enlightening reflections of our own.

II. Philosophy and Law: Finding the Religiopolitico

Von Wussow declares this text to be “one of the greatest philosophical works of the twentieth century, along with the Tractatus, Being and Time, and Dialectic of Enlightenment” (p. xvi; referencing Wittgenstein 1921, Heidegger 1927, and Adorno and Horkheimer 1944, respectively). These are extraordinarily illustrious fellows, and the assertion immediately alerts us to the esteem with which von Wussow holds Strauss’ book. We are advised to read Strauss as an author who made “directional” arguments, indicative of and instructional on comprehensive movements. He wrote philosophy as drama, with the concepts being the characters in the play (and I do intend “play” here in both senses of “theatre” and of “amusement”); already we may remark on how such an informed approach stands philosophy against yet within religion: exterior to the sturdiness of a belief as that-which-is-accepted (full stop), but interior to the shifting flow(s) of a being-in-the-world. Strauss indeed is said to be a proponent of the rational in the ‘reason versus revelation’ debate (as “Jerusalem and Athens” would consider too), but the outright impression one gets from von Wussow is that this was never definitively settled for Strauss, that even for him the question was one of (perhaps undecidable) struggle. Each was a type of wisdom, and the tension in the dialogue between we shall need to consider in the next section of our review. Still, for Strauss (and, we might add, for us) it is necessary for philosophy to differentiate itself from the thinking of a numinous lifeworld; whether or not such is truly (totally) achievable in any philosophy which includes a robust metaphysics and does not merely parade logical tools and/or associated analyses as its entirety may also be an open question. (In philosophy – as we who practice it know all too well – sooner or later one often simply has to take a stand; at such times any boundary between that “stand” and an arguably quasi-faith type “belief” is a blurry line at best, a broken one at worst.)

Von Wussow begins by giving a background to the book and its historical setting, doing so in a very accessible manner which is open to all readers regardless of familiarity with Strauss and his works (and kudos to the author are well deserved on this). Moving first through the text’s Introduction we are informed of Strauss’ fundamental position that “compromises and syntheses are untenable”, that “a new movement remains entangled in the premises of what it opposes” (68), and thus in his (i.e. Strauss’) reaching back to Maimonides and medieval reasoning in the manner he does a way of thinking/approach might thereby be found which need neither be one of the Enlightenment nor of the orthodox sort vis-à-vis a rational methodology fit for the present age. The insight here Strauss yields is that:

one can believe in miracles, in God’s creation of the world, and His [sic.] revealing Himself [sic.] to man [sic.]; and there is no decisive counterargument as long as one believes in a thorough and sincere manner… Religious or nonreligious beliefs and attitudes are a matter of choice, an act of the will. Religious and antireligious discourses are a matter of rhetorical persuasion. (71)

Every matter within these discourses (and indeed every other) are already interpreted, we come to understand, and interpretation itself is a matter of the will (this point is given its Nietzschean due); hence ultimately, we might infer, the entire issue – the “clearing” in which we stand and wherefrom our vantage point extends (stealing (and slightly distorting) some Heideggerean imagery here) – becomes non-consciously derivative from the default influence(s) of said prior choice (employing our own terms now; the emphasis being on the aspect’s absence of cognitive awareness while it yet retains a deep psychological reach). Let us then think about what it might entail to “take a stand” in such a manner in light of our own opening (our orienting) central premise that religion is itself political.

Maimonides (or Rambam) and his Islamic predecessors and contemporaries (a member of the Sephardic Jewish community, he was born in Spain in 1138 CE and died in Egypt in 1204 CE, living in and under the rule of the Islamic Golden Age) placed philosophy (“reason”) as justified through revelation, indeed even divinely commanded to be pursued by those capable of it (the born thinkers; this is an elite). Thus for these medieval theo-philosophers there simply was no ‘battle’ to be had between reason and revelation: one stood under the other, and it took its place and purpose from that positioning, as did its practitioners. Although – to my knowledge – this was not explicitly stated in the historical record that has been bequeathed to us, upon examination the profoundly political stance of such is manifest: reason/philosophy is hereby a device designed (by “Heaven”?) to be employed for the service of revelation (religion), as both apart from yet paradoxically housed within. (We might further add that in this facet at least it is not terribly unlike how Christian medieval theologians were arguing, only with very different means and – as compared with the Christians – vastly more unfettered in form). Philosophy here, as under Law (Torah), is one of a suite of tools for the service of religious self-structuring and religiously inflected societal edifice building. This is critically not an interplay, not an interaction, but instead is the twinned existence of religion and the appended political functioning of the metaphysical, the ontological conclusions; in short, the result is an emergent religiopolitico: a singularity. Conceptually, and probably practically, Law does have precedence in that philosophy takes its rationale thence; yet given its divine sanction – and again, even command – philosophy becomes not merely a potentiality of religion but a necessary aspect of it. Revelation instructs (demands) reason to be a part of it; revelation does not ‘birth’ reason so much as bodily adhere it: analysis as a prophetological prosthesis, and that carried always into the social realm. (The call of the prophet may be a voice in the wilderness, but it is one that is heard.)

If the Enlightenment Project was designed to safely rid the world of orthodoxy (but notably, as is visible from such systems as Deism, not eliminate faith per se) – and this orthodoxy is understood as a cipher for Law – then clearly it has failed, as Strauss pointed out, von Wussow discusses, and we can surely agree with. This reflection in itself shines fascinating new light (from an older source) on the current ‘culture wars’ and reaffirms how very relevant Strauss’ book is for our times today, already approaching a century from its publication (which itself is hard to think; 1935 a century ago?). Revelation, religion, the meanings for and in human lives; these are impulses apparently destined to ever be with us (there are echoes here of Pascal’s famous “God-shaped vacuum”). Strauss, in this work, calls on us to return (a supremely Jewish idea: our, everyone’s, teshuvah); not, of course, to an orthodoxy for ourselves, but rather that we re-attune our comportment in facing the challenges that confront us. As von Wussow puts it, quoting from Strauss:

Strauss instructed his imaginary readers to make a change in perspective and consider the possibility that the situation is insoluble only “as long as one clings to the modern premises.” Hence, the entire discourse on orthodoxy and the Enlightenment, and the indefatigable insistence on the insolubility of the conflict between the two, serves as a preparation for the turn to medieval philosophy: “One sees oneself induced…to apply for aid to the medieval Enlightenment, the Enlightenment of Maimonides.” (p. 89; p. 38 in Philosophy and Law)

Having thus placed his audience/partner, Strauss moves to a consideration of his contemporary Julius Guttmann’s efforts on the history of Jewish philosophy, arguing against many of Guttmann’s conclusions based on understandings of the parameters and implications of “culture” (as variously defined, and over whose definition many arguments were themselves then being made, particularly in wider extant scholarly contexts). Here Strauss proposes that religion (and the political) cannot be found within a cultural framing since such “are not spontaneous products of the human mind” but somehow “transcend” culture (p. 97). This is somewhat curious, and unless one is willing (again: a willed, determinedly chosen interpretation) to grant a literalness to revelation (an actual exotericism to it) it is hard to accede that what are ultimately abstractions may exist prior to the brain processing them. Personally I have difficulty agreeing with Strauss on this point since I take whatever numinousness there might be in the cosmos (about which I have no unshakable dogmas) to of necessity work through the existentially given; in this I suppose Strauss might accuse me of being insufficiently Maimonidean (i.e. reason within revelation, philosophy under Law), and he may be right. Perhaps then we have a clear example of the need for the very third path Strauss has been proposing, and I am revealed to be ‘too Enlightenment’ myself.

Strauss continues working with/against Guttmann to present a “resolute return” wherein the political philosopher’s task is to take revelation as relevant; it certainly was heavily influential in medieval thought. For Islamic and Jewish philosophy of the period (which is represented in Strauss by Averroes (Ibn Rushd, 1126-1198 CE), Maimonides, and Gersonides (Levi ben Gershon (or Gershom), 1288-1344 CE)), “philosophy is commanded by the law, free before the law, and bound by the authority of the law… By presupposing the law, the Islamic and Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages are continuously referred to something beyond human reason.” (p. 112; emphasis in the original) A presumption of this sort would obviously provide the foundation for the transcendence which I seem to be having trouble with; our question is: Why accept it? Why should we – in will, in chosen lifeworld interpretation – follow suit? Strauss thinks this allows us to philosophize better, that revelation can therefore become a topic (an object) for reason, but “not the first or most important one…although – or precisely because – the law is not the most important topic of philosophy, it attains a systematic omnipresence in the whole of philosophy”, and – to my mind the most tenuous – “this inconspicuous systematic omnipresence of the law ultimately safeguards the rationality of philosophy.” (117) Philosophy can certainly become midrash (as it were), but Strauss has still not convinced me of why this stance if preferable over one which, for example, simply rejects revelation as a grounding for religion and shears it away from religion, replacing the latter as a culture (product of the human mind) and tabling the former (epoché) for sheer inability to know what to do with it (the struggle over/for a faith). Nevertheless, in its incessant referral to the Law, Strauss saw in medieval philosophy a radical foundation whereby its version of rationalism attained superiority over modern incarnations. Von Wussow very helpfully summarizes Strauss’ endpoint:

for a rationalism with belief in revelation there is no excess of revelation over the sphere of reason. Nothing in the content of revelation transcends reason [recall that the transcendence alluded to above was over culture]. The content is identical with reason, and reason is capable of knowing this content. There is no conflict between reason and revelation. (118)

That last – “there is no conflict” – is perhaps the ultimate consequence in that it therefore ‘solves’ the conflict inherent in the entire revelation versus reason debate, transforming its entirety to the effect that the “versus” becomes an “encompassing”, or maybe even a “cradling”: revelation as mother to reason, whose babe then looks upon her with eyes of a loving search. This establishes Strauss’ other contention – with which I have no qualms about agreeing – that prophetology must be taken as a part of the political. Only thusly, Strauss argues, can there be an explanation for its purpose and “final end”: why else rely on prophets? There is a kind of Platonic element at work here (I am thinking along lines drawn from Republic), but the added layer of revelation certainly does contribute to the interest of the view being espoused. Further, Strauss puts forth that such a comprehension, as against the psychological take on prophetology, enables political objectives to override any mantic ones. This is quite striking, and so let us briefly pause at this juncture: what is being claimed is that the politics – which we understand as social, as policy for the body politic – actually supersedes the divinatory aspects of the prophetic utterance. Reason as within revelation has already blurred the distinctions that might have been made, but ‘the political’ is not necessarily ‘the rational’. (Indeed, looking around one the thought hits that it is hardly ever so!) However, in the doubly tweaked religiopolitico monad we have proposed this does make sense; yet it does so without the need for a substantive revelation, and thus we are still somewhat at odds with Strauss (unless of course I misunderstand him, which is entirely possible).

Strauss has an answer for this, and it too calls upon Plato, in explaining how the medieval philosophers (and therefore too how we ought to become) were contextualized as bound, but thereby unexpectedly free:

The Platonism of these philosophers is given with their situation, with their standing in fact under the law. Since they stand in fact under the law, they admittedly no longer need, like Plato, to seek the law, the state, to inquire into it: the binding and absolutely perfect regimen of human life is given to them by a prophet. Hence they are, as authorized by the law, free to philosophize in Aristotelian freedom (p. 130; pp. 132-133 in Philosophy and Law; emphases in the original)

By having the outlines, their being-in-the-world, defined and determined at the outset through revelation (or “revelation” if we do not will the belief as such), philosophers of this ilk are declared liberated to thereby pursue other issues. Yet I must protest here that for me at least the really crucial question in being is that of being: I want to search a being-in-the-world, even if I recognize how much easier life is in having such gifted. Perhaps I am ungrateful in this desire, but the reader may understand. Whatever we might or might not feel in this regard, I think von Wussow is correct to highlight that Philosophy and Law “forces us to rethink the social and political responsibility of philosophy” (132), and if our small offering in this review (religiopolitico) is at all valid then that duty must apply within any religious system possibly even more so than it does without, for the two – the religious and the political – are not two, they are one.

III. “Jerusalem and Athens”: Thinking further on the Religiopolitico

Von Wussow judges “Jerusalem and Athens” to be a beautiful text but one without a great deal of depth; in the large I agree. It is very readable, highly interesting in parts, contains some wonderful remarks and comments, but does not boast any particularly provocative prods. Perhaps this is due to its inception as an inaugural address in a series of public talks (the Frank Cohen Memorial Lectureship at City University of New York), or for other reasons personal, mundane, or the like. (The entirety can be found in the collection: Leo Strauss, Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity: Essays and Lectures in Modern Jewish Thought, ed. and intro. by Kenneth Hart Green (Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 1997); pp. 377-405.) As von Wussow explains, “the guiding question of ‘Jerusalem and Athens’ is how to approach the Bible and Greek philosophy.” (p. 262; emphases in the original) Does one favor one or the other? It seems impossible not to; yet which? Why? On this query of method, Strauss begins by stating that, “By saying that we wish to hear first and then to act to decide, we have already decided in favor of Athens against Jerusalem” (in Jewish Philosophy, p. 380). In other words, through the assertion of an initial openness one has – possibly without meaning to – enacted a closure: revelation is shut off because it, by its nature, requires an initial act of acceptance, not restraint. Choosing not to choose is itself a choice, and it is the philosopher’s (Athens’) choice.

Yet when regarding this topic, this “and/versus”, we are dangerously apt to apply anachronisms, and these manifest clearly in the “tension between its [the West’s] double heritage [i.e. Jerusalem and Athens, revelation and reason], or its two foundational traditions”, as per von Wussow (271). For example, it is a simple enough matter for a contemporary person to reject miracles outright, without the slightest bat of an eye, and thence dispose of large parts of revelation and its sacred books; Strauss, however, wisely teaches that “we cannot ascribe to the Bible the theological concept of miracles, for that concept presupposes that of nature and the concept of nature is foreign to the Bible.” (Jewish Philosophy, p. 381) Hermeneutically we start from our “prior defaults” (as above), and busily go about reading into what was never intended (since not thought: disparate “prior defaults”) in any body of a claimed revelation. How does this affect the debate, the dialogue, the flowing and the tremor betwixt letter and eye?

It is a matter of some importance, particularly for Strauss, of whom von Wussow writes, “By the late 1920s, Strauss had convinced himself that the conflict between belief and unbelief was the everlasting theme of philosophy”, and that “the right and the necessity of philosophical reason could become evident only vis-à-vis revelation” (i.e., it could only be questioned or challenged on religious grounds; 272 and 274, respectively). Reason (philosophy), it seems, is not only justified by revelation (religion) – as with Maimonides – but actively needs it to establish itself; one apparently cannot even have reason without revelation, if we correctly follow this lecture and its place within Straussean thought. Again, though, we have hereby circled back to the issue of transcendence, and whence to our same doubts, our troubles – our discomfort – in what appears a necessitated embrace of the unempirical and the aethereal; what (for or by us) is to be done? Strauss, regarding the “ingredients” of the admixture here (Plato/reason/human nature as unchangeable on the one hand (Athens) over that of prophets/revelation/human nature as changeable (Jerusalem) on the other), states: “Since we are less certain than Cohen [i.e., referencing the context of the Memorial series] was that the modern synthesis is superior to its pre-modern ingredients, and since the two ingredients [i.e., the two triads just mentioned] are in fundamental opposition to each other, we are ultimately confronted by a problem rather than by a solution.” (Jewish Philosophy, p. 399) Or, as von Wussow expresses it, we arrive at a “standstill”: summarizing the figurative argument of “Jerusalem and Athens” as a “Socratic atheism” – i.e., the restraint on human thought and the refusal of divine thought preceding revelation (and that last presumably agreed upon as being undeniable) – he writes: “The enigmatic figure of Socrates assisting the god by trying to disprove the god’s reply [re: Apollo proclaiming through the oracle at Delphi that no one was wiser than Socrates, which Socrates then set out to challenge], only to find out that it is true, is the image in which the whole semantic process eventually came to a standstill.” (282)

In reading through and trying to work out along with Strauss – ‘along with’, but also alongside-cum-beside(s) (paralleling) him – this abiding doubled call of revelation and reason as alternative foundations, we discover the forked path remains forked (a dead end?), and we are yet adrift. That is, unless perhaps we might trade out that conjunctive in the title (and further still: all conjunctives) such that there is neither an “and” nor a “versus” in our “Jerusalem…Athens” binary, but rather a grouping more akin to: “Jerusalem under/with/enclosing Athens”, or “Athens on/of/in Jerusalem”. If we decide here – if we will it – a positivity, then we might understand the complex as a required never-ending work in progress, a dialectic bound to give more strength than it takes. (To borrow a phrase from Torah study: We turn the religiopolitico and turn it again, for all is in it.). We might do this; we might seek a resolution through an either/both and a neither/nor: it is a choice, it is a will, it is a belief. Religion is political, reason is political; what politics do we want? What social do we seek?

IV. Generalities: Contents and Tangibility

Strauss, in later university courses he gave on his chosen “great books” of collective Western heritage, encouraged his students to read so that they might “free the text from the debris of its own afterlife” (285) as von Wussow puts it, and naturally he would have us do that for Strauss too; and so we should, indeed. In this excellent labor on, over, and within the decades of Strauss’ scholarship, von Wussow surveys: Part I: Strauss’ relationship with the Neo-Kantians of his time, the then relevant debates over the categorization and systematic elements of ethics and politics (five chapters); Part II: the main work Philosophy and Law (in great detail, as expressed above; four chapters); Part III: his arguments on “German Nihilism” and the roots of National Socialist thought (two chapters); Part IV: ideas on culture and relativism (especially as related to developments in anthropology; four chapters); and Part V: “Jerusalem and Athens” (one chapter) with a final conclusion on the “natural way” of reading (one chapter). Throughout von Wussow’s book is highly readable, always enjoyable, and often quite gripping. Von Wussow writes with evident passion for his topic and displays an enviable erudition.

Physically speaking (I was sent an e-copy for review, but who can stomach e-copies? I bought the paperback), the work is very attractive, packaged exceedingly well by SUNY Press in a pleasant layout with a becoming format, logically adjusted margins and a font and print size that are easy on one’s eyes (if only Routledge could learn a thing or two from SUNY on these matters). As one might expect, there are numerous notes to the main text; these are grouped together in a single section at the end. While I typically prefer footnotes, in this case von Wussow’s extras beyond the usual referencing material are not overly done, and thus they might be skipped without any harm coming to one’s comprehension of and appreciation for the subject. Here again we can compliment von Wussow and the production team. I would happily recommend this book to any reader interested in twentieth century German and/or German Jewish thought and culture, its interstices with American schools during and after the Second World War, and of course with the nexus that is religion and politics as bound into culture: what we have called the religiopolitico. To such may we find ourselves “faithful”.

Jan Patočka: Carnets philosophiques 1945-1950, Vrin, 2021

Carnets philosophiques 1945-1950 Book Cover Carnets philosophiques 1945-1950
Bibliothèque des Textes Philosophiques
Jan Patočka. Traduction par E. Abrams. Préface de R. Barbaras.
Vrin
2021
Paperback
864