Matthew Handelman: The Mathematical Imagination: On the Origins and Promise of Critical Theory

The Mathematical Imagination: On the Origins and Promise of Critical Theory Book Cover The Mathematical Imagination: On the Origins and Promise of Critical Theory
Matthew Handelman
Fordham University Press
2019
Hardback $95.00
256

Reviewed by: Françoise Monnoyeur (Centre Jean Pepin, CNRS, Paris)

The Mathematical Imagination focuses on the role of mathematics and digital technologies in critical theory of culture. This book belongs to the history of ideas rather than to that of mathematics proper since it treats it on a metaphorical level to express phenomena of silence or discontinuity. In order to bring more readability and clarity to the non-specialist readers, I firstly present the essential concepts, background, and objectives of his book.

The methodology of this book is constructed on the discussion of concepts and theoretical perspectives such as Critical Theory, Negative Mathematics, Infinitesimal Calculus, expression and signification of silence and contradictions in language. Borrowed from the mathematics or from the thinkers of the Frankfurt School, each of these concepts becomes refined, revisited and transposed by Handelman in order to become operative outside of their usual context or philosophical domain. The term Critical Theory was developed by several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School. According to these theorists, a critical theory may be distinguished from a traditional theory as it seeks human emancipation from slavery, acts as a liberating tool, and works to create a world that satisfies the needs and powers of human beings (Horkheimer 1972). Handelman revisits what he calls a “negative mathematics”: a type of mathematical reasoning that deals productively with phenomena that cannot be fully represented by language and history, illuminating a path forward for critical theory in the field we know today as the digital humanities.

In The Mathematical Imagination, negative mathematics encapsulates infinitesimal calculation, logic and projective geometry as developed by Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), and Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966). These three German-Jewish intellectuals were connected to the thinkers of the Frankfurt School but distinct because they found ways to use math in their cultural theory. The negative mathematics found in the theories of Scholem, Kracauer or Rosenzweig (inspired by their famous predecessors Salomon Maimon (1753-1800), Moses Mendelsohn (1729-1786) and Hermann Cohen (1842-1918)), are not synonymous with the concept of negative numbers or the negative connotation of math that we see in the works of the other members of the Frankfurt School.

Handelman’s objective is to present his book on the path of Scholem, Kracauer and Rosenzweig using math and digital technology as a powerful line of intervention in culture and aesthetics. The Mathematical Imagination investigates mostly the position of these three German Jewish writers of the XX century concerning the relationship between mathematics, language, history, redemption, and culture in the XX century and extending his analysis to digital humanities. Mathematics is convened metaphorically in their theory of culture as pathways to realizing the enlightenment promises of inclusion and emancipation. The silence of mathematical reasoning is not represented by language but by the negative approach that is to say absence, lack, privation, discontinuity or division like in the conception of the infinite. One example of this productive negativity is to look at how mathematics develops concepts and symbols to address ideas that human cognition and language cannot properly grasp or represent, and surfs metaphorically with the concept of the infinite (Monnoyeur 2011, 2013). The infinite calculation is a generative spark for theorizing the influence of math in culture as differentials represent a medium between experience and thought. For Scholem, Rosenzweig, and Kracauer, these mathematical approaches provide new paths for theorizing culture and art anew, where traditional modes of philosophical and theological thought do not apply to modern life or situation of exile.

In The Mathematical Imagination, Matthew Handelman wants to give legitimacy  to the undeveloped potential of mathematics and digital technology to negotiate social and cultural crises. Going back to the Jewish thinkers of the Weimar Republic, namely Scholem, Rosenzweig and Kraucauer, he shows how they found in mathematical approaches strategies to capture the marginalized experiences and perspectives of German Jews in Germany or exile at the beginning of the XX century. In doing so, he re-examines the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, specifically those philosophers who perceived in the mathematization of reason a progression into a dangerous positivism and an explanation for the barbarism of World War II. Handelman re-evaluates Adorno and Horkheimer‘s conception of mathematics, according to which math should not be treated as a universal science able to solve any problem because it is not able to rule the human world of culture, art and philosophy. For them, as for Adam Kirsch, who wrote in 2014 the article “Technology Is Taking Over English Departments” (published in New Republic), both mathematical and computational mechanization of thought exclude the synthetic moment of the intellect and cannot produce new or meaningful results.

The first chapter, titled “The Trouble with Logical Positivism: Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, and the Origins of Critical Theory,” recounts the debate that took place between the members of the Frankfurt School — Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969)—, and members of the Vienna Circle, such as Otto Neurath (1882-1945) and Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970). Mathematics, according to the Frankfurt School’s critical theory, is in apparent opposition to language, since there is a dialectical tension between two forms of thought, one expressed in mathematics that circumvents representation and the other mediated by language and representation. Adorno gave, through the tension between mathematics and other forms of knowledge, the political dimension that we find in his works and his confrontation with the Vienna Circle. For Adorno, the attempt in mathematics to abandon meaning, the ability to signify something else, constitutes the philosophical flaw of the logical positivists’ proposal to reduce thought to mathematics.

The second chapter, titled “The Philosophy of Mathematics: Privation and Representation in Gershom Scholem’s Negative Aesthetics,” revisits the relation between language and mathematics in the context of Kabbalist culture. In his writings on the language of lamentation, “On Lament and Lamentation,” Scholem explores the dilemma of saying the ineffable and the oscillations between spoken and unspoken language, in order to reconcile the paradoxes inherent in language (Scholem, 2014). At the heart of these paradoxes lies the deep dialectic between openness and secret, concealment and revelation. He underlines a common privative structure of communication in mathematics and laments that it negatively communicates language’s own limits, but it also reveals an aesthetic strategy. For Scholem, the philosophy of math deals with the problem of language by omitting its representation, and its inexpressibility represents the privation of life in exile with the possibility to recover a productive vision of mathematics. Math is done to speak purity, privation, a language without representation, and it deals with the shortcomings of language. According to Gershom Scholem, this fruitful approach lies beyond language within the sphere defined by the signs of mathematical logic. Scholem understands math, history, and tradition metaphorically, as characterized by silences and erasures that pave the way for the acknowledgment of historical experiences and cultural practices which rationalist discourses, majority cultures, and national, world-historical narratives may marginalize, forget, or deny.

The third chapter analyses the relation between infinitesimal calculus and subjectivity/motion in Franz Rosenzweig’s Messianism. Rosenzweig’s (1886-1929) major work, The Star of Redemption (1921), is a description of the relationships between God, humanity, and the world, as they are connected by creation, revelation, and redemption. He is critical of any attempt to replace actual human existence with an ideal and, for him, revelation arises not in metaphysics but in the here and now. He understands knowledge not as what is absolutely proven, but rather what individuals and groups have verified through their experience. For Rosenzweig, verification did not mean that ideas substantiated in experience automatically counted as knowledge; neither does it imply that theoretical statements become meaningful when verified by experience, as Carnap later argued. He analyzes thus how concepts such as subjectivity, time, and redemption are central to critical theory and avoided by the official languages of philosophy and theology. Rosenzweig’s thought is an example of how cultural criticism can borrow from mathematics to illuminate its concepts without mathematizing culture. For instance, the way infinitesimal calculus linked nothingness with finitude represented a tool that could be used to reorient epistemology around the individual subject. For him, mathematics possesses the ability to resolve a fundamental problem for both theology and philosophy, which is the creation of something from nothing. Calculus is motion over rest, reveals multiplicities of subjectivity and representation, and shows how the theoretical work done by mathematics offers epistemological tools useful for cultural criticism. These tools could help theorists to think through concepts that remain obscure in aesthetics and cultural theory, as fractal geometry illuminates the theory of the novelty. Mathematics helps us to construct more capacious versions of these concepts as well, and conceptual tools exist that allow us to intervene more immediately in a project of emancipation, in the service of theories of culture and art, and where they are at work.

Chapter fourth presents geometrical projection and space in Siegfried Kracauer’s Aesthetics. In The Mass Ornament, written in 1921 but published in 1960, Siegfried Kracauer reads the ephemeral unnoticed and culturally marginalized phenomena of everyday city life as an ornament.  His attention to the quotidian leads him to decipher in urban life a hidden subtext referring to biblical figures that comfort his experience of intellectual exile. Improvisation constitutes a key category in Kracauer’s critical engagement with metropolitan experience and modern culture; improvisation, with its invocation and representation, lies at the confluence of Kracauer’s preoccupation, the contemporary cityscape. In this book, he decodes the surface meanings of the new city phenomena in their shallowness, personal and political significance. These collected essays dream wild about the ultimate meaning of the banal and the beautiful in cities and gather a diverse range of observations such as boredom and bullfights, dance crazes and detective novels, to reviews of sociology, theology and Biblical translation. The Mass Ornament offers an opportunity to reflect historically on culture and connects the theoretical or philosophical discourse to the passing flux of fashion and the inexorable demands of quotidian life in the city. As a report from the past, this book invites us to renewed reflection on the relation between theory and history, fashion and tradition. Kracauer, in relation to the entire range of cultural phenomena, includes fascinating portions of history and situates man’s relation to society and time. By rearranging the language and textual space as a projection of rationalization, Kracauer explores the point of transference where geometric projection and the metaphors of space become a natural geometry in cultural critique. For Kracauer, geometry is a bridge across void because the mathematical study of space bridges the void between material reality and pure reason. The logic of mathematics informed his readings of mass culture, which sought to advance, rather than oppose, the project of the Enlightenment. For him, geometry enabled a literary approach to cultural critique in which the work of the critique helped to confront the contradictions of modernity and, through such confrontation, potentially resolve them. In The Mass Ornament, geometric projection turned into a political mode of cultural critique, projection, and the metaphors of space became aesthetically operative in the exploration of the rationalized spaces of the modern city.

In his final historical book, titled The Last Things Before the Last (1969), Kracauer presents mathematics as a web of relationships between elements abstracted from nature (Kracauer, 1969). The surfaces Kracauer describes are not an objective reality in the sense of the natural sciences describe them; surfaces exhibit innate breaking points built into by the phenomenology of his approach of a reality stripped of meaning. For Kracauer, the study of history had to mediate between the contingency of its subject matter and the logic of the natural sciences. Nonetheless, this type of cultural critique, enabled by negative mathematics, must resonate with those of us who live in a world of new media, one ever more mediated and controlled by computers and other digital technologies. Kracauer assessed popular culture on its own terms, with a mind open to new technology and communications, and articulated a still valid critique of popular culture.

In his last chapter, titled: “Who’s Afraid of Mathematics? Critical Theory in the Digital Age,” Handelman concludes that digital technology with textual analysis is engaged in social emancipation and can give an answer to the crisis in the humanities. In his analysis of Gershom Scholem, Franz Rosenzweig, and Siegfried Kracauer’s project, he develops the concept of Negative Mathematics in the tradition of Maimon, Mendelson, and Cohen to show how certain mathematical features and concepts can express the unexpressed part of language. In this endeavor, he focuses on infinitesimal calculation and reveals how culture, emancipation and social life can benefit from mathematics. That is to say, the seemingly tautological repetition of mathematics or digital technologies can act as a cultural aesthetics and interpretative medium. Handelman considers that mathematics and digital technology are by nature able to be a tool of liberation and emancipation if a good use is made of them. According to Handelman, if critical theory accepts the way Horkheimer and Adorno associate mathematics with instrumental reason and politics of domination, it risks giving up the critical potential of mathematics and any other interpretive tool such as technology or computer science.

Handelman poses the question: what happens if we allow mathematics to speak with analogy and image, to work with the integral of tradition, the continuity and derivative of truth? What if we applied mathematics more directly to cultural criticism? What possibilities, if not also, dangers, arise in using mathematics as an instrument of cultural thought?

Conclusion

Handelman’s choice to focus on Scholem, Rosenzweig, and Kracauer’s approach to mathematics in order to reveal pathways through the apparent philosophical impasse and an opportunity to realize the Enlightenment promise of inclusion and emancipation is exhilarating. His endeavor to build on the thought of these three lesser-known German-Jewish intellectuals of the interwar period can help move today’s debates that pit the humanities against the sciences. By locating in mathematics a style of reasoning that deals productively with something that cannot be wholly represented by language and history, The Mathematical Imagination illuminates a path forward for critical theory in the field we know today as the digital humanities. Furthermore, this volume explores mathematics as more than just a tool of calculation but one that is a metaphorically powerful mode for aesthetics and cultural analysis. Handelman reintroduces critical theory in the benefice of mathematics as access to culture and expression of the inexpressible. In other words, Handelman revitalizes a forgotten field of research at the intersection of language, math, history, and redemption, so as to capture the irrepresentable presence and interpretation of the complementarity of silence, and the language to express what was forgotten by the official language and culture. He also questions Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt School as unremitting opponents to mathematics. Instead, negative mathematics offers a complement to the type of productive negativity that Adorno, in particular, had located originally in the Hegelian dialectic. Negative mathematics reveals prospects for aesthetics and cultural theory neither as a result of being opposed to language, as Adorno and Horkheimer suggested, nor because it uses the trajectory of history or the limit of tradition. Instead, negative mathematics constitutes its own epistemological realm alongside history and mysticism, illuminating, based on its problematic relationship to language, in the dark corners and hidden pathways of representation. In this sense, it is positive because it deals successfully with what cannot appear in normal use of language or disappears behind official discourse. To this point, Handelman maybe meets the critical and social purpose of the Frankfurt School and fulfills his ambition to produce a theory both critical and mathematical, and even digital.  If we take the Frankfurt School main critique regarding mathematics, according to which mathematical and computational mechanization of thought excludes the synthetic moment of the intellect and thus cannot produce new or meaningful results, we have to question then if Handelman’s negative mathematics can actually produce new and meaningful results? Handelman’s negative mathematics does not propose a general way to social critique as a block but rather opens space for the expression of what is suppressed, forgotten, hidden or impossible to realize because of official culture. Silences, disruption, movement, fashion, improvisation, news and materiality occupy the world of culture and are brought to existence by adapted mathematical processes. In this sense, the special treatment of mathematics does not repress the synthetic moment of the intellect but gives a voice to what could not exist before. Common, traditional, usual and politically dominant ideologies cannot resist or foresee this new critical mathematical cultural theory. Of course, this perspective is limited and is not enough to prepare a general critique of society as the thinkers of the Frankfurt School pursued it but improves significantly cultural and critical analysis.

Matthew Handelman noticed that many humanists nowadays have turned to mathematics and digital technologies and tries to forge new paths for modernizing and reinvigorating humanistic inquiry. The Mathematical Imagination presents mathematics and digital technologies as providing a key to unlock the critical possibilities hidden in language to give a voice to silenced communities. Handelman’s book improves cultural and critical analysis, and results into a new and thought-provoking Critical Theory bridging humanities and digital/mathematical technologies. His methodology and ideology are deliberately provocative, and he intends to develop a post-academic approach to fix the weaknesses of traditional and official discourse. His endeavor is also fruitful from the perspective of the history of the science as it shows the relation between various mathematical processes, such as the infinitesimal calculation and everyday phenomena that remain unexplored.

References

Horkheimer, M. 1972. Critical Theory. New York: Seabury Press.

Kirsch, A. 2014. “Technology Is Taking Over English: The False Promise of the Digital Humanities.” New Republic, May 2, Article 117428.

Kracauer, S. 1969. History: The Last Things Before the Last. New York: Oxford Univ Press.

Monnoyeur, F. 2011. Infini des philosophes, infini des astronomes. Paris: Belin.

Monnoyeur, F. 2013. “Nicholas of Cusa’s methodology of the Infinite.” Proc. Conference on History & Philosophy of Infinity, Cambridge: University of Cambridge. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.1595.0881

Scholem, G. 2014. “On Lament and Lamentation.” In Ferber I. & Schwebel P. (Eds.), Lament in Jewish Thought: Philosophical, Theological, and Literary Perspectives, 313-320. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter.

Roland Breeur: L.I.S. Lies – Imposture – Stupidity, Jonas ir Jokūbas, 2019

L.I.S. Lies – Imposture – Stupidity Book Cover L.I.S. Lies – Imposture – Stupidity
Margins
Roland Breeur
Jonas ir Jokūbas
2019
Paperback 9.00€
100

Richard I. Sugarman: Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach

Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach Book Cover Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach
SUNY series in Contemporary Jewish Thought
Richard I. Sugarman
SUNY Press
2019
Hardback $95.00
426

Reviewed by: Hannah Bacon (Stony Brook University)

The eminent French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995) has garnered recent renewed interest, both in terms of his philosophy and his reflection on Judaism. Sugarman contributes to this emergent scholarship in his extensive analysis Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach (published by SUNY Press in 2019), which extends and deepens his own body of work on Levinas.[1]

Sugarman’s extant Levinas scholarship includes the articles „Emmanuel Levinas: The Ethics of ‚Face to Face’/ The Religious Turn“ in Phenomenology World-Wide; “Messianic Temporality: Preliminary Reflections on Ethical Messianism and the Deformalization of Time in Levinas” in Recherches Levinassiennes; and “Toward a Rationality of Transcendence: The Importance of Emmanuel Levinas to Contemporary Jewish Thought” published in A Perennial Spring.[2] Sugarman, with H.A. Stephenson, translated Levinas’s Talmudic text “To Love the Torah More Than God.” Pertinent to this project is the collection of John Wild’s work that Sugarman edited with R.B. Duncan entitled Speaking Philosophy: The Posthumous papers of John Wild.[3] John Wild (1902-1972), an influential phenomenologist, was Sugarman’s former teacher and mentor at Yale. Sugarman credits Wild with introducing Sugarman to the work of Levinas. As a result of his association with Wild, Sugarman personally met with Levinas in 1973.

Levinas and the Torah, an approachable but extensive text, begins with Sugarman’s own introduction and study of Levinas’s work, including a short, but relevant, biography of Levinas. This biographical framing includes three events pertinent to his philosophical work: the political horror that served as the backdrop of Levinas’s early life, including World War I; the Russian October Revolution which precipitated his family’s exile and relocation as Lithuanian Jews to the Ukraine; and, most saliently, World War II, during which he was imprisoned in a labor camp, his wife and daughter went into hiding, and most of his extended family was murdered. He dedicates Otherwise than Being: Beyond Essence to these family members murdered during the Holocaust of World War II. Sugarman’s biography also highlights his lifelong Jewish education in Talmudic Studies, his early philosophical immersion in phenomenology as a student of Edmund Husserl, and the trajectory of his work and the anxiety over influence as a colleague, admirer, and eventual critic of Martin Heidegger.

The guiding principle of Dr. Sugarman’s study is that, “The approach of Levinas to both Talmudic texts and philosophy is governed by the discipline of phenomenology.”[4] That said, Sugarman is a professor of religion: the book leans more towards religious studies than philosophy. To wit, there are more than twice as many commentators cited on the rabbinical texts as there are commentators on Levinas. Despite this focus, one need not be a religious scholar. The book is accessible and provides contexts and historical interpretations for the texts cited (such as the differences between the Pentateuch, the Mishnah, and the Bible).

Levinas and the Torah is decidedly focused on Levinas’s religious hermeneutics. The five main books of the Torah is the organizing taxonomy of the book (Genesis: Bereishis, Exodus: Shemos, Leviticus: Vayikra, Numbers: Bamidbar, and Deuteronomy: Devarim). These five sections are further divided down into the weekly readings portion of the Pentateuch. Sugarman pairs these readings with an equally diverse array of Levinasian concepts and interpretations of the underlying topics. Needless to say, this rich and multifaceted text covers a lot of ground, making it a difficult book to summarize.

One drawback to this structure is that the Levinasian philosophical concepts are spread across different sections. For example, the Talmudic concept of the Hineini, or the “Here I am,” that Levinas employs in his philosophical writings is discussed not in Genesis and the story of Abraham where one might expect it. Instead, it is treated in the section on proper names and Exodus 1:1-1:6 and then again in more depth in the section devoted to Prophetism: Inspiration and Prophecy, Numbers 22:2-25:9. These sections are almost two hundred pages apart and there is no indexical entry for this concept despite the centrality to Levinasian thought. For a Levinasian neophyte it is difficult to trace certain Levinasian specific concepts or ideas that are treated in multiple sections, but also to have a view of how specific leitmotifs fit together to form in his overarching philosophy. Similarly, Sugarman fails to attend to the nuanced way in which specific Levinasian concepts shift over time.[5]

In addition to the Jewish inflection that one can find in Levinas’s’ straightforward philosophical texts, Levinas also produced scholarship specifically on Jewish religious texts. Levinas lectured on the weekly Torah portions at École Normale Israelite Orientale. These lectures have no transcripts as recording and note-taken is forbidden during Shabbat. Levinas published two notable collections of essays specifically on Judaism: in 1963 with a book translated as Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism) and in 1968 with Nine Talmudic Readings. New Talmudic Readings was published posthumously in 1996. Sugarman draws on both the Talmudic texts and the philosophical texts. Sugarman puts Levinas’s Talmudic readings in dialogue with other Jewish scholars such as Mordechai Shoshani, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Rashi, Maimonides, Abrham Ibn Eza, Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner, and others.

Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach yokes Levinas’s conceptual framework to Talmudic passages and hermeneutical religious scholarship. Beginning with Genesis, Sugarman lays out Rashi’s, Erwin Straus’s, and Abraham Ibn Ezra’s readings of Genesis, drawing out the passages that pertain to Levinasian philosophy. In the first of fourteen subsections on Genesis, Sugarman gives an in-depth reading of Cain’s query, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). The obvious Levinasian response to this is affirmative: Responsibility to and for the other is one of Levinas’s central underlying ethical tenets. The Levinas that is juxtaposed is not always the most obvious. For instance, I assumed a discussion of fraternity in Levinas and its role in justice would ensue, but instead Sugarman focuses on God withdrawing his face as a form of grave punishment. The face and its appeal, specifically its appeal in terms of its unspoken command, is another central concept for Levinas. From there, Sugarman moves on to a discussion of responsibility to the future, and whether Cain is guilty not just of fratricide but guilty of the violence against Abel’s future bloodline in what he terms generational responsibility. Levinas argues one has a responsibility to the other not just in the current moment, but a responsibility to the other in ensuring their future. One is infinitely responsible to the other. Sugarman’s treatment of Levinas’s theories of fraternity and justice did come later. By highlighting minor or less overworked aspects both in the Torah and in Levinas, Sugarman opens room for the reader to pursue lines of thought that are not already so established and exhaustively treated as to be clichéd.

One of the more compelling and interesting moments is the discussion of Levinas’s 1935 text On Escape with relation to the Talmudic account of Abraham and Sarah (also found in Genesis). The Abrahamic story begins with the command Lech Lecha, which is often translated as meaning ‘go for yourself.’ Sugarman however, proposes an alternate reading of “go out from yourself” (19). This interpretation is then put in conversation with Levinas’s phenomenological description of embodiment as being trapped in the self and under the thumb of various affects such as hunger, exhaustion, restlessness, and malaise. In other places the most dynamic insights come from these close hermeneutical alternative readings.

In Levinas, the self becomes a self by sacrificing for the other. Egoism, or putting the self before the other, is a grave ethical failure and a form of spiritual death. Abraham becomes the father of faith by being willing to make the most profound sacrifice for the divine. Sugarman is a close reader: he reminds the reader of details that are often forgotten because they do not seem relevant, but they become significant because of the Levinasian framing.  In his reading, Sugarman returns us to the less sanitized version of Biblical stories, although he does not say as much. I, for one, had forgotten that Jacob had children with four women and that Sarah convinces Abraham to sleep with their slave/servant (depending on your reading) Hagar, an act that Sugarman characterizes as ‘selfless’ of Sarah.  Sarah then casts Hagar out when Ishmael (Hagar’s and Abraham’s son) and Isaac, (Sarah’s and Abraham’s son) get into a verbal altercation. The return to the original text opens us up to the possibility of less cemented hermeneutical readings, and raises questions as to what we forget or exclude when we tell the story of Abraham. This incident could be an interesting counter-example of Abraham and Sarah as “exemplars of hospitality.”[6] Sugarman does not go this far, and in fact does not have a critical reading of either Levinas or the Talmudic sections. By bringing in the actual text, however, the reader can take the task of critical reading upon herself.

One powerful aspect of the Talmudic stories that Sugarman highlights is that these are not stories in which one returns home in the end, but instead lives in exile. Sugarman argues that this narrative arc essentially differs from the hero’s journey of Greek myths such as Odysseus, or the teleological structure of human nature put forth by Aristotle. Odysseus and Abraham are fundamentally different cultural narratives: when a person leaves without the guarantee of returning or even the hope of returning, this is the basis of an essentially different kind of narrative and thus an essentially different kind of subject. Pointing out the resonance between the story of Abraham and the centrality of responsibility to the other in Levinas’s construction of the subject is not a fresh or new idea. Sugarman provides a compelling hermeneutical argument that, in its most successful passages, makes the reader newly aware of how uncommon specific narratives and arguments are in present-day culture and contemporary intellectual thought. By sharing the joyful ruminations gleaned from a close hermeneutical reading practice, this book is a successful argument for the importance of revisiting the Torah. Sugarman reminds the reader of what a radical shift it is to think of the self or the subject as inherently for the other, and he also demonstrates how against the grain Levinasian thought is in relation to the prevailing intellectual history of the subject or ego.

In the sections devoted to “Exodus: Shemos,” Sugarman outlines experiences of exile, revolution, tyranny, oppression and the duty towards social justice. Sugarman relates these concepts and narratives to the consequences they have for identity, morality, and temporality in the Talmudic text. These passages on temporality include a clarifying distinction between nostalgia and tradition. This constellation of ideas is related to Levinas’s conceptual framework of responsibility, freedom, law, and development of the moral subject. The most interesting aspect of this section is an account of the moral importance of the act of promising and the essential role it plays in intersubjective relationships. In order to promise one must have hope for a future. The discussion of promising emerges in Exodus in form of the promise G’d makes to the enslaved Jewish people. One consequence of slavery is the loss of individual identity evinced in the loss of proper names (Shemos the Hebrew for Exodus means names).[7] For Levinas, to be a subject, one must be responsible to the other. Sugarman shows, through his reading, how enslavement inhibits one’s ability to be a Levinasian ethical subject, in that one cannot make a promise to the other, nor can one respond to the needs of the other, or take responsibility for the future of the other. Exodus contains the command to protect ‘the widow, the orphan, and the stranger’ a phrase that regularly appears in Levinas’s ethical philosophy, suggesting that these Talmudic passages are immensely pertinent for Levinas in terms of our ethical duty to others.

Sugarman’s analysis of Leviticus: Vayikra focuses on holiness, religious law, the duty to study, and the atonement or repentance of Yom Kippur for transgressions against each other and against G’d. Leviticus is often considered the most esoteric and least well-known book of the Torah. Sugarman draws on Levinas’s discussion of holiness, the importance of language and dialogue, further analysis of diachrony (the time of the other), the difference between holiness and sacredness, and the phenomenology of human suffering to enliven this section successfully. In it Sugarman returns to his analysis of Nietzschean ressentiment.[8] Levinas is attentive to the ritual of Yom Kippur and how forgiveness and pardon can only be enacted after genuine action is taken to repair or alleviate the ongoing suffering that one’s actions have caused. Levinas also cautions against the rationalization of evil and suffering with relation to the Holocaust, which he argues was wholly inexplicable and unjustifiable. This section also puts forth a reading of the environmentalism inherent in Talmudic laws around agriculture.

The Book of Numbers: Bamidbar gives account of the period from the teachings on Sinai to the journey to the Promised Land. It begins with two censuses, which Sugarman juxtaposes with insights gleaned from Levinas’s book Proper Names. It then moves to a discussion of peace, prophecy, and most saliently Israel, which is central to the complicated issue of the relationship between ethics, politics, and Judaism in Levinas. Other topics discussed include fanaticism and obsession, infinity, and justice as it relates to cities of refuge for those who have committed involuntary manslaughter. Each of these sections, although often only a few pages long, are filled with provocative readings raising rich philosophical and religious questions.

Deuteronomy: Devarim, the last of the five books, mostly hinges on Moses’s dictum on how life ought to be lived in the Promised Land and what can be learned or what needs to be reiterated from the journey there. These sermons, Sugarman notes, contain a sense of urgency in that they would have been given in the last 37 days of Moses life.[9] This form of reflection aligns with Levinas’s notion of the past as trace, and the importance of facing that past in order to open a new future. Sugarman discusses topics that include prayer, profundity in the prosaic, whether it is righteous to exist, the responsibility to pursue and enact justice, and revolution. In his Nine Talmudic Readings, Levinas emphasizes the Talmudic basis for social justice and workers rights. Sugarman points out that Levinas’s text was written immediately following the 1968 Paris uprising. Here, and elsewhere, Sugarman indicates the lessons we may still need to learn or the concepts that may be pertinent in securing a more open future today. The book closes with an epilogue, two appendices—a useful and compact glossary of Talmudic and Biblical Terms, along with a glossary of Levinas’s terminology—and a brief but descriptive list of the Talmudic scholars or commentators that Sugarman is employing.

One possible criticism of Levinas and the Torah is that in order to make Levinas’s philosophy accessible, complex concepts are occasionally given superficial treatment. It is debatable whether necessary nuance and complexity were sacrificed. Sugarman seemingly makes these choices for the sake of clarity. For example, when Levinas speaks of the face of the other, at times it seems he is in truth speaking of an actual face or visage; at other times the face is clearly a metaphor, the face of the other is language or expressivity, or the face is meant in terms of orientation but not the literal sense of face. Other concepts developed and shifted over the course of his work: for instance Levinas’s descriptions of role of justice or politics shift in significant ways from his early texts to his later texts.

These conflicting meanings and connotations are often left unsaid in Sugarman’s hermeneutic reading, whether for the sake of clarity, efficiency, or simplification. There are passages in Levinas and the Torah where the move from the specific and singular other to multiple others, or the transition from ethics to justice, is more fluid and neat than it is in Levinas. Debates about what the face means in Levinas and what a Levinasian politics is are live and contentious, but these competing readings are not brought in. The narrowness of Sugarman’s reading could lead to misunderstandings or misinterpretations if the reader has not already read Levinas, or is not reading the original Levinasian texts in concert with Levinas and the Torah.

In the most successful exegetical analysis, Sugarman does not shy away from the complexities in Levinasian philosophy. This attention to nuance is shown in his careful and persuasive account of substitution and Levinas’s claim that one must take responsibility even for one’s persecutors. Arguably, with these lean arguments, there is more room for other types of rumination. When one is not reading and re-reading dense and convoluted Levinasian texts one can see the simplicity of this assertion. The reader can instead focus on an argument for radical responsibility for one’s persecutors that was made by someone who was held in a labor camp and whose family was murdered during the Shoah. For Sugarman this room for rumination is more important than making sure his reader understands all the subtle tonalities of the face in Levinasian philosophy.

Readers will most likely not always agree with Sugarman’s readings of either the Torah or Levinas. Additionally, some of the specific resonances between the Talmud and Levinasian philosophy feel more tenuous than other. By Sugarman’s reading it seems that anytime one leaves one’s house is an example of the Levinasian passage from the self to alterity and radical exteriority. Hopefully, any reader will be motivated to return to the original texts in order to ground productive disagreements and participate in the rich tradition of Jewish argument.

In this way the book is doing something different. There is already a wealth of scholarship that interrogates Levinas’s use of the concept of fraternity or whether or not one can use Levinas to move from an ethics to a robust account of justice or politics. While not every book needs to be critical of Levinas—and if criticism is what one wants there are plenty of resources for a more measured reading of Levinas outside of this book—there are instances where it would have opened a more nuanced or rich reading. The author recommends reading Levinas and the Torah alongside of the Talmudic readings. I would advise to read it alongside the wealth of contemporary Levinas scholarship that analyzes both the strengths and weaknesses of his work.

There are three main aspects of Levinas that are usually the focus of criticism. First, he tends to employ an overly masculine account of ethics in his reliance of concepts such as fraternity, and the son rather than the child (This is central to Derrida’s criticism and is all the more striking in that Levinas had two daughters, although one did not survive) and his equivocating femininity with the domestic sphere and with alterity. Second, Levinas’s actual political statements occasionally verge on nationalism in the case of France and Israel. Perhaps Levinas’s most controversial opinion was given during a 1982 radio interview weeks after the Sabra and Shalita massacre of between 700-3,000 Palestinian men, women and children in which Israeli courts later deemed the IDF complicit. When repeatedly pressed by the interviewer Levinas avoided finding fault in this behavior, and implied that these victims perhaps did not rise to the level of being an ethical other. Last, Levinas has been accused of Euro-centrism in his championing of Europe and European culture through his claim that Greek culture and the Bible were the pinnacle of civilization and societal achievements, and that other cultures were non-serious or lesser. These issues raise crucial questions of who can be an ethical other, of whether or not hospitality has its limits, and whether Levinas makes exception to his own dictums. This sometimes overly laudatory account of Levinas’s work does not even footnote the criticisms that Levinas has received, let alone place them in conversation.

Although clearly rooted in intense Talmudic scholarship, this text does not provide a critical lens for Levinas’s religious readings. A generous reading would state that Sugarman is not concerned with these debates and that they are well documented elsewhere. A more critical reader may see this as a missed opportunity to provide a more robust discussion and also a chance to respond to these criticisms and defend Levinas’s positions. In the tradition of questioning within the Jewish intellectual tradition, it would benefit the readers of Levinas and the Talmud to have this same hermeneutical precision trained on the full range of readings and scholarship.

Levinas and the Torah is a rich and compelling text that provides the reader with a general overview and the necessary exegesis and hermeneutic tools for further inquiry. Through persuasive and spirited analysis, Sugarman makes clear a generous intention for his reader. I would recommend Levinas and the Torah for those who are curious or towards the beginning of their study but feel overwhelmed by the jargon and complexity of other exegetical readings of Levinas’s Jewish thought or to those with familiarity with either the Talmudic texts or Levinas and have a thirst for knowledge for the other. Moreover, this seems to be a book conscious of the zeitgeist of our time, with its pertinence to questions of apocalypse, exile, revolution, suffering, political uncertainty, and futurity. Levinas and the Torah is rich without being exhaustive; it is penetrating without being abstruse and esoteric.  In Levinasian terms we have an infinite responsibility to the future. Sugarman argues compellingly for the importance of learning the narratives and ideas of the deep past in order to enact a more ethical and just future for the coming generations.


[1] Sugarman, Richard I. 2019. Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach. Albany: State University of New York.

[2] Sugarman, Richard I. 2003. „Emmanuel Levinas: The Ethics of ‚Face to Face’/ The Religious Turn.“ In Phenomenology World-Wide, ed. Anna Teresa Tymieniecka (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers), published in Analecta Husserliana 80: 409-430; Sugarman, Richard I. 2012. “Messianic Temporality: Preliminary Reflections on Ethical Messianism and the Deformalization of Time in Levinas.” Recherches Levinassiennes, ed. R. Burrggreave et al. Series Bibliotheque Philosophique de Louvain 82, 421-436, Peeters Publishers, Leuven, Belgium; Sugarman, Richard I. 2013. „Toward A Rationality Of Transcendence: The Importance Of Emmanuel Levinas To Contemporary Jewish Thought.“ In As A Perennial Spring: A Festschrift honoring Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, 473-493.

[3] Wild, John. 2006. Speaking Philosophy: The Posthumous papers of John Wild,ed. Richard I. Sugarmn & R.B. Duncan; Phenomenological Inquiry 24 (2000): 205-292.

[4] Sugarman, Ibid. 8.

[5] For instance, the face-to-face, the neighbor, and the trace are omitted from the index but are treated in multiple sections. Incomplete Indices is a common problem in academic books.

[6] Sugarman, Ibid. 32.

[7] Sugarman, Ibid. 96. Curiously, this section on Proper Names does not make reference or use of Levinas’s book Proper Names in this section, but in the beginning of The Book of Numbers.

[8] This was the topic of his book Rancor Against Time: The Phenomenology of Ressentiment (Felix Meiner, 1980)

[9] Sugarman, Levinas and the Torah, 303.

Martin Koci: Thinking Faith after Christianity, SUNY Press, 2020

Thinking Faith after Christianity: A Theological Reading of Jan Patočka's Phenomenological Philosophy Book Cover Thinking Faith after Christianity: A Theological Reading of Jan Patočka's Phenomenological Philosophy
SUNY series in Theology and Continental Thought
Martin Koci
SUNY Press
2020
Hardback $95.00
288

G. Anthony Bruno (Ed.): Schelling’s Philosophy: Freedom, Nature, and Systematicity, Oxford University Press, 2020

Schelling's Philosophy: Freedom, Nature, and Systematicity Book Cover Schelling's Philosophy: Freedom, Nature, and Systematicity
G. Anthony Bruno (Ed.)
Oxford University Press
2020
Hardback £55.00
256

Radek Schuster (Ed.): The Vienna Circle in Czechoslovakia, Springer, 2020

The Vienna Circle in Czechoslovakia Book Cover The Vienna Circle in Czechoslovakia
Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook 23
Radek Schuster (Ed.)
Springer
2020
Hardback 88,39 €
VII, 206

Eugene T. Gendlin: Saying What We Mean: Implicit Precision and the Responsive Order

Saying What We Mean: Implicit Precision and the Responsive Order Book Cover Saying What We Mean: Implicit Precision and the Responsive Order
Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy
Eugene Gendlin. Edited by Edward S. Casey and Donata M. Schoeller. Foreword by Edward S. Casey
Northwestern University Press
2017
Paperback $34.95
328

Reviewed by: Hillel D. Braude (The Mifne Center for Treatment of Infants with Autism, Rosh Pina, Israel)

Saying What We Mean [SWWM] provides a collection of selected philosophical writings by Eugene Gendlin (1926-2017) edited by editors Edward S. Casey and Donata M. Schoeller. As Schoeller notes this volume is intended to “excite an appetite for the extraordinary thinking of Eugene Gendlin and for the effects of his concepts as well as his practices that, in paraphrasing Adorno, ‚open up‘ the phenomena they make thinkable.” [xv] SWWM is the first collection of Gendlin’s specifically philosophical writings, and is Gendlin’s final publication, appearing several months after his passing. It presents a final explication of Gendlin’s personal philosophy of experience, in which he explored the contours of the relation between implicit and explicit knowing, and the generation of language and conceptual meaning from the ground of our embodied senses. At the same time this “farewell letter” invites the reader to carry forward this exploration in her own personal way. The publication of SWWM reminds us that, as Gendlin himself insisted, his professional identity was first and foremost that of a philosopher. Gendlin’s intellectual roots extend deeply into Continental, Analytic philosophy as well as American pragmatism. His intellectual influences include among others: Dilthey, Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Wittgenstein, Whitehead, and McKeon – the latter with whom Gendlin studied at the University of Chicago, and had a great influence on shaping Gendlin’s philosophical outlook. Gendlin was a prolific author, and his philosophical writings have been published in numerous essays and several books.[1]

Despite Gendlin’s prolific philosophical output, the publication of SWWM serves as a needful reminder of Gendlin’s philosophical ideas. Other than as a philosopher, Gendlin is most popularly remembered as the founder of the practical experiential method called Focusing, which provides a structured methodology to bring open, non-judging attention to embodied, experiential internal knowing – often referred to as the “felt sense” – prior to its conceptualization in language.[2]  Focusing is most widely used as an aid for psychotherapy, although it is accessible to everyone interested in a practical methodology for personal transformation. Focusing developed out of Gendlin’s research at the University of Chicago with humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers into the phenomenological-process-oriented theory of experience and its transformation. Gendlin’s original research revealed that the way in which a client related to his or her personal experience during psychotherapy sessions, irrespective of the particular psychotherapeutic approach, provided a single significant predictor of the therapy’s success. As a process oriented methodology with deep roots in phenomenological philosophy, Focusing can be applied to enhance any particular psychotherapeutic approach, or can occur as a stand-alone methodology to enhance human potential. The essays in SWWM attest that Gendlin’s practical method of Focusing would be unthinkable without its underlying philosophical foundation. At the same time, the practical and the theoretical aspects of Gendlin’s lifework cannot and should not be artificially separated. The practice of Focusing provided Gendlin with material for philosophical reflection, as much as philosophical reflection provided the conceptual apparatus for the development of Focusing’s methodology. The core insight animating all of the essays in SWWM is the unceasing bidirectional relation between experience and rational conceptualization.

Gendlin’s focus on process means that he is not limited to espousing a particular philosophical school; but rather provides a process model approach that can ground different forms of philosophical conceptualization. Gendlin’s emphasis on the processes of thinking rather than on the final forms themselves is no doubt inspired in large part by Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological critique of psychology and the natural sciences. Gendlin’s philosophical feat has been to radically personalize philosophy, countering the age-old tendency towards universalization in philosophical reflection, while at the same time respecting structures of explicit rationality and cognition. This personalized perspective – both in terms of personal philosophical meaning, as well as in terms of self-healing– has deep roots in Gendlin’s personal history. In a German language interview with Lore Kolbei (1994), Gendlin described how his childhood experience fleeing Nazi occupied Vienna with his family, shaped his future life and single-minded intellectual focus. In determining how to escape the clutches of the Nazis together with his family, Gendlin’s father relied on following his internal feelings in deciding which individuals they encountered could be trusted in their escape. Gendlin’s later life was dedicated to deciphering the meaning of these internal feelings, both through psychotherapeutic processes and philosophical reflection. I feel it important to mention this biographical history, since it is of central importance in shaping Gendlin’s personalized philosophy. It is of interest that Gendlin does not refer to such cultural and biographical influences in his philosophical writings, as if wanting to emphasize the universal nature of pre-conceptual sensations in giving rise to language and explicit cognition.

SWWM provides in single volume some of Gendlin’s most influential essays. As such, this volume makes Gendlin’s philosophical reflections accessible to a wider audience in a concentrated form, and may be important in bringing Gendlin’s intellectual work to the attention of philosophers who have not yet come across his work, or have glossed over its importance providing a structured methodology to analyze pre-conceptual cognition in relation to explicit forms of knowing. (It is also worth mentioning the collection of critical studies on Gendlin’s work in the philosophy of language entitled Language beyond Postmodernism [LBM] (1997),  published more than two decades ago and which like SWWM served as a kind of introductory volume for Gendlin’s philosophical ideas.)  The essays in SWWM are primarily philosophical, though they speak equally to Gendlin’s practice of Focusing, and the later application of Focusing to analyze professional knowing called Thinking at the Edge (TAE). TAE is a practical methodology for applying the “intricate precision” immanent in our experiential knowing to professional, scientific and private contexts. [xix] For example, a clinician reflecting on aspects of a clinical case, could apply TAE to investigate the boundaries of intuition and explicit knowing. Perhaps the most important function of SWWM is to provide a general framework for Gendlin’s conceptual evolution. Unfortunately, chronological details of each essay are not provided, which would give information about the progressive development of Gendlin’s thinking.

The edited volume is divided into four parts:

Part 1. Phenomenology of the Implicit;

Part 2. A Process Model;

Part 3. On the Edges of Plato, Heidegger, Kant, and Wittgenstein, and

Part 4. Thinking with the Implicit.

Part 1 provides different approaches of Gendlin towards developing a conceptual methodology and language to differentiate different layers of implicit experience. Phenomenology provides the major philosophical ground for this engagement with implicit experience; though Gendlin uses his phenomenological approach to interrogate different philosophical schools and methodologies, especially linguistic analysis and philosophy of language. Phenomenology too, is not spared Gendlin’s critical gaze, as depicted in his brilliant essay, “Two Phenomenologists Do Not Disagree,” in which he analyzes the situation whereby two committed phenomenologists disagree over a single observed phenomenon. As opposed to following a particular phenomenological school or individual philosopher, Gendlin proposes to ‘study the formulating process itself,’ as well as the ‘roles of experience in it’ in order to determine how experience can ‘ground different formulations differently,’ including different phenomenological statements or perspectives. [8] Even though a particular statement may be differentiated as phenomenological from a non-phenomenological statement by following a well demarcated phenomenological methodology or “noticeable signposts,, for example Husserl’s proposed methodology of bracketing, in order to enable a primordial experience of a particular object of inquiry, Gendlin observes that phenomenological statements may possess many unintended logical implications.[8] These hidden intentions or meanings are amenable to being uncovered or elicited through further processes of concentrated focusing or introspection.

Gendlin’s essays depict his intellectual debt to the tradition of phenomenology; and at the same time develops his own philosophy of the implicit in new directions, navigating between age-old dichotomies, such as reductionism and idealism. An important aspect of the collection of philosophical essays in SWWM lies in providing a means of tracing and analyzing the influence of various phenomenological traditions on Gendlin’s thinking, including that of Husserl, Heideger, and Merleau-Ponty, and how Gendlin carries this tradition forward in his personalized philosophical   way.

In his critical essay response to Gendlin’s philosophy entitled, “Experience and Meaning,” J.N. Mohanty (1997) provides key insights regarding Gendlin’s relation to Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, which are still relevant in relation to Gendlin’s collection of philosophical essays in SWWM. In his analysis of the relation between experience and meaning in Gendlin’s philosophical theory, Mohanty discerns four levels of meaning:

1. Experiencing with implicit, incomplete felt meanings;

2. Explicit, felt but prelinguistic (though still symbolized) meanings, inwardly attended to;

3. Experiential concepts (arising out of the interaction of felt meanings with language);

4. Logical concepts. [184]

The core tension animating each of the essays in SWWM is the inherent relation between each of these four levels of meaning. While not participating in logical inference, the “most basic level,” i.e., the implicit background has its own precise kind of order, which functions in the formation of new and ever more precise scientific concepts. Thus, Gendlin posits a pre-conceptual rational order, that is not the same as explicit logic, but which grounds the possibility for explicit rationality. In Part 2. “A Process Model,” which refers to Gendlin’s magnum opus of the same name, Gendlin articulates further this pre-conceptual rational order, or what he now refers to as the ‘conditions of possibility’ for the ‘implicit precision of experience.’ [xvii] Implicit precision refers to the embodied process generated through interaction between the conscious organism and its environment. While logical precision is explicitly rational and depends on defined units, the process of implied precision ‘generates and regenerates the background objects and their relationships, including logical scientific units.’ [111] Implicit precision articulates Gendlin’s basic insight that there is a direct reference between preconceptual and explicit cognition. Moreover, as the name implicit precision implies, this level of organismic consciousness possesses a rational structure, even if it is not ordered according to explicit logical principles. Movement between these two forms of precision can occur in either direction. Indeed, scientific logic is unthinkable without this foundational level of embodied knowing.

Mohanty claims that Gendlin requires a mediating concept, a “Zwischenglied” between implicit experience and logical concept. Gendlin’s concept of direct reference provides this Zwischenglied. In SWWM Gendlin refers to this direct relationality between felt sense and logical concept using the terminology of ‘direct experience’ and ‘direct referent.’ In my own imagination, this Zwischenglied of direct reference is analogous to the sensation in holding two opposing poles of a magnet in close proximity. One feels the invisible magnetic force between the two poles of experience and logic. However, maintaining this force is a slippery undertaking that gives rise to a perplexing sensation. Trying to elicit the connection and opposition between these different levels is key to getting a sense of Gendlin’s philosophical task. As Gendlin writes, saying exactly how ‘direct experience can function as a ground in each step of formulating’ ‘opens up a whole new field of enquiry.’ [7]

Names such as “implicit precision” and “carrying forward,” referring to the infinite possibility for bodily implying beyond explicit concepts, are terms that Gendlin provides in the Process Model for conceptual structures arising from and referring to his process methodology. This process of naming felt-sensations as they emerge into language is an integral part of the Focusing process. Gendlin would undoubtedly invite readers of his philosophical writings to extend his philosophical practice by developing their own names for universal processes of meaning-making. One can debate the precise relation between Husserl’s use of act and intentionality in relation to Gendlin’s process model. For example, Mohanty notes that Gendlin did not regard Husserl’s conception of act and intentionality as including data of awareness, but rather as principles presupposed by such data. [183] Similarly, Gendlin held that Husserl did not include felt experiencing as part of the datum given in meaningful awareness. [ECM, p. 276] However, Gendlin’s views on Husserl appear to have shifted, since he notes in his essay, “Two Phenomenologists Do Not Disagree,” that Husserl did not begin his phenomenological explorations with analyzing the relations between feelings, situations, and language. Yet, through his contact with direct experience, he encountered these interrelations in that experience. [54] However, even if felt experiencing can be traced back to Husserl’s conception of act and intentionality, Gendlin’s expansion and delineation of the methodology to track the relation between experience and meaning moves beyond its phenomenological foundations. Moreover, the process of giving provisional name to conceptual structures emerging from reflection on one’s felt experience, such as “implicit precision” and “carrying forward,” blending personal experience with rational conceptualization is a unique philosophical contribution of Gendlin’s.

Any reader of SWWM must necessarily be divided into two groups. Those with a first-hand familiarity of the process of Focusing, and those who approach the text as a purely philosophical text to be understood conceptually. In a sense, it is not possible to approach these texts purely intellectually, since Gendlin’s method explicitly aims to bridge the mind-body dichotomy. In her introduction, Schoeller writes that, ‘Gendlin’s thinking and practices move across the body-mind split, expanding the field of experience and thinking beyond so-called subjective or objective approaches in order to cultivate an awareness of the preciseness of what he calls a “responsive order.”’ [xiv] Gendlin peppers his essays with practical examples, exhortations to his readers to engage practically with his methodology. For example, in his essay “The New Phenomenology of Carrying Forward,” Gendlin notes how in writing a poem one’s body has a precise sense of what needs to be said. [84] The process of Focusing is similar in many ways to the poet’s attending to her felt sensations in the process of writing a poem. Grappling with Gendlin’s conceptual ideas necessitates an induction into the process of Focusing. Yet, Gendlin would argue that any meaning-making process incorporates this kind of embodied sense-making, formalized in a structured process, or not. Readers who do not concretely explore Gendlin’s practical examples through deep introspection, and who merely try to understand his conceptual arguments from a disembodied perspective, must necessarily fail to comprehend the tenor of his argument.

The “Process Model” emphasizes the embodied nature of Gendlin’s philosophical project. (As a Feldenkrais Method Somatic Education Practitioner I am particularly receptive to the centrality of the body in Gendlin’s philosophy of the implicit. The Feldenkrais Method is similiar to Focusing in providing a practical methodology to explore the relation between one’s felt sense and cognition; however, the Feldenkrais Method introduces the added dimension of movement exploration.) In his essay “The Derivation of Space,” Gendlin notes that, ‘… the clarity which an analytic layout brings lies not only in the layout before us. It has an effect in the body. It brings an implicit whole bodied understanding. “Aha!” we say.’ [156] Following Stuart, in the essay on “Implicit Precision,” Gendlin refers to a perceptual concept called enkinaesthesia, i.e., ‘the sentient half of a behavior sequence and the sentience of patterned interactions which is the sequence of bodily shifts I call versioning.’  [121] Taking the cue from Gendlin’s terminology, an embodied adaptation of Focusing, called Whole-Bodied Focusing, developed by Kevin McEvenue [2015], integrates Focusing with somatic experiential techniques from the Alexander Method. Nonetheless, even though Gendlin’s philosophy of the implicit does provide a means of overcoming mind-body dualism, the body is emphasized only tangentially, in the sense that real attention to the body requires an embodied practice, as in Whole Body Focusing, other somatic education practices, such as Feldenkrais Method. The complete intellectual grasping of Gendlin’s ideas requires an embodied practice in conjunction with attention to the embodied basis of our logical conceptualization.

Part 3. “On the Edges of Plato, Heidegger, Kant and Wittgenstein presents” Gendlin’s philosophical thinking in relation to major philosophers in the Western tradition. Gendlin’s philosophy does indeed present a methodology to reengage and reinvigorate the Western philosophical canon. His philosophical ambitions are simultaneously grand and modest, in the sense that Gendlin has enough confidence in his insights to re-read ancient philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle; yet does this, not by contesting their philosophical claims and arguments, but by “lifting out” the most basic experiential sensations elicited through engaging with the textual ideas. In other words, through his process model, Gendlin finds a means of re-engaging with ancient philosophical texts and ideas, to provide fresh insights and meanings, without attempting to disprove any particular philosophical approach.

This process of “lifting out” also has relation to phenomenology, though not Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, but Martin Heidegger’s phenomenology of Being, and particularly his concept of Befindlichkeit. As Francesca Brencio (2019) notes in her recent review of Befindlichkeit in relation to psychopathology:

Befindlichkeit stresses the basic state of Dasein in its being situated: finding ourselves already in situatedness, means finding ourselves gathered to a “there” (being-there, in German Dasein). The situatedness is strictly related to the existence’s facticity and it becomes manifest to us through our own moods and affectivity. [344]

Our moods and affective states provide the grounds of our pre-conceptual experience, and the means of becoming attuned to the external world. There is, therefore, a strong affinity between Heidegger’s concept of Befindlichkeit and Gendlin’s philosophy of the implicit. In his essay, “Befindlichkeit: Heidegger and the Philosophy of Psychology,” Gendlin observes that, ‘Heidegger’s concept denotes how we sense ourselves in situations. Whereas feeling is usually thought of as something inward, Heidegger’s concept refers to something both inward and outward, but before a split between inside and outside has been made.’ [195]

In referring to psychological affective states and moods, Befindlichkeit has obvious clinical importance for clinical psychology and theories of psychopathology, and resonates strongly with Gendlin’s philosophical project and practical methodology of Focusing. However it is in providing the phenomenological possibility of original disclosing that provides the strongest link between Gendlin and Heidegger. Gendlin quotes the following paragraph from Heidegger’s magnum opus, Being and Time:

Befindlichkeit is a basic existential way in which Dasein (being-here) is its here. It not only characterizes Dasein ontologically, but because of its disclosing, it is at the same time of basic methodological significance for the existential analytic. Like any ontological interpretation whatsoever this analytic can only, so to speak, “listen in” to the previously disclosed being of something that is… Phenomenological interpretation must give Dasein the possibility of original disclosing, to raise the phenomenal content of this disclosing into concepts. [178-79]

For Heidegger it is the disclosing of Befindlichkeit which renders a statement phenomenological, from a state of free-floatingness. [216] Gendlin claims to extend Heidegger’s concept of Befindlichkeit in his own practical philosophy through adding the bodily dimension; which Gendlin claims is missing in Heidegger’s philosophy. Additionally, Befindlichkeit provides a means of explaining Gendlin’s process methodology in Focusing, through getting in touch with and “lifting out” implicit felt meanings for conceptualization. As mentioned, for Gendlin, this lifting out process, while phenomenological, is not limited to any particular philosophical formulation, including that of Heidegger’s analysis of Being. The deep relation between Befindlichkeit and Gendlin’s philosophy of the implicit means that even though Gendlin’s philosophy is greatly indebted to the Husserlian phenomenological tradition, in his heart of hearts Gendlin appears more aligned with Heidegger’s philosophy of Being-in-the-world, though this relationship is not without its personal ambivalence. In his sole biographical observation in all of the essays in SWWM, Gendlin notes his indirect indebtedness to Heidegger, who he only came to read later in life once he overcame his personal antipathy to Heidegger:

My own work for many years preceded my reading Heidegger. I came to him quite late. Both the personality change mentioned above, and the philosophical work I will now mention, were written before I read Heidegger. But I had read those philosophers that most influenced Heidegger, and so I emerged from the same sources, at least to some extent. I had also read Sartre, Buber, and Merleau-Ponty, who were greatly and crucially following Heidegger. Hence my own work continues from Heidegger, and stands under his influence, although I did not recognize that until later….  [223]

Gendlin’s attraction towards Heidegger’s concept of Befindlichkeit can also be explained because of its inherent potential for developing a psychological or psychopathological theory. Since moods and affective feelings ground our experience of reality, psychopathological conditions such as anxiety are characterized by a breakdown or collapse of our affective experiential foundations.[3] It is not by chance that the practice of Focusing tends to emphasize uncomfortable physical and mental felt sensations, as the core of its therapeutic work.[4] Gendlin is attracted to and reworks Heidegger’s concept of Befindlichkeit because of his own deep therapeutic concern that informs both the practice of Focusing and his philosophical theorizing about the implicit. In “Befindlichkeit: Heidegger and the Philosophy of Psychology,” Gendlin observes that the essence of psychotherapy is phenomenological in the therapeutic process through the Heideggerian concept of lifting out. Thus, Gendlin notes that ‘any statements and interprerations are effective only when they lift something from the directly senses and preverbally “understood” felt complexity. Even very sophisticated statements by patients and therapists alter nothing in the patient’s living, unless there is the distinct effect of lifting something out.’ [218] This sentence encapsulates Gendlin’s life-work in interweaving philosophical conceptualization with lived experience in general, and psychotherapy in particular.

The final section of SWWM, Part 4. “Thinking with the Implicit,” presents an introduction to the practice of Thinking at the Edge (TAE), the extension of the practice of focusing to scientific and professional contexts. In Gendlin’s words, ‘TAE is a systematic way to articulate in new terms something which needs to be said but is at first only an inchoate “bodily sense.”’ [282] It seems to me (without having personally experienced its practice) that TAE applies the Focusing methodology in a specific structured context, as opposed for example, simply trying to assess one’s felt bodily sense, in order to elicit new logical analytical formulations and creative theorization. In other words, TAE is concerned with developing explicit logical concepts relating to specific spheres of interest or expertize out of the grounds of implicit knowing. Gendlin has an explicit political awareness around TAE, considering that it provides a tool for people from all social strata and intellectual backgrounds to articulate their experiences, and to develop new patterns of thought. Through TAE, Gendlin claims, the capacity to develop novel philosophical ideas and logical and scientific concepts is no longer limited to an intellectual elite, but is open to all.

TAE is of especial personal interest to me in terms of its potential applications to medicine and clinical reasoning. I have an abiding interest in the philosophy of the implicit, having conducted analogous research into the tacit foundations of clinical reasoning.[5] This work was not fundamentally informed by Gendlin’s writings, but rather was influenced by other phenomenologists, such as Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Emmanuel Levinas, as well Michael Polanyi’s philosophy of tacit knowing. Similar to Gendlin, my focus on the role of intuition in clinical reasoning has also brought me to conceptualize a kind of rationality in clinical reasoning that is not modelled on explicit knowing; but rather envisages clinical reasoning as a kind of embodied practical wisdom modelled on the Aristotelian conception of phronesis. Reading SWWM with this background context in mind, suggests that Gendlin’s delineation of a responsive order to pre-conceptual reflection does provide an important intellectual resource for re-conceptualizing the role of practical wisdom in clinical reasoning, especially through the application of practical techniques from Focusing and TAE. Theoretically, TAE might be of real value in expanding understanding of the tacit foundations of various forms of clinical reasoning, including the intuitive component of clinical judgement, and developing ideas from bench to bedside in translational medicine. Arguably, applying TAE to the clinical context could re-invigorate contemporary epistemology of medical knowledge.[6] As of yet, the application of TAE to the medical clinical context does not yet appear to have been formally developed. The collection of Gendlin’s selected philosophical essays in SWWM invites the reader to continue engaging with Gendlin’s philosophical ideas, and to continue the path that he forged finding one’s own personalized meanings as a means of individual and intellectual renewal.

References:

Brencio, Francesca. 2019. “Befindlichkeit: Disposition.” In The Oxford Handbook of Phenomenological Psychopathology, edited by Giovanni Stanghellini, et al.  Oxford. Oxford University Press: 345-353.

Heidegger, Martin. 1962. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. London: SCM.

Mohanty, Jitendra Nath. 1997. „Experience and Meaning.“ In Language beyond Postmodernism: Saying and Thinking in Gendlin’s Philosophy, edited by David Michael Levin. Evanston, IL. Northwestern University Press: 176-190.

Levin, David Michael (Ed.). 1997. Language beyond Postmodernism: Saying and Thinking in Gendlin’s Philosophy. Evanston, IL. Northwestern University Press.

Korbei, L. 1994. Eugen(e) Gend(e)lin. In O. Frischenschlager (Hg.), Wien, wo sonst! Die Entstehung der Psychoanalyse und ihrer Schulen. Wien/Köln/Weimar: Böhlau: 174-181. From http://www.focusing.org/gendlin/docs/gol_2181.html

McEvenue, Kevin. 2015. Wholebody Focusing: Life Lived in the Moment. Copyright Whole Body Focusing.


[1] See most notably, Gendlin, Eugene. 1962. Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning (ECM). Glencoe, IL. Free Press, Evanston; 2017. A Process Model. Evanston, IL. Northwestern University Press.

[2] See, for example, Cornell, Ann Weiser and McGavin, Barbara. 2002. The Focusing Student’s and Companion’s Manual. 1. Berkeley, CA. Calluna Press.

[3] See, Brencio, Francesca. 2019. “Befindlichkeit: Disposition.” In The Oxford Handbook of Phenomenological Psychopathology, edited by Giovanni Stanghellini, et al.  Oxford. Oxford University Press: 345-353.

[4] See, for example, Gendlin, Eugene. 1984. „The Client’s Client: The Edge of Awareness.“ In Client-Centered Therapy and the Person-Centered Approach: New Directions in Theory, Research and Practice, edited by Ronald Levant & John Shlien. New York. Praeger: 76-107.

[5] See, Braude, Hillel. 2012. Intuition in Medicine: A Philosophical Defense of Clinical Reasoning. Chicago. The University of Chicago Press; 2016. “Clinical Reasoning and Knowing.” In Companion to Contemporary Philosophy of Medicine, edited by James Marcum, Bloomsbury Press: 323-342; 2013. “Human All Too Human Reasoning: Comparing Clinical and Phenomenological Intuition,” The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy. 38(2): 173-189; 2016. “Skilled Know-How, Virtuosity and Expertise in Clinical Practice.” In Handbook of the Philosophy of Medicine, edited by Thomas Schramme and Steven Edwards, Springer Press: 699-716.

[6] See, Braude, Hillel. 2016. „Review of Miriam Solomon’s Making Medical Knowledge.“ Theoretical Medicine & Bioethics, 37(5): 433-436.

John Behr: John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology

John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology Book Cover John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology
John Behr
Oxford University Press
2019
Hardback £85.00
416

Reviewed by: Thomas Sojer (University of Erfurt)

Known for his enlightening readings of the Church Fathers, John Behr presents us with ‘A Prologue to Theology’ in 2019. Serving not only as the subtitle of his new book John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel, Behr’s ‘Prologue to Theology’ also marks the undertaking of a major theological project in the work’s ensuing pages. In light of the large-scale theological project that follows this humble subtitle, I find that this term ‘prologue’ may stand for two key references.

As Behr implicitly suggests, his own written entanglement joins a prestigious legacy of theological ‘prologues’, or prolegomena, by applying phenomenology, however, far from the former stereotype of an ‘ancilla theologiae’. Within the mainline Christian denominations, ‘prolegomena’ have been defined as the fundamental, preliminary questions concerning the rationality of each church’s essential theological propositions. Even a cursory outline of Behr’s ‘prologue’ demonstrates the wide theological range that his study on John accomplishes. In keeping with this trend towards comprehensive breadth, Behr’s approach reaches a climax in the book’s final pages, which feature the ‘glitterati’ of modern Systematic Theology: the Reformed theologian Karl Barth, the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, as well as their Russian Orthodox counterparts Vladimir Solovyov, Sergius Bulgakov, and Nicolas Berdyeav (330), not to mention the work’s latent leitmotif, which cites the Anglican theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. On a methodological level Behr does theology in such a way that implicitly stakes a claim to the question of how to conduct Christian theology in today’s context – that is to say, in a truly ecumenical spirit. As if setting a new standard for theological form were not reason enough for Behr’s book to merit consideration by theology departments across Christian denominations around the world, this is only one aspect of the book’s relevance and significance for us today.

Furthermore, in this work Behr succeeds in composing a ‘symphony’, as he himself puts it (331), by entangling historical scholarship of early Christianity, modern biblical criticism, as well as an overarching ‘phenomenology of Life’, as theorized by Michel Henry. Behr’s ability to unify three highly different areas of scholarship on each of their individual terms is not only ambitious, but also claims importance for the field of theology itself. With this work Behr also joins the recent movement of reclaiming theology as an inherently diverse and interdisciplinary field. In particular, Behr entrusts the field of phenomenology, represented in this case by Henry, with the task of opening up new ‘loci theologici’ – new perspectives on Christian origins – thus permitting theology to flourish anew in the varied contexts of our 21st century.

Behr’s implementation of the term ‘prologue’ is also key to the very subject of The Gospel of John, thus calling to question the authorship and meaning of the fourth gospel. In this context, the term ‘prologue’ plays a central and decisive role, as Behr explains in depth in Chapter 5: ‘The Prologue as a Paschal Hymn’. Here, Behr suggests that the ‘prologue’ in the Gospel of John (Jn 1:1–18) is to be read as three different summaries of John. Although Behr never explicitly elaborates on this, it is clear that his ‘prologue’ relates ‘to theology’ in much the same way as John’s prologue relates to the Gospel of John (at least as interpreted by Behr and his sources). What both ratios have in common is that each prologue illuminates its corresponding content in three very different, yet necessarily corresponding ways. Interestingly, Behr describes both ‘prologues’ with musical imagery. Concerning the three entangled summaries in John’s prologue Behr suggests the eighteen verses in question is “best designated as a paschal hymn” (270). Correspondingly, he refers to his own book as ‘a symphony that is polyphonous, both diachronically and synchronically […] that enables the diversity of voices to be heard as a symphony […] historical, but also inescapably exegetical and phenomenological’ (331). The key question with which patristic and biblical scholars will confront Behr is why we need Michel Henry at all in order to better understand the gospel of John and its legacy, especially as Henry ‘rejects in principle the historical and exegetical project undertaken by modern scholars’ (306), as Behr himself puts it. Consequently, Behr admits that the third part of his threefold study, entangling historical research and modern biblical exegesis with phenomenology, may appear to be difficult to comprehend and will only reveal its precious fruits in a painstaking investigation. Only then does Henry’s phenomenological analysis of the Arch-intelligibility disclose how Christian revelation does not proceed by analysing texts as ‘it is only because texts speak of a referent which also shows itself to us that texts can even speak of it’, namely ‘Christ showing himself to us in the immediacy of our own pathos of life, which is ultimately his originary pathos, and calling us into life as enfleshed beings’ (307). Only then we may be able to grasp why the fourth gospel was written and should be read today as ‘paschal gospel’, as the revelation of Life itself, as Behr postulates.

With the notion of a ‘prologue’ as both agenda and frame, it becomes even clearer why Behr stresses so eagerly in his preface that “this is not a commentary on John!” (vii). Indeed, although in parts the text comes very close to this, Behr does not provide us with another commentary on the Gospel of John. Instead, he gives us a new way of formulating ‘prolegomena’ to theology, which he in this instance bases on three very different perspectives on John inspired by recent historical, exegetical and phenomenological scholarship. In view of the refreshing and insightful approaches Behr combines, it is not too far-fetched to draw a parallel to Karl Barth and his commentary on the Letter to the Romans, published 100 years earlier in 1918. Although Barth, unlike Behr, explicitly wrote a commentary and not ‘prolegomena’, Barth’s study, by adopting neo-Kantian thought, would become one of the most influential prolegomenon to 20th century theology, as well as the starting point for a radically new and revolutionary school of theology based on Barth’s readings of Paul (today, better known as neo-Orthodoxy). It would perhaps be too reductionist to describe Behr’s endeavour with John as fully corresponding to Barth’s Pauline explorations, only substituting neo-Kantianism with Henry’s phenomenology of Life. Yet, at the same time, Barth and Behr obviously share a common ambition as theologians of their ages, namely to lay new foundations for contemporary theology based on a key biblical author and his respective theological signature, whether Barth’s Paul in 1918 or Behr’s John in 2019.

As is the custom with carefully elaborated musical compositions, it is worth listening to the work as a whole from beginning to end. Behr’s textual symphony also rewards such an approach; much like a musical piece his work surprises the reader with the regular return of familiar themes and contents. The attentive reader will quickly notice that formerly loosely related passages become increasingly interwoven and, with slight modifications, present themselves as increasingly merged into one another.

Let’s start our journey through the book with Behr’s critique of contemporary theological practices: Behr commences his large-scale project with the paronomasia ‘methodology and mythology’, immediately finding Hans-Georg Gadamer and his concept of ‘Wirkungsgeschichte’ to be instrumental in historical theology as Gadamer postulates that understanding is always the melding of the historical horizons and our own contemporary horizons, rejecting the notion that each exists by itself. That being said, the task of projecting a historical horizon, Behr urges, needs to contend with Quentin Skinner’s concept of ‘the mythology of doctrine’. Skinner describes the historiographical practice (or malpractice) of converting scattered or incidental remarks of historical text into the retrospectively constructed historical author’s coherent ‘doctrine’ on an issue that today is commonly attributed to that person. In the context of Behr’s study, this applies foremost to the term ‘incarnation’, which has become a mainstay of Christian theology and is often associated with the prologue of the Gospel of John.

In the preface the reader is introduced to the latent leitmotif by Rowan Williams, who thenceforth serves as a marker for a tenacious tradition of misinterpretation, albeit Williams, as Behr points out, does not adhere to this, but rather criticises it. Williams characterizes certain manners of speaking within theology that use the term ‘incarnation’ as if it simply denotes ‘an episode of the biography of the Word’, which is to imply that first the divine Logos operated simply as God within the Trinity before eventually becoming human in Jesus Christ, and finally returning to its original position as divine Logos within the Trinity (19). Behr counters this idea of a ‘story’ of the divine Logos in two ways: First, to elaborate on the philosophical difficulties of an intersection between time and eternity, Behr draws on Herbert McCabe’s claim that there is no such thing as the pre-existent Christ by debunking such manners of theological speaking as a nineteenth century invention to cure modern iterations of adoptionism. Citing McCabe, Behr’s conclusion is that

‘the story of Jesus is nothing other than the triune life of God projected onto our history […] not just reflection but sacrament – they contain the reality they signify […] that the Trinity looks like (is a story of) rejection, torture and murder, but also of reconciliation is because it is being projected on, lived out on, our rubbish tip; it is because of the sin of the world’ (21).

Second, and here, Behr is in his element, he demonstrates compellingly through a series of close readings of patristic texts (primarily of Origin, Athanasius, and Gregory of Nyssa) that this obvious ‘mythology of doctrine’ is not tenable on the basis of the surviving sources of early Christianity.

In light of Gadamer’s melding of horizons, Behr proceeds by further exploring the historical horizons around the Gospel of John, always cautious to identify possible traps of own and other’s ‘mythologies of doctrine’. In clarifying the untenability of the ‘mythology of doctrine’ concerning the term ‘incarnation’, Behr starts to gradually resolve the primordial misunderstanding. Rooted in antiquity itself, an (almost lost) original meaning of incarnation has its essence in its relation to the Passion of Christ. The key is to understand both incarnation and Passion as one revelation. It is then that Behr finally approaches the topic of how to speak today of them properly. Behr finds the questions addressed in the Gospel of John.

In its first movement, Behr’s symphony takes the reader into a detective story throughout the first centuries AD, investigating the person we so instinctively call John. To reveal the mystery in advance, Behr notes that the aforementioned John was most probably not the same John of the twelve apostles in the Synoptics, but rather a central, yet mysterious founding figure of an independent early Christian tradition, perhaps even the high priest of the Jerusalem temple himself (96). Instead, Behr suggests that it was from this John that the first Christian paschal tradition originated, making the Gospel of John an originally ‘paschal gospel’ (92). To prove this, Behr once again invites the reader to an array of diachronic close-readings throughout the first centuries (focusing on Eusebius of Caesarea, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus of Lyon) revealing fractures, manipulations, and counter-traditions that are usually concealed in conventional linear church histories. In order to understand more fully the function, position, and significance of such a ‘paschal gospel’ within its distinctive early Christian tradition, namely that of the so-called John the Elder, Behr makes a cross-disciplinary shift to the second of the symphony’s three movements: to the ongoing discussions within contemporary biblical scholarship.

Here, Behr draws primarily on the recent scholarly debates surrounding the ‘apocalyptic Paul’ and its prominent advocate J. Louis Martyn, along with his criticism of modern ‘salvation history’ (128). At this point, Behr’s continuous practice of interweaving ‘the diversity of voices to be heard as a symphony’ becomes relevant. A good example of Behr’s technique is found in his reflections on the practice of an ‘apocalyptic reading of Scripture’, in which he links contemporary ‘apocalyptic exegesis’ with his own close-readings of Irenaeus and works out a plausible theological continuity between the two. The result is that the Passion of Christ constitutes the hermeneutical key for both the New Testament authors in question as well as their readers and interpreters in the first centuries AD. Citing Richard Hays, Behr concludes that ‘the eschatological apokalypsis of the cross serves as a hermeneutical lens, through which Scripture can now be refracted with a profound new symbolic coherence’ (125).

On the basis of this, Behr’s textual symphony closes its first movement in the echo of the various historical voices heard so far, while the second movement turns the gaze of the reader predominantly to the contemporary exegetical debates around selected key passages of the paschal gospel. The second movement entitled ‘It is finished’ is composed of three thematic parts, namely the Johannine theme of the temple as the body of Christ, the Son of Man as a living human being, and finally the aforementioned prologue, which in light of Behr’s restructuring as triune paschal hymn may no longer be simply read as a preface but as the paschal gospel’s musically performed Crescendo (270).

Following, we are passing by the multitude of contents and topics of the part of the book that is closest to a commentary on the fourth gospel: Behr grounds his argumentation on seven key passages in which he illustrates how the paschal gospel gradually unlocks the meaning of the Passion of Christ, best summarized in the syntagma ‘the temple of his body’ (Jn 2:21). As presented by Behr, the seven passages correspond with the six different feasts mentioned by John during Jesus’ lifetime that structure the entire narrative of the gospel, with three of them being the annual feast of Passover. Five of the six feasts are directly linked with ‘actions and words that identify Christ as the Temple and the fulfilment of the feasts celebrated therein’ and ‘at the Passion itself, Christ is, finally, presented as the Temple’ (138).

The subsequent exegetical gallery tour starts with an etymological allusion found in the prologue referring to the concept of tabernacle in Exodus and continues with Christ answering Nathanael with the self-identification as ‘Son of Man’ and its relation to the ladder of Jacob located at a place called Bethel which means ‘house of God’. Behr concludes this segment with the insight that in John ‘Christ himself is not only the Tabernacle or Temple in which God dwells in his glory, but is also the true house of God’ (141). Behr then guides the reader through the manifold nuances and contours of Christ’s being associated with the temple as John has applied them in the wedding at Cana, the cleansing of the temple, Christ’s encounter with the Samaritan women, and the healing at the pool on the Sabbath.

Next follows a comprehensive discussion of John 6 and Jesus’ scandalous command to ‘chew’ his flesh and drink his blood which Behr yet again uses in the interest of his textual symphony to prepare the foundation for the not yet introduced third voice, that is Michel Henry, who will be heard in the third movement. Especially readers whose biblical interest is limited and who are particularly interested in the third, phenomenological part of the book are advised not to skip this second, exegetical part too easily, as it is precisely here that all the foundations are laid for an in-depth understanding of Michel Henry’s reading of John.

The exegetical journey then progresses with further nuancing and contouring John’s rich understanding of the temple of Christ’s body applied to the narratives of the feasts of the Tabernacles, the healing of the blind, Jesus’ identification with the divine father, and the farewell speech, finally climaxing in the Passion narrative and the words of Jesus on the cross.

The second thematic part of the exegetical perspective considers the Johannine theme of the living human being. In accordance with the practice of resuming earlier elements in the course of a symphony, Behr begins this segment with a ‘relecture’ of the Apocalypse of John and the Church Fathers (focusing primarily on Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyon, and Melito of Sardis) and works out their ‘distinctive approach to what it is to be living human being, that is, a martyr and the glory of God’ (211). As done before Behr gradually entangles his patristic readings with contemporary biblical scholarship and tries to locate possibilities of resonance. As a marginal observation, it may be mentioned that in the fourth chapter (on the living human being), the subtitles are based on the themes and further subdivided into the respective biblical passages, while in the third chapter (on the temple of his body), the subtitles are based on the biblical passages and further subdivided into the respective themes. This can of course be dismissed as random, but it may reflect the differing methodological approaches of chapters three and four.

As already indicated earlier, as the third part of the exegetical enterprise Behr decodes the prologue of John (Jn 1:1–18) again into three unique summaries of the one subsequent paschal gospel. With innovative and elegant recourse to contemporary biblical scholarship and his own reading of patristic source material, Behr points out that each of the three original compositions of John’s prologue is centred around the eschatological apocalypse of divine glorification in Christ’s death on the cross. Entangling the gospel with the Apocalypse of John, Behr identifies the Word in the first of the three summaries (Jn 1:1) with the crucified Jesus who ‘is going towards God’ (260) becoming thus the living human being par excellence and the role model for all living humans. The second summary (Jn 1:2–5) explains according to Behr that ‘the life that Christ offers […] is the life that comes through death, the life lived by the risen Christ and, following him, by the martyrs, living human beings, the glory of God […] completed upon the cross with Christ’s words, ‘it is finished’, brought to perfection’ (264). Finally, the third summary (Jn 1:6–18) ‘structured as chiasm, with the world’s rejection of Christ at the crucifixion as its centre and climax’ (269) completes the triune composition and the entire prologue is thus, as Behr suggests, best considered as ‘paschal hymn’ and gateway to a truly paschal gospel (270). So, what does it mean for John to be a truly paschal gospel according to Behr? It means the eschatological apocalypse of the cross of Christ, which reveals to us what it means to become a living human being, to receive the gift of Life.

The third movement of Behr’s symphony finally calls Michel Henry and his phenomenology of Life onto the stage. For this, Behr proceeds with a close-reading of Henry’s three books concerning Christianity, namely C’est moi la verité: Pour une philosophie du christianisme (Paris, 1996), Incarnation : Une philosophie de la chair (Paris, 2000), and Paroles du Christ (Paris, 2002). An important motif that Behr identifies in Henry is

‘the duplicity of appearing that occurs on the world’s stage’ and means that ‘in Christianity everything is doubled: appearance and truth; body and flesh; the me given to myself in the pathos of life and the I that I project in this world’. Imagined reality can only be avoided in the pathos of life, ‘which is identical with itself in its self-affectivity’ so ‘that we find our true identity, and indeed an identity, though derivatively, with God. In the world, all we have is the duplicitous doubling of this identity, the appearance of a body rather than the flesh’ (310).

Ultimately, in a final meta-movement of all three preceding movements, Behr allows all voices to sound together to resolve the tenacious tradition of misinterpretation of the term ‘incarnation’ and revealing its relation to the Passion, or as Behr himself puts it that ‘this Coming of the Word in its visible body would seem to be nothing other than the Parousia of the Word upon the cross, visible indeed to the world, but only as dead, while invisibly alive in the flesh generated as the very substance of Life’ (312).

Concerning the multitude of modern and ancient languages in use, special reference should be made to the didactic-philological finesse of this book that very skilfully weaves the ancient Greek and French original into the English text, without leaving behind the reader illiterate in the ancient or modern language in question. Although Behr generally cites from the English standard translations, he interprets the original Ancient Greek and French texts and occasionally refers to specific nuances in both languages.

By using the term ‘prologue’ to characterize the nature of his book Behr contextualizes his study within the vast tradition of theological ‘prolegomena’. This Johannine ‘prolegomenon’ to theology was, of course, not written in observance of a so-called methodological atheism (as it became popular in contemporary European historical, exegetical and phenomenological scholarship) and has never tried to hide this fact. On the contrary, as an Orthodox priest, Behr continually reflects on his own point of view, theological tradition and methodological practices – a feature that, in the light of the various phenomenological traditions, especially Gadamer’s melding of horizons, must admit to Behr an even more profound scholarly habitus than a blindly followed methodological atheism would ever allow. With his symphony that enables the diversity of voices to be heard, Behr has made himself vulnerable on many flanks. The fact that he has been aware of these circumstances becomes most evident in his meticulous treatment of sources and extensive references to contemporary scholarship in all three main areas, namely historical theology, biblical studies and Michel Henry. Of course, sixty pages of bibliography, indices of ancient authors, and of (modern) authors may never be the sole criterion of academic quality but in this case, they bear witness to an extraordinary abundance of critically discussed scholarship, original source material and thematic spectra.

In any case, John Behr’s John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel. A Prologue to Theology is an opus magnum that needs to be studied thoroughly in today’s theology departments and seminaries around the globe and which invites, if not demands, further theological investigation along this initiated path.

Helmuth Plessner: Philosophische Anthropologie

Philosophische Anthropologie: Göttinger Vorlesung vom Sommersemester 1961 Book Cover Philosophische Anthropologie: Göttinger Vorlesung vom Sommersemester 1961
suhrkamp taschenbuch wissenschaft 2268
Helmuth Plessner. Edited by Julia Gruevska, Hans-Ulrich Lessing, Kevin Liggieri
Suhrkamp Verlag
2019
Paperback 20,00 €
256

Reviewed by: Felipe Catalani (University of São Paulo)

A Chapter of the Philosophical Anthropology in Germany: Helmuth Plessner

The discipline of philosophical anthropology can be described as the work of an historically specific group of conservative German intellectuals, with figures such as Max Scheler and Arnold Gehlen who exerted a relatively large influence in the philosophical debate of the first half of the 20th century. At the same time, in an explicitly leftist and anti-conservative milieu, something of a “negative anthropology” was developed (in an independent manner) by authors such as Günther Anders, Theodor Adorno, and Ulrich Sonnemann, whose intent was to think dehumanization without a positive image of what the human is. Due to his entry into the German intellectual debate of the 1920s, Helmuth Plessner is typically included among the first group, despite the somewhat modest and mostly local reception of his work and his rather moderate and anti-radical political positions. As a Jew, he fled Nazi Germany (while Gehlen’s career was advancing in Frankfurt and then in Leipzig during the period of Hitler) and survived the war hidden in the Netherlands (curiously, in his reflections on language in his lectures, Plessner employs often quite particular examples from Dutch). Although he later received a Lehrstuhl in sociology in Germany, the author of Die verspätete Nation remained relatively isolated in the academic scenario of post-war Europe.

Edited by Julia Gruevska, Hans-Ulrich Lessing, and Kevin Liggieri, the transcripts of Plessner’s lectures on philosophical anthropology held at the University of Göttingen in the summer of 1961 have been published by Suhrkamp. This course is comprised of 18 lessons. The first three lessons are dedicated to the idea and the definitions of philosophical anthropology. In the second block of three lessons, Plessner works on the problem of language. Afterwards, a third block of the course proceeds to the relation of man and his environment (Umwelt). After a lesson dedicated to the “utopia of the lost wild form of man,” in which the conceptions of natural man (derived mostly from Rousseau) are criticized, and another lesson on the concept of person, Plessner approaches in three lessons the concept of role, thought in its theatrical, anthropological and functional sense. In the fifth block of the course, Plessner exposes the main points of a study already been published in English under the title Laughing and Crying: A Study of the Limits of Human Behavior, in which he works out the relation between expressivity and human condition, comparing these with examples from empirical sciences such as biology and zoology. At the end of the course, two lessons address the problem of disembodiment [Entkörperung] and the human consciousness of death. The last one approaches the actuality of philosophical anthropology, with Plessner reviewing the questions worked through during the semester.

Those are already familiar with the work of Plessner will not find new theoretical material, as these lectures are the basis for his work Conditio humana. But the book certainly permits a different access to Plessner’s formulations on philosophical anthropology, in a similar manner as in recent decades the publication of lecture transcripts of authors such as Foucault and Adorno have thrown new light on their work. Plessner (like Adorno) shows a generous and pedagogical clarity with the students, in strong contrast to the technical jargon present in some of his texts. The spontaneity of spoken thought, the constant evocation of the second person (and also of the we) and a text marked by the contingency of a lecture produce a different complicity between author and reader, the latter of whom is treated as a listener.

First, we should highlight the context of the philosophical anthropology. This discipline saw its high point in Germany after the First World War and began losing relevance in the mainstream intellectual scene around the 1970’s. The relationship between the essential determinations of man and the experience of the first enormous catastrophe of the 20th century is a question not ignored by Plessner. In a strict materialistic sense, Plessner says that “this science [philosophical anthropology] made significant progress with the experiment of brain injuries occasioned by the First World War” so that “the war worked as a violent experimenter” (12). The war “opened up” man for insight in different senses, but also literally. The image of mutilated human beings revealed that it was not any longer evident what “man” was: this was the moment of the rise of philosophical anthropology. In the notes to the first lesson of the course, Plessner writes: “Ph[ilosophical] A[nthropology] is the expression of the uncertainty of man about his ‘determination’ [Max Scheler]” (9). The reference is probably to the essay The Human Place in the Cosmos from 1928 (the same year of the publication of Plessner’s Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch), where Scheler writes that “in no historical era has the human being become so much of a problem to himself as in ours.”[1] Already in his Die verspätete Nation (first published in 1935 and then reedited in 1959), which was an attempt to understand the genealogy of fascism, he quoted Golo Mann, who said: “The question of what Germany is, and what should be done with it, was an inevitable one hundred years ago. But time worked fast… What man is, and what man should do with himself: that is the question of the future.”[2] It is also no accident that the new period of ontological uncertainty coincided with a rebirth of conservative humanism (centered in the figure of Scheler).

The historical delimitation of philosophical anthropology as a discipline is something that Plessner approaches explicitly in his lectures: he criticizes openly the idea that there has always been philosophical anthropology, so that it must be seen as an anachronism to speak of a philosophical anthropology in Plato or Saint Augustine. He situates it rather as a late product of bourgeois society that begins to appear in the 19th century, as well as in sociology (that presupposes itself a philosophical anthropology and that has a concept of man diverse from the medical and natural sciences). However, it is effectively in the 1920’s, and as a sibling of the “philosophy of existence,” that philosophical anthropology sees its rise. He says: “Let me say something about the date of origin of philosophical anthropology, in the sense that we want to gradually develop here, and of the philosophy of existence. It is not an accident that both emerged in the 20’s of this century, and at the same time. The first works on philosophical anthropology –  if I don’t think of the predecessors in the 19th century, that actually exist, especially Feuerbach – appear after the First World War, that is, in the beginning of the 1920’s. The problem developed there” (27). Also, the early philosophical anthropology of Günther Anders was named by commentators as a hypostasis of the Homo weimarensis,[3] in which the existential condition of not being completely merged with the world (that is, the “world-estrangement of man”) was at the same time the condition for man’s freedom.  (The latter was, however, “pathological,” as this freedom was a result of man’s “non-identification” and contingency relatively to world – in opposition to animals, that have in the world their “natural place.”) The proximity to Plessner’s formulation of the “ex-centric positionality of man” is evident.[4]

Plessner approaches this motif of the “deficitary nature” of man, of man as a Mangelwesen, a motif that can be traced back to the 19th century, at least back to Herder: Herder would speak of man as an animal without claw, horns, poison fang, or strong bite. That means that the biological existence of man, his instincts, are not enough. If this natural weakness of man was something to be denied – and eliminated – by fascist naturalism (legitimized by the doctrine of race, which was, as Plessner points out, a dominant philosophical anthropology of the 1930s that wished to affirm the natural and “original” force), this separation from nature is, on the contrary, what Plessner wants to affirm: “Man is, before everything, instinctually weak [instinktschwach]” (119). What is not openly said by Plessner, but which we could interpret in this way, is that the instinctual realm carries a historical trauma, the same way as German backwardness appears as an excess of nature, as the “biological fall of man” [biologischer Sündenfall] (as Habermas says in his interpretation of Die verspätete Nation). A moral problem, linked to a specific historical experience as the problem of “evil” (understood as aggression), appears between these lines of philosophical anthropology, which does not wish to naturalize the bestiality happened in the past. Therefore, Plessner’s intention is not to understand fascism as a “destiny” written in human nature – although in these lectures, specifically, Plessner’s reference to German fascism, are quite lateral. In this sense, in a less pessimistic manner as Freud in his Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, the essential determinations of man lie in the fact that he is not subordinated to his instincts (as animals are). The essential is not instinct, but its restraint (the “super-ego,” Freud would say). Plessner became, as it is known, an expert in biology and in other fields of the natural sciences. But at the same time, his interest lies in the limits of nature: a constant procedure of philosophical anthropology is the comparison between man and animals, in order to distinguish them.

What underlies Plessner’s considerations is an anti-Nietzscheanism (in other texts he names the origin of three radicalisms he despises: Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche), and also the critique of what he calls the “utopia of the lost wild form of man,” for him a “biological interpretation of civilization and culture as precisely the fall of man [Sündenfall] from nature” (124). As Habermas points out, Plessner’s vision of human Sündenfall is its involvement in nature, not in civilization (as Rousseau sees it). Plessner certainly doesn’t follow the Frankfurtian interpretation of the Dialectics of Enlightenment and doesn’t see the civilized restraint of the instinctual realm in a pathological manner. Rather, such restraints are what characterize the specifically human and should be positively affirmed. Social norms, which are not identical to vital and biological norms, have a “regulative braking function” [regulierende, bremsende Funktion] (121). “To be human therefore means to be guided and inhibited by norms, to be quickened and braked, directed and at the same time limited. That is, to be human means to be a represser [Verdränger]” (122). A defense of these “humanizing” brakes as a defense of civilization shows an inversion of Rousseau that we could call Plessner’s “utopia of the lost civilized form of man,” that has a special meaning during the Reconstruction and Denazification of post-war Germany. Man may be a “blond beast” – but the “blond beast is in the stable” (126). In a certain manner, Plessner’s philosophical anthropology is a praise to the success of domestication of man.

This negation and repression of instinctual nature has a violent dimension. This theory of compensation of the biologically underprivileged condition of man (in which the spirit would result from the insufficiency of the body) finds in Gehlen’s philosophical anthropology a more authoritarian version, as man becomes not a peaceful creature when he leaves the natural condition of animal, but rather becomes a kind of ultra-strong animal. Plessner criticizes Gehlen in these terms: “Capacity of abstraction, language, intelligence become weapons. They become so to speak second order horns and claws” (120). We could even make a comparison on Adorno’s view of the violence of the abstraction as a “second-order” instinct of self-preservation (so that civilization appears as a continuation of the state of nature), but that would lead us too far. However, the compensation of the biological weakness for Gehlen is the social strength – the institutions. Plessner’s view on the break of the biological dimension is different, as he emphasizes language: “Where does man show himself as man, specifically? There where the breaking [Brechung] through language takes place, that is, there where he enters a totally other dimension as the purely biological dimension” (107). To become human means to leave nature behind. We could even identify a proximity with the Habermasian approach (formulated a decade later) on the communicative action as the “breaking out” of the dialectics of enlightenment, in which reason (understood by Adorno and Horkheimer as originally instrumental) is no longer a “second order” instinct, that is, a continuation of the history of violence. However, strangely enough, Plessner doesn’t make any reference to the Dialectic of Enlightenment, a text he certainly knew. When he understands language as a social structure, Plessner “sociologizes” his philosophical anthropology, in which this being for the other – the “communality” [Gemeinsamkeit] – is central. But Plessner never ceases to investigate the relation to nature and the form of the body. He is interested in the mouth, the tongue, and in the capacity to produce sounds. “Language and voice belong to each other” (73). His interests continuously flow from biology to sociology, and back, so that we notice a continuous tension between nature and society, although they always need to be separated.

If Plessner performs this double movement between biology and sociology, it is because his interest lies in the “determination of the double nature of man” (9): on the one side, the cultural and spiritual existence of man, and on the other side, his vital expressions in the biological world. And so he comes back to the discussion with Descartes and the separation of body and soul. This disruption as the essential determination of man is Plessner’s point of departure, and also the point to which he comes back in the last lesson: “a unity that has a break [Bruch] in itself” (219). It is interesting to note how this idea of a unity that breaks itself in two (the gap between body and spirit) is also present in his interpretations of the German historical process. The epigraph of the second edition of Die verspätete Nation (1959) was a quote from Thomas Mann in 1945: “There are no two Germanies, an evil one and a good one, but one, whose best turned to evil through a diabolical ruse.”[5] This was the classical question for German liberal humanists: how was so much hatred and aggression possible in the country of poets and philosophers?

It is difficult to say if Plessner applies his model of philosophical anthropology to understand Germany or the contrary, if his reflections on human nature are an attempt to explain a determinate historical experience. This German unity-in-duality (that in the 19th century allowed the modern rebirth of dialectics[6]) was represented by Marx as Germany’s small body (material and political backwardness) with its huge head (the advanced ideas). But in Plessner there is no dialectics produced by this gap between Germany’s body and spirit and his vision is not the same as Marx’s (neither is dialectics’ two the dualism of body-spirit). For him, Germany’s small body was actually a monster, it was a body without spirit: “Bismarcks Reich, eine Großmacht ohne Staatsidee,”[7] power and force without “idea.” The problem was not the State, incorporated in an idea, but rather an excess of nature. Instead of humanity (the spirit), in backward Germany appeared the organic body: the people, the German Volk. The problem was that the ideological national fundament was: “Nicht Staat, sondern Volk[8]. On the idea of Volk, which for Plessner represents the German anti-humanism, he affirms: “This category, shaped by Herder in opposition to the generalizing abstraction of the universal idea of humanity, in order to overcome the vacuum between the individual rational being and the general human reason, the generic human being, is romantic and flourished in the 19th century towards the significant reality, through which it today reveals the power of a political idea.”[9] To sum it up, Plessner interprets Germany’s backwardness as a lack of spirit: in its excess of nature, Germany “lacked political humanism.”[10] As Habermas affirms, in Plessner’s work “humanism, also the political humanism of the western world, should as a mere postulate continue to ethically maintain its force.”[11]

Although we speak of Descartes’ ontological separation of spirit and body, it is important to say that Plessner is not Cartesian, as he follows the break of the 19th century philosophy that brings nature under philosophical consideration. But following the humanist tradition of Enlightenment, evil is always related to what is not spirit: the organic res extensa (as Deleuze remarked about Kant). For Plessner, however, nature is not evil in itself: evil is a specific human tendency that appears in this division between nature and spirit. Man is no “beast of prey,” says Plessner. At the same time there are no murders in nature, properly said. Only man, in his particular “eccentric position,” can become a criminal. Plessner comes back to this problem in the last lesson of the semester: “Evil in this sense only becomes possible as reality through this peculiar disruption [Zerrissenheit] and brokenness [Gebrochenheit]” (221). It is a conception of human essential determinations, and at the same time we can’t avoid reading it as a response to historical problems. Plessner’s philosophical anthropology has its place in 20th century Germany.


[1] Max Scheler, The Human Place in the Cosmos. Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2009, p. 5.

[2] Apud Jürgen Habermas, Politisch-philosophische Profile. Frankfurt am Main: Surhkamp, 1984, p. 133.

[3] Günther Anders, Die Weltfremdheit des Menschen: Schriften zur philosophischen Anthropologie. München: Beck, 2018.

[4] On Plessner’s concept of “exzentrische Positionalität”, see: Joachim Fischer, “Exzentrische Positionalität: Plessners Grundkategorie der Philosophischen Anthropologie”. Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie, 48, (2000) 2, p. 265-288.

[5] Helmuth Plessner, Die verspätete Nation. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1982, p. 11.

[6] For an interpretation of the relation between the modern rebirth of dialectics and the historical experience of backwardness in 19th century Germany, see Paulo Arantes, Ressentimento da Dialética: Dialética e Experiência Intelectual em Hegel. São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 1996.

[7] Plessner, Die verspätete Nation, p. 48.

[8] Ibid., p. 52.

[9] Ibid., p. 59

[10] Ibid., p. 19.

[11] Jürgen Habermas, Politisch-philosophische Profile. Frankfurt am Main: Surhkamp, 1984, p. 134.

Sümeyye Parıldar: Intentionality in Mulla Sadra, Springer, 2020

Intentionality in Mulla Sadra Book Cover Intentionality in Mulla Sadra
Studies in the History of Philosophy of Mind, Vol. 24
Sümeyye Parıldar
Springer
2020
Hardcover 77,99 €
X, 171