Introductions are historical pieces of work conditioned by the tendencies and urgencies of the moment, and that means they need to be rewritten again and again. Still, one might be excused for thinking that the world doesn’t need another introduction to Heidegger. After reading O’Brien’s excellent book, though, one will be convinced otherwise. Accessible and intellectually honest, this critical introduction to Heidegger’s life and works is a timely contribution to the field, which I recommend highly to beginners as well as specialists.
Today, undergraduates and other first-time readers of Heidegger do not come to his works empty-handed. We can assume that most of them have been exposed to “the Heidegger controversy.” Preserving Heidegger’s legacy requires addressing that controversy. O’Brien is therefore wise not to bypass it, but instead tell the story of Heidegger’s thought partly against that political backdrop. Nor does the book pretend to offer a guide to Heideggerian philosophical concepts from a “neutral standpoint.” It is a polemical introduction, taking a stand on the political issues as well as important interpretive questions that haunt Heidegger scholarship.
In his preface, O’Brien clarifies what he takes to be uncontroversial about Heidegger’s works, and what remains contentious to this day. Instead of painting a sacrosanct picture, he thematizes the controversies and presents a nuanced picture—one that cancels out neither the controversies and weaknesses in Heidegger’s thought, nor the immense value of Heidegger’s philosophical insights.
O’Brien identifies two extreme positions in Heidegger interpretation and rejects the squabble between them as a false dilemma. One position holds that Heidegger is “the greatest scourge to have afflicted academic philosophy,” while to the other, he is “the most important philosopher to have emerged from the Western tradition since Hegel” (ix). O’Brien offers an interpretation that accepts a version of both positions. He argues that while it is undeniable that Heidegger’s association with National Socialism was neither brief not incidental to his thought, and that his commitment to it was based on some of the core elements of his magnum opus, Being and Time (BT), this does not justify “the extirpation of Heidegger’s thought from the canon” (ibid.). Heidegger’s impact remains profound, and striking him from the canon obliterates his intellectual achievements and makes it impossible to explain the origin of subsequent thinkers, who were influenced by him. But O’Brien also warns against the extreme devotion displayed by some commentators, who are “guilty of all kinds of intellectual acrobatics and apologetics in an attempt to rehabilitate Heidegger’s image” (xi). He vows to avoid such misplaced loyalty, which risks alienating prospective readers of Heidegger “who will eventually learn for themselves that Heidegger was a Nazi and a selfish, arrogant egomaniac to boot” (ibid.).
In Chapter One, entitled “Ways Not Works,” O’Brien addresses Heidegger’s methodology and influences, and takes a clear stand on the Kehre debate, which concerns the relationship between the early and later works. Although this issue is decisive in determining what narrative is offered not only regarding the late works but most crucially regarding BT, it is often set aside in introductory texts. O’Brien warns against the two extremes that see either radically disjointed efforts over the course of his oeuvre or an overt systematicity. Instead, he supports the so-called “continuity thesis,” which finds unity across the Heidegger corpus. Thus he sees Heidegger’s work as “a continuous, evolving, if not entirely seamless, enterprise” (xi). Invoking Heidegger’s maxim “ways not works”, O’Brien presents his oeuvre as a series of attempts at thematizing the question of the meaning of being (2-3), which question he addressed most rigorously in BT. This approach helps us appreciate the reasons why Heidegger moved beyond that central work without ever actually rejecting it. O’Brien’s narrative thus rejects a distinction between “Heidegger I” and “Heidegger II,” and counters the assumption that the later works are incompatible with the earlier (5).
O’Brien also does a fine job in this chapter of acknowledging the most important influences on Heidegger’s work without giving a reductive account that denies his philosophical originality. As he argues, Heidegger’s work cannot be categorized under any of the movements that influenced him. Nonetheless, O’Brien identifies Husserl’s phenomenology as having exerted the most influence on his early thought.
Chapter 2, “Early Life,” covers the most significant biographical information with bearing on Heidegger’s philosophical ideas (and is actually not confined only to his early years), including his attempts at a political philosophy. What is crucial to take away from this chapter is the connection between Heidegger’s philosophical confrontation with modernism and his sense of belonging to his native region and its heritage. O’Brien argues that Heidegger himself made it “very clear that the biographical details of his own life […] were crucial to an understanding of the manner in which his thinking developed” (8). Accordingly, he relates the basic facts about Heidegger’s upbringing and family: his father’s vocational connection to the Catholic Church, and his many ties to the countryside and peasant communities, including his mother’s farming background. Thus he contextualizes Heidegger’s distrust of city life and cosmopolitanism (9), which he associated with inauthenticity.
O’Brien draws attention to the interpretive difficulty that hampers any serious attempt to distinguish between those of Heidegger’s philosophical discoveries that resulted from honest thinking, and ideas he espoused disingenuously, ad hoc, in order to justify his private proclivities. It is challenging to identify and appreciate some of Heidegger’s important philosophical ideas on their own merit when he himself attaches them to ridiculous personal views. As a result, some interpreters end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater (12), allowing these associations to discredit profound insights.
In the chapter, O’Brien does not shy away from commenting on Heidegger’s bad personality traits, such as his feigned humility, his extraordinary arrogance and pretentiousness, his serious messiah complex, as well as his philandering (12). The chapter closes with references to his wife Elfride’s antisemitism and nationalism, and shows that also Heidegger himself was fiercely nationalistic (14).
Chapter 3, “Rumours of the Hidden King,” tracks Heidegger’s intellectual development from the early Freiburg period, when he served as Husserl’s teaching assistant, to his years lecturing at Marburg, in the early 1920s. Once he took up employment at Marburg, Heidegger begun formulating his own ideas and themes, moving away from neo-Kantianism and Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, and recognizing “the importance of time as history for the philosophical project he wished to inaugurate” (21).
One topic stands out in this chapter: Heidegger’s break from Husserlian phenomenology. Here the book’s characterizations of Heidegger’s person are again harsh: O’Brien claims that while Heidegger was indeed at one point deeply inspired by Husserl, nevertheless he “carefully choreographed” the impression that Husserl was his mentor, dedicating BT to him as part of a “calculated piece of manipulation designed to win the favour of one of the most important and influential philosophical voices in Germany at the time” (19).
Chapter 4, “The Hidden King Returns to Freiburg,” is the longest and most important chapter of the book. Here, O’Brien discusses BT and tries to properly contextualize its main arguments in relation to the entire corpus. Discussing the structure of BT, O’Brien analyzes its incompleteness in terms of both philosophical motivations and purely professional-strategic ones. He finds a deep consistency between the projected (missing) second part of BT with the work of his later period. Proponents of the discontinuity thesis, he argues, misinterpret the idea of a “turn” (Kehre), supposing that the new approach and language characteristic of Heidegger’s later texts represent a “reversal,” a “turning away from” and thus a repudiation of BT. But on the contrary, O’Brien points out, the later works constantly invoke BT in order to explain key developments. Heidegger himself recommended that the 1935 Introduction to Metaphysics (IM), be read “as a companion piece to Being and Time” (30). While the later works are not reducible to the earlier, still “Heidegger never fully relinquishes some of the key ideas that he was developing in Being and Time” (28).
Having made his case for continuity, O’Brien is free to turn to important texts that postdate BT in order to clarify some of the latter’s central arguments. Interpreting BT as a book that tries to address the ontologically suppressed interplay of presence and absence, O’Brien refers to the 1949 introduction to “What Is Metaphysics?” (WM) (1929) in order to clarify the purpose that animates BT, which is none other than “to prepare an overcoming of metaphysics” (33). According to Heidegger, the meaning of being as traditionally understood in philosophy privileges presence, something which O’Brien says “distorts the nature of reality for us and indeed our own self-understanding” (30). Part of what Heidegger tries to do is challenge the prejudice that the word “being” and its cognates mean that something exists or is present (ibid.). In fact, when we say that things “are,” “it is not clear that that means that they exist as fully present or actualised before us” (32).
In WM, Heidegger would blame this “metaphysics of presence” for misrepresenting the way we actually experience the world (33). WM’s discussion of nothingness targets the principle of non-contradiction, O’Brien says—a principle “routinely invoked to dismiss all talk of the nothing as simply wrong-headed, illogical, unscientific, in short, as contradictory” (34). The tradition has decided in advance that being reduces to presence and that it itself is not nothing. According to O’Brien, this treatment of nothingness is anticipated early on in BT, specifically in the account of moods as the site which throws open the interplay of presence and absence (34). “Heidegger returns to and defends this idea in 1929, in 1935 and again in his 1940’s introduction and postscript to the 1929 lecture [WM]” (ibid.). Heidegger, O’Brien writes, is trying to show that “traditional approaches miss out on all of the possibilities inherent in what we ‘mean’ when we say that a [an entity] is here, or there, or is something or other” (39). Being means possibility—a multiplicity of possibilities—and although beings stand in Being, they never overcome the possibility of not-Being, something that the philosophical tradition has missed by conceiving being in terms of continuous presence. As O’Brien explains, “[w]hat is suppressed is the role that absence or nothingness plays in our experience and how most of our experience involves a constant interplay of presence and absence” (40).
O’Brien concedes that the existential analytic of Dasein does tend toward anthropocentrism or an excessive prioritization of human subjectivity, but he draws attention to the methodological reasons that led Heidegger to begin with Dasein. Heidegger was convinced that “a new brand of phenomenology, unencumbered with the transcendental baggage of the later Husserl, was the appropriate method, while recognizing that time (or temporality) should be central to any attempt to begin to investigate the meaning of being” (42). Rather than “beginning with some abstract theory or idea, Heidegger insisted that we should begin with ordinary, everyday existence, before any abstractions” (ibid.).
In the same chapter, O’Brien also critically responds to realist readings of Heidegger’s late work, which—as he convincingly argues—rely on a misreading of BT. Without attributing to Heidegger the view that Dasein actively creates meaning, O’Brien disagrees that the meaning of being subsists in the absence of Dasein. He clarifies that Heidegger does not deny that entities exist “out there,” only that their meaning (i.e. the phenomenological “world”) exists independently of Dasein. Here the analysis would benefit from a reference to Taylor Carman’s work, whose use of the term “ontic realism” could help O’Brien consolidate his position further.
In the rest of the chapter, O’Brien offers an eloquent explication of the basic structures of Dasein as presented in BT, without ever becoming tiresome or overly technical. Thus he explains how “understanding” works in terms of projects and possibilities, how “affectivity” (Befindlichkeit) works in terms of moods in which we already find ourselves, and how “falling” works in terms of understanding being as presence.
As regards the focus on death in BT, O’Brien argues that Heidegger is not interested in the actual event of death per se, but rather in the fact that our manner of understanding everything in the world around us is conditioned by our own finitude (47). Heidegger wants to move from the metaphysics of presence to an ontology which reckons with the role that absence or nothingness plays in the meaning of a thing’s being (48).
Chapter 5 is entitled “The 1930s – Politics, Art and Poetry.” The chapter begins with Heidegger’s so-called “linguistic turn,” in which the poetic use of language in particular emerged as a key concern. While some commentators see Heidegger’s focus on language, and particularly his preoccupation with Hölderlin’s poetry during the 1930s and 40s, as a shift away from the project of BT, O’Brien argues that if we remain faithful to the fact that BT is about the meaning of Being, then there’s no surprise in the linguistic turn. In my opinion, O’Brien’s thesis here would benefit from a reference to Heidegger’s early notion of “formal indication,” which is also a precursor to poetic language.
Next O’Brien turns to Heidegger’s linguistic chauvinism, which he argues contributed to shaping his political views. Heidegger believed that German and Ancient Greek were philosophically superior languages that could grasp the world in the origin of its being, and that other languages, such as French and English, were philosophically destitute (57). O’Brien brings up the worrisome recurrence of Heidegger’s prejudice about a supposed inner affinity between Germany and Ancient Greece. He also discusses Heidegger’s intense criticism of “everything in the Western tradition that has led to modernity and eventually the age of technology” (60). It is in this context, argues O’Brien, that Judaism is thrown “into the melting pot along with everything else that he sees as a consequence of the history of the metaphysics of presence, a metaphysics which he believes the German people alone can overcome” (ibid.).
One of the most interesting moments in the book comes when O’Brien questions whether Heidegger’s confrontation with modernity is really as unique as we have been taught to think. Thus he calls for an excavation and identification of the sinister and at times disappointingly derivative motivations behind ideas that many have taken to be unique features of Heidegger’s critique (60-61). Some aspects of Heidegger’s critique of modernity, O’Brien says, are but “a variant on what were ultimately a series of stock antisemitic prejudices that proliferated in Germany from the late 1700s onwards” (59). In some of the most nationalistic and antisemitic remarks to be found in the 1933-1934 seminar Nature, History, State, Heidegger argues that for Slavic people, German space would be revealed differently from the way it is revealed to Germans, and that to “Semitic nomads” it would “perhaps never be revealed at all” (62). O’Brien argues that these attempts to relate philosophical views to a renewal of German spiritual and cultural life under National Socialism can be registered under a certain tradition to which also Fichte belonged (ibid.). Yet Heidegger’s conviction that this “revolution” must be based on key elements of his own philosophical vision, i.e. the attempt to overcome the metaphysics of presence and the inauguration of a new beginning which was specifically tied to the destiny of the German people, makes him stand out in this tradition. Heidegger was “as naïve as he was megalomaniacal” (63), O’Brien says, while reminding us not to dismiss the philosophy just because of the political ends the philosopher thought it could serve.
The final part of the chapter turns to the topic of art and follows Heidegger’s engagement with Hölderlin’s poetry in his 1934 lectures, as well as his 1935-1936 essay “The Origin of the Work of Art.” According to O’Brien, Heidegger was keen to distance his discussion of the origin of art from any conventional aesthetics, and previous analyses of this work have overlooked how Heidegger situates his treatment of art within his larger political vision. Invoking the unique destiny of the German people, Heidegger identifies Hölderlin as the poet the Germans must heed in order to foster an authentic happening, a new political and cultural beginning (65).
In chapter 6, “The Nazi Rector,” O’Brien addresses the apogee of the “Heidegger controversy”: his involvement with Nazi politics and his rectorship at the University of Freiburg. His appointment as rector came as a complete surprise to his students, the Jewish ones included, because as far as they were concerned, “there had been nothing in his demeanor or attitude to that point to suggest that he might be sympathetic to Nazism” (71). On the other hand, argues O’Brien, it’s unlikely that Heidegger happened upon his political allegiances overnight in 1933 (71). He draws attention to the fact that Heidegger reportedly read and was impressed by Mein Kampf, and that he held antisemitic and reactionary views from early on (ibid.). Thus on O’Brien’s view, the Black Notebooks only confirm previously available evidence that Heidegger was an antisemite who thought he could articulate antisemitic views from within his own philosophical framework.
The whole controversy, argues O’Brien, “should have and could have been dealt with comprehensively and exhaustively a long time ago” (74). He identifies two key factors that contributed to the unnecessary protraction of the whole issue: firstly, the drip-feeding of problematic texts, which created the impression that further revelations, which might complicate the picture, were continuously underway; secondly, the fact that the most critical voices were philosophically weak or obviously biased, resulting in a superficiality that “managed to conceal the deep underlying philosophical questions which must be put to Heidegger’s thought” (ibid.). The chapter offers a critical review of the most influential books on Heidegger’s Nazism, analyzing their scope and breadth and ideological bents, and assessing their strengths and weaknesses. Here, O’Brien shows his prowess, and demonstrates an excellent grasp of the topic.
As regards the political philosophy, O’Brien argues that Heidegger was not a bloodthirsty biological racist, but an archconservative and traditionalist “prone to some rather bizarre provincialist notions which he sought to justify philosophically” (74). Heidegger unsuccessfully tried to marry his own provincialism with a philosophical antimodernism and ethnic chauvinism, thinking this political philosophy was the way to resist the growing dominion of technology (74-75). O’Brien’s verdict is that Heidegger failed to articulate a coherent political philosophy, “owing in part to the fact that his philosophy doesn’t really admit to being employed in the manner in which he wants to use it” (75). O’Brien also finds that Heidegger’s flawed character must have played a role in his stint with National Socialism (76).
Chapter 7, “Return from Syracuse,” covers the period following his banishment from teaching after the denazification proceedings, especially his philosophical output of the 40s, 50s and 60s. It discusses Heidegger’s musings on language, poetry and technology, specifically his analysis of technology, of releasement (Gelassenheit) and the notion of “appropriation/enownment” (Ereignis) (79). While in chapter 5, O’Brien argued that some aspects of Heidegger’s confrontation with modernity might not be as original as initially thought, here he argues against a reductionist misapprehension that his work on technology is simply a symptom of his antimodernism (80). Instead, he says, Heidegger’s essay on technology stands today as the single most important philosophical work on some of the issues concerning the philosophical age we live in (81).
Turning to the Bremen lectures, O’Brien offers a nuanced analysis of the infamous “Agriculture Remark.” The point of the remark, he argues, is not to liken the Holocaust with the harvesting of grain, as some commentators have suggested, nor is Heidegger arguing that agricultural methods are morally equivalent to genocide. What interests him is the role that the essence of technology (Enframing) has figured into everything that has taken place in the twentieth century, including genocide, war and agriculture (82).
Next O’Brien discusses “The Question Concerning Technology”—a good text for a first-time reader of Heidegger to begin with, he says, because in this essay Heidegger touches upon most of his fundamental concepts and views, such as “equipmentality,” “publicness”, das Man, etc. (83). Here, O’Brien’s continuity thesis is on full display, as he argues that Heidegger’s worries about technology are already hinted at in BT: “it is clear that Heidegger’s thinking about technology was there in embryonic form in Being and Time” (85).
O’Brien interprets Heidegger’s critique of (the essence of) technology as a critique of eliminativism, i.e. a critique of positivist approaches that posit that classes of entities which do not fall within the horizon of their investigation do not exist (89). The problem of Enframing is its eliminative character, namely that it is a mode of revealing that governs the way beings come to presence. Other forms of revealing, like poetry, are necessary in order to “allow people to see things coming to presence in ways other than what is rather aggressively demanded by Enframing” (93). O’Brien then discusses “releasement” (Gelassenheit) as the appropriate comportment of human beings that will enable such a non-eliminative, pluralist disclosure of beings, and closes the chapter by contextualizing Enframing in the history of Being (94). Acquainted as I am with O’Brien’s earlier books, I think he could have spent a few more paragraphs elaborating in greater detail how Gelassenheit relates to Entschlossenheit and the project of dismantling of the ontology of presence.
Chapter 8 is entitled “Heidegger ‘Abroad’.” This is a rather short chapter that breaks up into three sections. The first covers Heidegger’s remarkable success on the French intellectual scene, especially among the existentialists, and gives some historical context to that success. The second concerns Heidegger’s relation to Eastern thought and covers his interactions with a number of Eastern intellectuals, briefly also referring to the body of secondary literature devoted to the intersection between Heidegger’s philosophy and Eastern traditions. The third section covers the impact his thought has had in the United States.
Chapter 9, “The Final Years,” is only three pages long, and provides biographical details of the peaceful and happy years at the end of Heidegger’s life. It notes that he faced his own death with a certain “grace and serenity” (109), and that in the end he arranged a Christian burial for himself after all.
In the tenth and final chapter, “Heidegger’s Legacy,” O’Brien sums up his verdict as regards the “Heidegger controversy.” The recent publication of the Black Notebooks refuelled the controversy, O’Brien says, because it discredited Heidegger’s own “official story” about his association with National Socialism. Heidegger was a committed Nazi and an antisemite who “tried zealously to use some of his core elements of his thought to articulate a philosophy of National Socialism, for a period of time at least” (111). However, Heidegger’s own “political vision was ultimately at quite a remove from historical National Socialism, and he clearly became more and more disillusioned with the regime from the mid-1930s onwards” (ibid.). O’Brien reiterates his own position against other interpretations, insisting that despite claims made even by Heidegger himself, he did try to offer a political philosophy, and deep inside believed “he could be the spiritual and philosophical Führer of an awakening in Germany that would change the course of history in Europe and the Western world in general” (112).
In addition to the political controversy, Heidegger’s legacy is entangled in another controversy, argues O’Brien, namely the divide between analytic and continental philosophy. In analytic circles, “Heidegger is often portrayed as the arch-villain for having led philosophy astray through his promotion of ambiguity, imprecision, a lack of rigour and the proliferation of jargon, mysticism and bad poetry masquerading as philosophical profundity” (114). O’Brien defends Heidegger’s writing style, arguing that the subject itself demanded such a style, but lambasts those “disciples” who try to imitate Heidegger’s style simply because they themselves are unable to write more clearly.
O’Brien ends the book by reflecting on the future of Heidegger studies, saying that it is difficult to foretell what course it will take. He believes that the Heidegger controversy “is only truly beginning, as scholars face squarely the question of how to read the texts of a thinker whose work, while not reducible to National Socialism, was nevertheless twisted and manipulated in various ways owing to his own belief that a happy union could be forged between his own thought and the new awakening in Germany which he initially saw as an underlying possibility of National Socialism” (115).
Carman, Taylor. 2003. Heidegger’s Analytic. New York: Cambridge University Press.
O’Brien, Mahon. 2011. Heidegger and Authenticity: From Resoluteness to Releasement. London and New York: Continuum.
O’Brien, Mahon. 2015. Heidegger, History and the Holocaust. London and New York: Bloomsbury.
O’Brien, Mahon. 2020. Heidegger’s Life and Thought: A Tarnished Legacy. London and New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
 See Carman, Taylor. Heidegger’s Analytic. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
 See O’Brien, Mahon. Heidegger and Authenticity: From Resoluteness to Releasement. London and New York: Continuum, 2011; O’Brien, Mahon. Heidegger, History and the Holocaust. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2015.
Staiti’s book is a very engaging metaethical investigation of naturalism in ethics (7). Here, phenomenology serves a twofold purpose. As it is in the nature of phenomenology, in this book, too, phenomenology is used as a method and theory. On the one hand, phenomenology’s methodological approach can provide the right ‘atteggiamento’ (attitude, 30) for addressing problems proper to naturalism, such as nihilism and the relative limits of physicalism (20-25); on the other hand, phenomenological theory in axiology, specifically in relation to the notion of material a priori (38), offers ideas in support of a “liberal way” (29) of interpreting naturalism and handling some of the thorniest debates in metaethics. This is especially clear when Staiti discusses the problem of moral intuition and perception and the behavior of axiological properties in mereological foundations (8).
What does phenomenology have to gain from this interaction? Staiti’s answer is that metaethics can help phenomenology to position itself in the contemporary philosophical metaethical traditions (9). Since metaethical problems are very close to the issues tackled by the phenomenological tradition, the two can help each other in the most problematic areas.
The book is organized into four chapters. The first starts with a description of naturalism, in general, and ethical naturalism, in particular. Staiti describes two aspects of naturalism: ontological and methodological. Methodological naturalism is based on and limited by the natural sciences and the scientific community that gathers around them (16). In this form of naturalism, the philosophical discussion is based on the solid ground of what can be proven by science. In doing so, methodological naturalism does not leave much room to discuss what cannot yet be proven. This problem also occurs in ontological naturalism. Ontological naturalism, in fact, focuses on the description of concrete entities; what is labelled as spooky (17) exceeds this category. For this reason, Staiti seems to welcome De Caro’s proposal of a liberal naturalism (19-20), which connects philosophical rationality to empirical sciences in order to revise scientific positions that would oppose the experimental nature of science and philosophy (20).
In ethics, naturalism expresses itself in the forms of physicalism and realism. In ethical physicalism, what matters for the ethical discourse is what we can ‘tangibly’ see; hence, in the case of a nihilistic solution what matters is Nothing, or, in the case of psychologism and expressivism, what matters are feelings and emotions. A naturalistic approach to the good leads the investigator to take into consideration only what exists in reference to the world (22). This form of naturalism in ethics tends to reinforce a moral psychology that limits the investigation to what can be proven as true and good from the perspective of the Geisteswissenschaften (sciences of mind). The other declension of naturalism in ethics is realism, which considers axiological properties as real entities accessible to the philosophical investigation. Similarly to the liberal naturalism proposed above, Staiti points to a liberal form of naturalism in ethics that would avoid a nihilist solution to ethical problems. In fact, the liberal version of ethical naturalism supports “the existence of axiological properties as natural properties accessible in the same way as natural properties” (25). In order to access these properties, philosophy needs to adopt the right attitude which seems to be best provided by the phenomenological method (31).
As we know from Husserl’s essay Philosophy as a Rigorous Science (1910), phenomenology discusses naturalism in a new fashion. The essence of one’s experience of a natural phenomenon cannot be reduced to a mere aggregate of physical or psychical atoms (in the case of scientific or psychological naturalism). Having experience means to refer to something that constitutes the object of my experience in the world (34-35). The natural phenomenon can never be the summation of its parts, but instead is the intentional content of a given lived-experience that we can access and describe through the reflective analysis of the lived-experience itself. Similarly to liberal ethics, phenomenology shares the idea of being able to access the axiological properties of ethical experience as much as its perceptual properties (37) as the two are bound together by a mereological foundation in which the results of the natural givenness is not mere summation but the supervenience of the relationship between its elements. Speaking to this, Staiti gives the example of Husserl’s notion of material a priori as an a priori model for explaining how the material axiological aspects of the experience stand in relation to a specific region of reality and its logical properties. For example, pain is a disvalue, hence what we know as torture is wrong as it produces this specific disvalue consequence in this region of reality.
Continuing on this road, the second chapter of Staiti’s book shows how the phenomenological attitude can lend itself to the understanding of the mereological supervenience of axiological and logical properties. Focusing on moral intuition and perception, Staiti shows how the natural entity of the ontological and methodological approach used in naturalism is explained in phenomenology as the intentional fulfillment correlated to the intentional essence. Referencing Audi, Staiti explains in great clarity how in Husserl, differently from Audi, the perceptual awareness of the correspondence between reality and experience (49) tends to distinguish experience from one’s lived-experience as this latter involves a reflective quality proper to the intentional act that escapes the mere representationalist point of view. According to representationalism, in fact, the sensorial multitude on which the perceptive experience of something is based is lived but not experienced—hence it is for us a mental representation of the direct perceptive experience. For Husserl, instead, ”the intentional relationship establishes that an act of perceptual awareness refers to a perceived object and this relationship is a phenomenal [manifestativa] and not representational one” (52). The direct perceptual experience is a phenomenal manifestation, while one’s lived experience has a phenomenological reflective quality that is missing in the spontaneity of the natural attitude. The correctness of the description of the natural phenomenon in ethics, as the scientist experiences it in a natural spontaneous life, does not amount to the representations of that phenomenon but to the intuition of the axiological properties pertaining to that ethical phenomenon as they are perceived in that intentional act. “The simple perception—seeing a lemon—will evolve, most probably, in the predicative perception ‘seeing a yellow lemon’ because the lemon is yellow. If I were to always sell lemons, therefore continuously exposed to their brightness of that yellow, probably it would not be its yellow so immediately apparent, but another property, for example the opacity of its skin that reveals that the lemon has not been treated with chemicals” (56). Any perception of axiological properties is a thematization of the intentional relationship that connects the individual to a specific region of that lived experience.
In chapter three, Staiti explains how the concreteness of what is perceived can emerge as a content that is congruent to what is perceived and intuited in the lived-experience of the subject. In fact, Staiti remarks, “in phenomenology, intuition represents the apex of an experiential process, that is, the congruence between the sense as it is thought and the sense as it has been actually experienced” (63). How this congruence comes together in the intentional content is explained through the notion of supervenience or mereological foundation. In phenomenology, foundation (Fundierung) describes a mereological relationship of parts and whole (81) in which a complex experience and its object can be analyzed according to their mutual inferences. In the case of a naturalistic liberal ethics, we want to ask ourselves “what kind of objects are the objects qualified in an axiological manner? What’s their structure? What kind of experience is the one in which objects of this kind are intentionally meant? (81).
To describe how the concreteness of the intentional content is shaped in relation to axiological properties, Staiti uses emotional acts (Gemütsakte). These acts can be described as those acts with which we refer to objects whose axiological properties we can clearly perceive—Maria loves Giulio, for example. Giulio is the positive object of Maria’s emotional act. As with any other intentional act, emotional acts are also constituted of a form (Maria loves Giulio, i.e. subject + verb + object) and a matter (what is in the act of Maria loving Giulio). Any matter is generally qualified by a position-taking with which we can tell whether the subject refers to reality (Maria loves Giulio, her partner) or fantasy (Maria loves Giulio, her imaginary friend). The position taken in emotional acts – such as “I love,” “I respect,” “I value” – need to be completed by the emotion that qualifies that position-taking and the objectivating acts that make sense of their content-matter (87). Maria loves Giulio because she knows Giulio (epistemological, doxic, logic position) or at least she can bring his matter to the predicative form—Giulio. The position-taking proper to emotional acts needs a logical layer for the emotional content matter to be brought to the fore. If this layer is missing, what remains is a motivational necessity that moves Maria’s emotion of loving to connect with the object of her love but without being able to express it in words or being aware of it. Maria is attracted to this person. Axiological properties in general, like those that characterize emotional acts, need objectivating predicative acts to bring that motivating/-ed matter to the fore. The intentional essence of the emotional content needs to be meant in order to be epistemologically understood, yet their axiological quality can already be perceived in intuition (the essence of the beloved person as a positive value, for example). Axiological properties do not necessarily refer to the ‘real’ object (91); Giulio can be just Maria’s fantasy, or he might no longer be living, or he could be the character of her favorite play. Axiological properties relate to the content-object in the same way as logical properties do. Yet, while logical properties are necessary for the content to preserve its objectual unity (92), axiological properties do not seem to be essential to this unity; they come as a co-existent addition to that unity (Giulio, the person Maria has in mind, versus Giulio, the person Maria loves). In fact, even if I do not know whom I love, that person will continue to be, although my feelings in relation to that person and the values that I attribute to her will be perceived as disconnected moments that hinder the possibility of fully grasping the content of my intention. Parenthetically, I think that this magnitude of disruption is exactly what occurs in cases of borderline and bi-polar personalities where the inability to mean the axiological properties related to the intentional content of an emotional act has the power to disrupt the unity of the emotional content as much as logical properties do.
To come back to Staiti’s argument, the asymmetry between axiological and logical acts does not involve that axiological acts are not intentional. The necessity connecting the essential integrity of an object (constituted by the logical properties that make that object what it is) to its axiological properties is a motivational necessity. According to this motivational necessity, the object of my experience comes to acquire a value after I have grasped its nature (101); this understanding motivates me to feel and act in a certain way toward it. Axiological and logical properties refer to each other in a complementary way. This complementarity structures the way in which I see the object of my experience and determines the meanings and values that I am going to assign to that object. “The more easily I will understand the supervenient axiological properties of my object, the more familiar I am with the logical properties of the same object” (101). If I am not wrong in my understanding of Staiti’s argument, I think that his argument would flawlessly work in the example of the lemon vendor he mentioned above. The lemon seller will know more the value of what she is selling the more she knows about the product. Yet, once again, I think that this argument would be less effective when applied to emotions. Logical properties do not seem to be more essential than axiological ones in emotional acts. In fact, it might happen that the more I know someone the less I feel I can value her because her personality is puzzling to me or the less I feel that I know her because she keeps showing side of herself that are contradictory.
Yet, here Staiti raises an important point: there is a parallelism between axiology and logic, which he explains as a parallelism between the good and truth, that makes liberal naturalism in ethics possible. Using Husserl’s reference to this same parallelism, which in Husserliana XVIII and XXXVII focused, though, on ethics, axiology, and logic–respectively the good, value, and true—Staiti builds an interesting strategy for describing the concreteness of the good in ethics as a natural phenomenon. He writes that “the good is the axiological equivalent to the notion of existence in the logical-theoretical sphere” (115). Staiti proposes the parallelism between axiology and ethics as a stratagem for solving the problem of realism in ethics. While I believe that this stratagem is quite effective, I also think that a passage is missing here: the object of axiology, in fact, is a value and not the positive value—the good as Staiti seems to affirm. I think that the parallelism he proposes is not between axiology and logic but between ethics and logic which modifies, of course, the terms and results of Staiti’s argument. Moreover, he indicates that the logical equivalent of the good is the notion of existence, and not the expected notion of truth. Although unexpected, I agree with Staiti’s explanation of Husserl’s argument. The truth is in continuity with the notion of existence, that is a property of Sätze (115) propositions. What exists is what is posited (gesetzt), that is, the objectual correlate of what has been posited in a categorical act (114).
In the last chapter, Staiti applies this parallelism as a convincing stratagem for tackling G. E. Moore’s Open Question Argument (1903). Moore’s Open Question Argument relates to the impossibility of defining good (1903, 50). If ethics cannot find a convincing definition of good, no analytic proposition around the good holds, accordingly all the propositions used to describe the good must be all synthetic ones. “Interrogating whether something is good, equates to ask oneself if pleasure is pleasant” (1903, 64). “Moore shows that the notion of good is irreplaceable when it appears together with complex proposition, otherwise their meaning would change” (122).
Yet, if we look at this problem from a phenomenological perspective and ask ourselves “what does the question ‘x is good’ truly ask?” we will see how what we want to know is the concretum of goodness as it belongs to that specific intentional act correlated to that specific ontological region. The question addresses the kind of properties and objects with which the notion of good is in a mereological foundation. Since the good correlates with its logical properties in an essential way and since the logical properties are what is posed, then the good is the mereological foundation of those parallel properties. We know how to answer the Open Question in relation to the good without leaving x as an incognitum. The good is that Satz (proposition) which receives a cognitive fulfillment qualified by axiological properties related to a specific ontological region existing in one’s experience of a given space and moment in time. Differently from Geach’s argument toward Moore (1956, 33), Staiti is not saying that the good is an attribute of being because there is a mereological relationship between logic and axiology, the posited and the good. While an attribute can be removed or changed without altering the essence of the object, in this mereological relationship the good and the posited are interwoven with each other via a motivational necessity; changing any of these terms will change the nature of the phenomenon itself.
I think that Staiti succeeds in his goal of showing the mutual enrichment deriving from applying phenomenology in metaethics. The argument presented in this concluding chapter is a tangible proof of it.
De Caro, M. 2016. “Natura e Naturalismi.” Hermeneutica, 16: 9-24.
Geach, P. 1956. “Good and Evil.” Analysis, 17: 33–42.
Husserl, E. 1988. Vorlesungen ueber Ethik und Wertlehre. Dordrecht: Kluwer. (Hua, XXVIII).
Husserl, E. 2004. Einleitung in die Ethik. Dordrecht: Kluwer. (Hua, XXXVII).
Husserl, E. 1965. “Philosophy as Rigorous Science,” trans. in Q. Lauer (Ed.), Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy. New York: Harper.
Moore, G. E. 1903. Principia Ethica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
On Unbearable Reality and Beautiful Appearances
Ferdinand Hodler’s painting ‘Die Wahrheit’ features a naked woman dispelling six cloaked male figures as if they were dark thoughts. She finds herself standing on an isle of grass while the men – lies? – turn from her and look for shelter in barren lands. In Jean-Léon Gérôme’s depiction of the truth, titled ‘The Truth Coming from the Well with Her Whip to Chastise Mankind’, one sees exactly what the title promises. At least, presuming the beholder knows that truth always comes as a naked, angry woman ready to hysterically chase you down. I would hardly be surprised if the painter kept the words “How could you!” in mind, or, more accurately, “Comment peux-tu!”, when drawing the contours of her screaming mouth. Perhaps he even pictured the face of his wife at the moment he told her the truth about his many models and the adulterous state of affairs.
In other paintings, by Merson, for example, or Lefebvre or Baudry, lady truth brandishes a mirror instead of a whip. In the version of Édouard Debat-Ponsan, two men, one of whom is blindfolded, try to restrain her and her charged mirror, to no avail. Her clothes tear from the male grip while her flaming red hair blows bravely and unhinderedly, her gaze aimed at some point outside the frame: her holy mission? Ultimate victory in the Age of Reason?
Venus, Eve, Leda, the Sirens, Diana, Phryne, nymphs: figurative painting has always gratefully seized upon the offer to depict naked women. Nonetheless, it is not self-evident that Hodler’s ‘The Truth’ belongs to this list of subjects. Why is truth female? Why can she only show herself unveiled? Why is she angry? Why is she victorious? Why is she armed? Why is she white? And why does she have no pubic hair?
At least some of these questions spurred Blumenberg’s collection of small excerpts exploring the metaphor of ‘the naked truth’ in Western thought, now published from his archives as Die Nackte Wahrheit by Rüdiger Zill. This book makes quite clear that the depiction of truth as naked is more than a mere representation. There is a longstanding tradition in which truth is deeply intertwined with a pure female nature understood as clarity, innocence, attraction and unapproachability. Such equation of truth with female nudity creates a variety of unuttered associations. Truth, for example, is accessible only to few – something that will play into the democratizing project of Enlightenment. It installs a connection between eros and the pursuit of truth, a desire, a libido sciendi. Prohibition is involved and it gives rise to the problem of whether truth is still truth when she presents herself dressed up. Truth becomes contaminated by male deception. The quest for truth becomes “an expedition to some exotic place”, as Kołakowski terms it in his text on nakedness and truth (Kołakowski 2004, 235). Truth becomes a capture, an ambiguous purpose of curiosity, an ideal of knowledge which is godlike, forever beyond reach yet nonetheless worth chasing, “a passion deserving of death” as Blumenberg calls it (NW 105). Just like in the story of Artemis and Actaeon (NW 104-6), the male gaze automatically becomes indiscrete and inappropriate, and curiosity becomes a kind of unacceptable voyeurism. Just like Actaeon, anyone who looks at the divine must die, an implication of a lethal danger of pursuing truth. It is worth considering that such a passion is rewritten in the expression “vedi Napoli e poi muori”, especially when bearing in mind how often a beautiful city – the word city, like truth, has a female genus in most European languages – is considered in similar female terms: the Jewel of Europe, La sposa del mare, the Pearl of the Orient, la Superba or Elbflorenz. In the case of Paris, it is expressed in terms of this other metaphor for truth: la ville lumière.
That in the European languages “truth appears on the stage as a female act”, Blumenberg writes, gives “truth an erotic-aesthetic trait […] which is not taken for granted by the misogynist” (NW 126). Whether this implies that skeptics must also be misogynists remains unclear. And whether this applies to the skeptic Blumenberg himself is a question that perhaps only a modern Diogenes might dare to ask Blumenberg’s daughter, Bettina.
Be that as it may, in view of the topic it is rather striking that this book devotes only a single page to a female writer, Madame du Châtelet. This one page, however, does not discuss her writing or thought; instead, it addresses an anecdote that tells how Mme du Châtelet shamelessly undressed in front of her servant Longchamp. Blumenberg links this behavior to the project of Enlightenment itself, in which “truth shows herself unembarrassedly in front of those who ought to serve her” (NW 103). In short, rather than her writings and ideas, it is only Madame du Châtelet’s indifference to her own nakedness that becomes a significant expression of the “new methodological ideal of objectivity” (NW 103).
Although Blumenberg does not render it explicitly, the short chapter on Actaeon following this page suggests that the divine nakedness of truth becomes human in the nakedness of Émilie du Châtelet. The hunter Actaeon, servant of the goddess Artemis, watches his mistress undress and consequently he must be punished for seeing her in her nudity. Someone who looks at Medusa, however, instantly dies. In other words, Acteon already signals an alteration in the mythic gaze upon a deity, which in Artemis’ bathing scene changes from tremendum into fascinosum. He doesn’t die immediately, he is punished for his violation. In the anecdote of Madame du Châtelet, then, a succeeding shift occurs. In contrast to Actaeon, the servant Longchamp is not punished, he is not even noticed. Longchamp becomes a subject “of conscious exposure” and is regarded as not being there: “in the witness of nudity an awareness is raised […] of remaining unnoticed in his presence” (NW 103).
This reversal in the relation of nakedness, fascinosum, between mistress and servant, punisher and the one punished, is still far from Nietzsche’s later take, “to think of the naked truth as a frightening and unbearable dimension” (NW 126). Whether a comparison of Nietzsche’s views on the ugly truth and his lashing attitude towards women – note the double inversion of Gérôme’s depiction concerning the appearance of lady truth and the one who is cracking the whip – could add something to the debate about his possible misogyny is merely a suggestion discerned between the lines.
Like this example, and completely in line with his longstanding interest in the non-conceptual (Unbegrifflichkeit), i.e. metaphoric, narrative, anecdotal and mythic substratum of conceptual thought, Blumenberg delves into the layers of implicit imagery and associations so as to note significant changes in meaning over time. Moreover, he lays bare – an expression which is itself already part of the semantics of the naked truth – inconsistencies in the rational discourse that is built on this metaphoric level and shows how it can be deconstructed and eventually turned against itself. He does so by discussing writers and philosophers such as Adorno, Kafka, Pascal, Fontenelle, Rousseau, Vesalius, Fontane, Schopenhauer, Kant, Kierkegaard and Lichtenberg. The seemingly incoherent order of these names mirrors both Blumenberg’s own avoidance of chronology and his preference of association. Although he refuses an all too systematic approach of the issue, the intrinsic connection of the different chapters is always clear: “How does the metaphor portray the position of the thinker, in which he maneuvered himself because of more or less compelling reasons and under more or less unavoidable conditions” (NW 127)?
Applied to truth, this question brings him to many considerations about the implications of viewing truth as naked: “If truth only is right when naked, then every cover is a disguise and eo ipso wrong” (NW 71). However, when we embrace the conviction that truth is true only when it is naked, we can never undo the threat that “even its nakedness is still costume” (NW 92). Nakedness then turns into “the illusion […] which is created by the gesture of tearing down dresses”, which in turn evokes “the scheme of the onion skin” (NW 97). “When once opened, nothing ever is something final” (NW 102). And at the same time, there is the thought that “truth might be as unbearable to humans as nakedness” (Blumenberg 1960, 51). In this case, “the cover of truth seems to grant us our ability to live”, a thought which appears in “Rousseau’s pragmatic exploitation of the metaphor of truth in the water well […]: leave her there. The depth of the well protects us from the problem of its nakedness” (Blumenberg 1960, 57).
In this regard, it is remarkable how rarely Blumenberg refers to the Christian tradition. In “The Epistemology of Striptease”, Leszek Kołakowski, for example, traces “the entire foundations of the theory of nakedness which has been so important in our culture” back to the Judaeo-Christian tradition (Kołakowski 2004, 225). The Book of Genesis indeed tells of an intrinsic connection between the fruit of the tree of knowledge and the shame which immediately manifested itself when the fruit was eaten. A shame “not of their crime, but of their nakedness” (Ibid., 223). Thus, “a double relation has been established: between truth and nakedness on the one hand, and between truth and shame on the other” (Ibid., 225).
Another absence which resounds throughout the book is that of the name Heidegger, which appears not even once. Nonetheless, Die Nackte Wahrheit can be read as an implicit yet fundamental critique of Heidegger’s conception of truth as alètheia. By dissecting the metaphor of truth, Blumenberg’s text offers a perspective which shows that Heidegger still fits perfectly within the dominant Western tradition, a tradition Heidegger himself sought to destruct by thinking beyond the ontological difference and the forgetting of being. Blumenberg, however, implicitly shows that Heidegger and his conception of truth as disclosure or ‘unconcealedness’, still wades through the Western waters that Heidegger himself thought he had traced to their source.
Despite this absence of Christianity and Heidegger, Blumenberg convincingly illustrates how metaphor functions “as a more or less easily fixable crack in the consistency of thought, a stimulant, and as such it refreshes reason; it also is, however, a sedative in other cases, where it covers up the failure of the concept or remedies its lack by a merely different procedure” (NW 127).
At this point, Die Nackte Wahrheit surpasses being just a study of the naked truth and begins to concern the project of metaphorology itself. As Rüdiger Zill notes, “already since the late 1960s, Blumenberg had been thinking about a detailed revision of his metaphorology” (NW 186). Concerning his distanced relation to his initial approach, Blumenberg wrote to his English translator: “The text is not only outdated – after a quarter of a century! – it is also poor” (NW 189).
In Blumenberg’s project of ‘metaphorology’, metaphor is always more than a disguise of truth or a thought expressed in non-conceptual language. “It is essentially aesthetic”, which means “that it is not something like the mere cover of the naked thought, of which one had to constantly think as the true purpose of its interpretation and unlocking that has to be reached in the end. Who constantly thinks beyond its limits, loses what he has without receiving what he cannot possess” (NW 176). In other words, there is no naked truth to be found beyond the metaphor. And more specifically, the power of metaphor is precisely this lack of precision sought by advocates of a clear and distinct conceptual language. Thus, Blumenberg argues, in contrast to the views of many thinkers he discusses, that “history” is not the “course of the self-exposure of the concept” (NW 155). Blumenberg’s associative selection of authors and topics stresses that metaphor, with its ambiguity and openness to many interpretations, is always “far more intelligent than its composer” (NW 176).
The first fifty pages of Die Nackte Wahrheit concern Nietzsche and Freud. The only other pieces that come close to even ten pages are those on Pascal, Kant and the Enlightenment. Thus, of all the names figuring in Blumenberg’s posthumous book, Nietzsche and Freud can be called his main interlocutors.
Nietzsche immediately shows a fundamental reversal of truth as a beautiful naked creature. When he writes that “Truth is ugly. We have art so that we are not ruined by truth” (NW, 14), it is clear that something in the metaphor of truth changes. We are no longer in pursuit of the naked truth – she lies within reach in her unbearable ugliness – and so our interest shifts to the beautiful veils that are produced to conceal her.
“There would be no science, if science would only care about this one naked goddess and about nothing else” (NW, 20). With this thought, both Freud’s concept of sublimation and Blumenberg’s apotropaic function of myth are prefigured: art and culture function as a “human safety device” (NW 15), a protective shield which safeguards us from something insufferable. Or as Nietzsche formulates it: “Every type of culture starts with an amount of things that are veiled” (NW 15).
Blumenberg’s text from 1971 on the relevance of rhetoric and anthropology directly evidences the strong influence of this Nietzschean thought: “Ah, it is impossible to have an effect with the language of truth: rhetoric is required” (NW 31). Nietzsche defends rhetoric as a right to deceive vis-à-vis an unbearable truth. For the sceptic Blumenberg, however, truth cannot be unbearable, because the very possibility of truth itself is bracketed and remains an open question. In his writing on Hannah Arendt and Freud it is “the absolutism of truth” which becomes unbearable, this intimate European conviction “that the truth will triumph” (Blumenberg 2018, 57). Yet, as Blumenberg proclaims, “[n]othing is less certain than that the truth wishes to be loved, can be loved, should be loved” (Blumenberg 2018, 3).
This critique of Freud, already present in Rigorism of Truth, is continued in Die Nackte Wahrheit. The notion that psychoanalysis lives from the metaphor of revealing and concealing and connects the intellectual with the sexual can only barely be called a renewing insight. Blumenberg, however, uses this as a step to a subtler point. He reproves Freud’s rigorism because his therapy prioritizes the affirmation of his theory rather than the well-being of his patients. In other words, via Freud, Blumenberg criticizes the longstanding tradition “in which truth is justified at every cost” (NW 38), the same rigorous conviction that resonates in Thoreau’s famous phrase that “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”
Read from within the metaphor of ‘the naked truth’, Freud’s quest for truth – a quest strongly intertwined with the centrality of sexuality and the prudery of the society in which he lived – shows that it is not at all clear when something is yet more ‘resistance’, a symptom, a still-clothed kind of nudity, and when exactly someone has encountered the bare piece of the reality they are searching for. “The general premise for resistance as a criterion might be (this): what people gladly accept cannot be the truth” (Blumenberg 2018, 59). In discussing this central concept of resistance as an element of Freud’s “para-theory” (loc. cit.) he comes rather close to Popper’s rejection of Freud’s methodology. In his archive there are two manuscripts with the respective abbreviation TRD and TRD II, in which Blumenberg shows how ‘resistance’ is a kind of parachute that recuperates elements falling from or even objecting to Freud’s main theory (Zill 2014, 141-43). This way, even the critics of his theory can still be fitted within it. Blumenberg points out how Freud’s quest for countering resistance and his rigorist search for truth, his urge to reveal secrecy after secrecy, eventually lead to a “hysteria of revelation for which history has an analogy in hysteria of confession” (NW 47).
Die nackte Wahrheit is certainly not Blumenberg’s first engagement with either Nietzsche or Freud. He had already dealt with both authors extensively and quite similarly in his earlier writings: reading them through the lens of their own imagery in order to criticize them from within the logic of these images and metaphors. In Arbeit am Mythos, for instance, both authors receive ample treatment on several occasions and are the focus of important passages. Freud and Thomas Mann, for example, are bound together in a trenchant and meaningful anecdote: Mann reading his lecture on Freud to Freud himself during his visit to Freud’s villa in Grinzing on Sunday, May 14, 1936. Blumenberg calls this a “great scene of the spirit of the age, which hardly had another scene comparable to it”, and notes that one of the “preconditions” of this “incomparable event” precisely “is the relationship to Nietzsche that both partners shared” (Blumenberg 1985, 516).
Other important passages include Blumenberg’s extensive discussion of Nietzsche’s approach of Prometheus against the light of his aesthetic conception of reality and of Nietzsche’s famous proclamation of the death of God. In the last section, ‘The Titan in His Century’, Blumenberg’s analysis of Freud’s use of Prometheus follows his assessment of Nietzsche’s use of Prometheus, such that Freud and Nietzsche, joined by Kafka, share the final page of Work on Myth. In Die nackte Wahrheit Kafka likewise follows upon Nietzsche and Freud, although it would surely be mere speculation to look for further significance here. Nonetheless, despite his longstanding and rather critical occupation with Nietzsche and Freud, Blumenberg clearly incorporated and continued many aspects of their thought.
Blumenberg’s aesthetic conception of reality, his attention for rhetoric, myth and metaphor and his truth-sceptic attitude can all be directly linked to Nietzsche. Just as rhetoric gains importance when the conviction of “the one clear and whole truth” (Blumenberg 2001b, 350) is given up, so too does myth return to view when this ideal of truth is abandoned. And here Blumenberg, already in his earlier work, shows himself to be an heir of Nietzsche. As Blumenberg writes in his first text on myth, “Nietzsche’s affinity to myth begins with the rule of truth becoming problematic to him. The poets lie – this saying comes back into favor” (Blumenberg 2001b, 352). Blumenberg’s name can be perfectly interchanged with Nietzsche’s here. The shift towards the aesthetic, and the revaluation of the ancient Platonic reproach of the poets implied in this reference, is a central concern underlying all of Blumenberg’s aesthetic texts from the 1960s, as assembled by Anselm Haverkamp in his Ästhetische und metaphorologische Schriften. Moreover, Blumenberg‘s two important texts on rhetoric and myth from 1971 both start from the truth-sceptic premise he shares with Nietzsche and which spans his work from the very beginning to this posthumous publication of Die Nackte Wahrheit. And this last publication is probably inconceivable without Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”. Indeed, Blumenberg’s general endeavor is essentially summed up in one of Nietzsche’s most famous sentences: “Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions — they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins”.
Blumenberg’s approach of die vakante Stelle and his descriptions of Umbesetzung, elaborated in his Die Legitimität der Neuzeit, can be read as a direct translation of Nietzsche’s worn-out coins and his dictum of the “Death of God”. Herewith, Blumenberg translates Nietzsche’s nihilism into a general philosophical endeavor of Entselbstverständlichung, a process marking “the great epochal revolutions of historical life” (Blumenberg 2017, 54). This endeavor, according to Blumenberg, eventually is “the basic process of philosophical thinking: for how could the inherent task of philosophical work be characterized more fittingly than as the persistent opposition of matter-of-factness with which our daily life and thought is interspersed, yes, substantiated into their very cores – much more than we could ever suspect?” (Blumenberg 2017, 54).
Furthermore, Blumenberg’s later, more literary and anecdotal style evokes Nietzsche’s claim that it is possible to present the image of a person with only three anecdotes, just as it should be possible to reduce philosophical systems to three anecdotes. When, for example, it comes to Blumenberg’s highly ironical and critical pieces on Heidegger in Die Verführbarkeit des Philosophen, he not only takes up Nietzsche’s challenge but even seems to have added something to it: the challenge becomes not only to render an image of the person and a summary of his philosophical thought, but also to get even with him in the same move.
Rüdiger Zill has wittily but quite perceptively characterized the sort of relation Blumenberg has with Freud: “Just like family members you sometimes hate and sometimes love, who from time to time grate on your nerves but who also occasionally inspire, yet always, however, still belong in the family, authors as well can be ranked among the intellectual family formation” (Zill 2014, 148). Zill’s assessment on this matter is clear: Freud undoubtedly belongs to Blumenberg’s intellectual family. However, the more he reads Freud, the more critical Blumenberg becomes, without Freud ever losing his force of fascination (Zill 2014, 128). Ironically, when Blumenberg received the Sigmund Freud Prize for Academic Prose in 1980, he did not refer to Freud in his acceptance speech. He mentioned Socrates, Diogenes, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche as exemplar thinkers who should be admired because they did not allow their thinking to be hindered by any safeguarding method.
There is, however, quite some common ground between Freud and Blumenberg which might be easily overwritten by Blumenberg’s recent critical works on Freud from the archives. When Blumenberg ascribes rationality to aspects of thought, such as metaphor and rhetoric, that have been banished to irrationality by the tradition of philosophy there is a general similarity to Freud’s Traumdeutung and his overall endeavor of psychoanalysis. Indeed, there are at least two specific and critically important points of contact between them: Freud’s idea of sublimation and detours.
In his text on rhetoric, Blumenberg refers to Freud’s analysis of the funeral repast: “Freud saw in the commemorative funeral feast the sons’ agreement to put an end to the killing of the tribal father” (Blumenberg 1987a, 440). It is the Freudian principle of sublimation that is evoked here and Blumenberg is explicit about the importance of this matter: “If history teaches anything at all, it is this, that without this capacity to use substitutes for actions not much would be left of mankind” (loc. cit.). Herewith an important crux of Blumenberg’s thought is laid bare: “The human relation to reality is indirect, circumstantial, delayed, selective, and above all ‘metaphorical’” (Ibid., 439). This means that metaphor is not a deficit of rational thought, as it has been understood by Descartes or British empiricism (NW 110-1); nor is it even an aid of theory or merely a way of thinking in its own right; rather, it is a way of coping with reality. This “metaphoric detour by which we look away from the object in question, at another one” (Blumenberg 1987a, 439) immediately ties to the second important overlap between Freud’s and Blumenberg’s work: if Blumenberg acknowledges sublimation as the human capacity to have culture, and if sublimation – the possibility of taking a metaphoric detour – lies at the heart of this capacity, then Blumenberg’s concept of culture should be one of detours.
Blumenberg, in his 1971 text on myth, refers to Freud’s notion of Umwege. In his “Jenseits des Lustprinzips”, Freud classed the drives of self-preservation under the general concept of “detours to death”. As Freud states, “If we can accept it as an experience without exception, that all the living dies because of internal reasons, that it returns to the inorganic, then we can only say: the purpose of all life is death” (Freud 1940, 44). Everything working against this destruction and everything delaying “the achievement of the purpose of death” (Ibid., 45) becomes a “detour to death”. In this Freudian scheme, life itself is “a still more difficult and risky detour” (Blumenberg 1985, 90) and Blumenberg recognizes in these “detours to death”, this “final return home to the original state” (Ibid., 91), the same mythic circle underlying the Oedipus myth, the Odyssey and even Nietzsche’s thought of “the eternal return of the same” (loc. cit.). On the one hand, Blumenberg critically reveals the total myth (Totalmythos) of the circle underlying Freud’s thought; on the other hand, Blumenberg incorporates this notion of detour in his work as a life-spending mechanism opposing omnipotence. As he writes, for example, in his 1971 text on myth, “Essentially, omnipotence refuses somebody to tell a story about its bearer. Topographically represented, stories are always detours” (Blumenberg 2001b, 372).
Die Sorge geht über den Fluss, published in 1987, includes a short chapter titled Umwege, in which Blumenberg again stresses the importance of the possibility of taking detours: “It is only if we are able to take detours that we are able to exist. […I]t is the many detours that give culture its function of humanizing life. [… The] shortest route is barbarism” (Blumenberg 1987b, 137-8). In these descriptions of culture as Umwege, some of its psychoanalytical origin still sounds through: it is by means of culture, by the possibility of taking detours, that we can avoid our own self-destruction. As Blumenberg puts it, “Not to choose the shortest path is already the basic pattern of sublimation” (Blumenberg 1985, 93). Or as Freud states in the penultimate sentence of his letter to Einstein: “whatever makes for cultural development is working also against war” (Freud 1950, 27).
This is the very basis of Blumenberg’s thought. Whether it is his approach to rhetoric and its power of delay, whether it is the apotropaic function of myth and the dynamic of storytelling vis-à-vis the absolutism of reality – man’s metaphoric way of dealing with the world – whether it is Blumenberg’s own elaborate and meandering writing style or his anecdotal and narrative philosophy as an effort to ironically undermine the authority of certain thinkers, whether it is the construction of his archive and the delayed publication of his own works or this metaphoric study of the naked truth aimed against the “Absolutism of Truth” (Blumenberg 2001b, 350), all of it falls under this “basic pattern of sublimation”, this decision “not to choose the shortest path”. In this specific sense and despite his highly critical piece on Freud in Die nackte Wahrheit, Blumenberg’s thinking remains Freudian at its very core.
As Blumenberg had noted in his Paradigmen zu einer Metaphorologie, “The metaphor of ‘the naked truth’ belongs to the pride of enlightened reason and its claim to power” (Blumenberg 1960, 54). Hence, it is clear that Die Nackte Wahrheit should be understood as a critique of this enlightened self-consciousness. And yet Blumenberg did not abandon the project of rationality entirely, despite paying profound attention to non-standard philosophical topics such as metaphor and myth. “Myth itself is a piece of high-carat ‘work of logos’”, he points out in Work on Myth (Blumenberg 1985, 12) and Blumenberg himself employs this power of reason to trace the metaphor of the naked truth in thinkers such as Kant, Rousseau and Fontenelle. Herewith, a last characteristic of Blumenberg returns in Die Nackte Wahrheit: the correspondence of form and content. In Work on Myth, for example, Blumenberg offers a theory of how myth is a process of variation and, as he develops the theory, he himself engages in the same process of selection and rewriting. In his fragmentary book Die Verführbarkeit des Philosophen, in which Blumenberg exposes thinkers such as Heidegger, Freud and Wittgenstein and shows how they seduce their audience with rhetorical tools and attractive imagery; he himself tries to persuade his readers by rhetorically and wittingly affirming his own superiority of thought. The same applies for Die Nackte Wahrheit, where Blumenberg discusses the traces, consequences and changes of the metaphor of the naked truth, as he himself undresses other thinkers. As he emphasizes, the use of metaphor often indicates the “embarrassment of its theoretical situation” (NW 127). In other words, he seeks for the weak spots of thinkers such as Freud and Pascal in order to unmask them. If metaphor is indeed at work in the “front court of concept formation” (Blumenberg, 2001a), then Blumenberg clearly seeks to expose his interlocutors in their changing rooms. At the same time, he precisely questions these implications of thinking about truth in such terms of covering and uncovering. Certainly, Blumenberg does not claim that his disclosures touch upon “the naked truth” or a final word about these writers, yet nonetheless he somehow contributes to this enlightened topos of “tearing down the mask” (NW 134). He still partakes in what Kołakowski calls this “sadistic game” of “intellectual curiosity”, even as he precisely lays bare its rules and tools and does away with the purpose the game has pursued for ages. However, one asks after reading Blumenberg’s book, what use does this vocabulary preserve when the “reality” revealed under this mask is yet another mask, no more or no less reality than the one just dispelled. To make a final appeal to Kołakowski: Blumenberg involves us in a philosophical striptease, in which he exposes, “from a superior (clothed) position”, “another’s shame (nakedness)” (Kołakowski 2004, 235). Only it has become uncertain what happens with a philosophic tradition of revealing when the possibility of truth disappears, nakedness itself becomes yet more costume and the feeling of shame is revaluated. No purpose, no revelations, only detours and descriptions (Umschreibungen). Nonetheless, Blumenberg certainly exemplifies like no other that whenever philosophy thinks there will be a moment that Lady Truth will rise from her well and create clarity, philosophy, just like science, is once more deceived “by a pipe dream […] which its scholars pursue without ever achieving it” (NW 77).
Hans Blumenberg, Die Nackte Wahrheit, Hrsg. von Rüdiger Zill (Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2019).
–, Rigorism of Truth. “Moses the Egyptian” and Other Writings on Freud and Arendt, ed. by Ahlrich Meyer and transl. by Joe Paul Kroll (New York: Cornell University Press, 2018).
–, Schriften zur Literatur: 1945-1958, Hrsg. von Alexander Schmitz und Bernd Stiegler (Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2017).
–, “Licht als Metapher der Wahrheit. Im Vorfeld der philosophischen Begriffsbildung” in Ästhetische und metaphorologische Schriften, Hrsg. von Anselm Haverkamp (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2001a), 139–171.
–, “Wirklichkeitsbegriff und Wirkungspotential des Mythos“ in Ästhetische und metaphorologische Schriften, Hrsg. von Anselm Haverkamp (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2001b), 327–405.
–, “An Anthropological Approach on the Contemporary Significance of Rhetoric”, in After Philosophy: End or Transformation?, ed. by Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman and Thomas McCarthy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987a), 429–458.
–, Die Sorge geht über den Fluss (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1987b).
–, Work on Myth, transl. by Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1985).
–, “Paradigmen zu einer Metaphorologie,” Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte 6 (1960): 7–142.
Sigmund Freud, “Warum Krieg?”, in: Sigmund Freud, Gesammelte Werke. Band XVI, Hrsg. von Anna Freud e.a. (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 1950), 11–27.
–, “Jenseits des Lustprinzips” in Gesammelte Werke. Band XIII, Hrsg. von Anna Freud e.a. (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 1940), 3–69.
Leszek Kołakowski, “The Epistemology of Striptease,” in The Two Eyes of Spinoza & Other Essays on Philosophers (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2004), 222–238.
Rüdiger Zill, “Zwischen Affinität und Kritik. Hans Blumenberg liest Sigmund Freud” in Blumenberg Beobachtet, Hrsg. von Cornelius Borck (München: Karl Alber Freiburg, 2014), 126-148.