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

Emmanuel Housset: Le don des mains: Phénoménologie de l’incorporation

Le don des mains: Phénoménologie de l’incorporation Book Cover Le don des mains: Phénoménologie de l’incorporation
Donner raison
Emmanuel Housset
Lessius
2019
Paperback 25,00 €
288

Reviewed by: Steven DeLay (Christ Church, Oxford)

Among the many poignant lines one encounters in Emmanuel Housset’s Le don des mains: Phénoménologie de l’incorporation, perhaps none gives more to think than does a passage in chapter two’s “Travailler et Œuvrer,” which, exhibiting this stunning work’s deeply spiritual undercurrent permeating every page, reminds us of the sacred responsibility our having received the gift of hands in turn entrusts us: “[L]a première préocuppation de la main humaine doit être la justice, et c’est elle qui fait de l’homme un collaborateur de Dieu. L’homme cultive le monde et Dieu cultive l’homme” (67). If, as Housset says elsewhere in the text, “le monde n’a pas d’autres mains que les notres” (153), this is because of our manual vocation to shelter and steward what encounters us as God intends. For as he states further on in one of the work’s middle chapters “Parler et Écouter,” “Le Créateur n’a donc pas donné des mains à l’homme pour remplir une simple function naturelle, mais afin d’assurer une tache spirituelle, qui est de répondre du monde comme totalité” (141). Thus, Housset will say of our hands what Jean-Louis Chrétien in The Ark of Speech has said of our voice. Making the parallel claim that human hands (no less than the human voice) are co-participants with God in creation, or better, laborers alongside God in the current task of restoring it from the Fall, Housset says that with them we can work to accomplish the establishment of the kingdom of God. Throughout its meditations on the hand’s innumerable dimensions, Housset’s work hence puts to us the same question gently but incessantly, one no human life ever succeeds avoiding from asking itself forever: Have you been working what is good, or not?

The hand speaks, says Merleau-Ponty. The hand listens, says Chrétien. So, too, it thinks, says Heidegger. These themes are for phenomenology far from novel, but Housset gives them new life, showing why they have justifiably commanded the philosophical attention they have for so long. As he notes at his study’s outset, and as he will underscore time and again in the chapters that follow, if the hand speaks and listens, its is a transcendence through which man encounters the world and its things, as well as others too. It is, to invoke the term he uses at least once, the “hinge” (charnière) between the world and ourselves. Neither a thing, an instrument, a mere organ, nor even the organ of organs par excellence, the hand is rather the power by which we touch and our touched, that with which we give and receive, build and make, release and grip, grope and explore. As Housset says, “La main n’est pas une simple partie du corps de l’homme et, à elle seule, elle peut manifester toute l’existence de l’homme dans son caractère charnel et temporel” (7). The hand both opens and discovers the world. And not only does it open the world through a transcendence that takes us beyond ourselves whereby we meet things and others, the hand possesses a past and so a future also, a time accordingly making the present one whose presence to the world is ours indelibly. As Housset with Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger never ceases to emphasize, the manual nature of existence means each of us expresses our individual unsubstitutableness through it, a distinctive style evident in the attunement toward being that very style exhibits, one incorporated in every gesture of the general posture by which we inhahbit the world and thereby decide to meet it. As Housset says of the hand,

“Elle n’est donc pas un outil d’outil, car elle ne se rencontre pas dans le monde, elle n’apparait pas dans le monde comme un organe dont je pourrais me servir. Son mode de donnée est tout autre: elle est ce qui ouvre au monde, le lieu d’une rencontre avec les choses” (159).

What, then, shall we say of this capacity of the hand to meet the world?

Placing the human hand within a frame of reference related to the question concerning the nature of man as a whole, Housset accordingly thinks starting from a number of themes explored by Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Henri Maldiney, Jean-Louis Chrétien, and Jean-Luc Marion. In so doing, however, Housset does not consign himself to exegesis. There is very little textual interpretation simply for interpretation’s sake in this work. His attention, rather, turns to what is visible in the world, not what remains just ink on a page. Enacting one of the work’s central theses (namely, that all writing and every writer have their styles), he transforms familiar philosophical material creatively, revealing subtleties we had not yet noticed, deepening insights we thought we already understood, and surprising us by bringing to words what we believed must remain unsaid, things we ourselves had felt before but struggled to express. In encountering what Housset shows, we find often that he gives clear voice to what we felt had persisently been eluding ours. And when these delightful moments of clarity dawn courtesy of his words, what a relief it is!

It is not by chance the work achieves everything it does that we are about to recount. The insights making it such a joy to read are won meticulously, with precision and remarkable attentiveness and foresight. Its unusual thoughtfulness is evident immediately from the start, in how for instance Housset self-consciously conceives of the treatise to begin with. In the introduction, he notes an astonishing fact. What, he asks, explains why there is no true philosophical treatise on the hand alone? As he says, “si la main est vraiment la synecdoque de l’homme, comment se fait-il qu’il n’existe pas un véritable traité des mains comme s’en étonne Valéry?” (7). There are many works that have touched on the hand, to be sure. Yet no comprehensive work on the hand as such exists. One might speculate such a treatise has not been undertaken due to a difficulty Housset himself had addressed a few pages previously in the work’s preface. Any study aiming to embark on an analysis of the hand in its totality, he observes there, must first ask itself whether such a treatise is even possible. The issue concerns a matter of access to the phenomenon, and hence a matter of method. How is one to approach the hand’s essence systematically and in a way that remains properly philosophical without reducing to an anthropological, biological, or cultural perspective? The task, then, is posing the question of the human hand without collapsing that question completely into one asking what man is. While the two questions do overlap, as Housset himself acknowledges, there still is something of a distinction between them worth preserving however intertwined they are. Housset explains,

“Néanmoins, dans mon projet d’ensemble d’une éluciation du caracère manuel de l’existence, je me suis heurté à deux difficultés: d’abord celle de l’immensité du champ à étudier et la nécessité de le circonscrire pour ne pas perdre. Le danger était que la question “Qu’est-ce que la main?” soit simplement reconduite à la question “Qu’est-ce que l’homme?” et que dans une étude indéfinie des representations de la main et de ses usages, ni l’essence de la main, ni l’essence de l’homme ne soient étudiées” (5).

In addition to this danger of obscuring the essence of both the hand and man himself by posing the question of the former in a way that eliminates it, by reducing it entirely to a question of the latter, Housset notes a further danger that must be avoided. One could make the mistake of dissolving the question of the hand’s distinctive sense into the more general question of what man is, yet one might also take too piecemeal of an approach to the hand itself. The danger here, in short, is taking an approach that gets bogged down in what amounts to an “analyse régionale” of the hand, one calling for the specialism of the art historian, anthropologist, or theologian. Were this to happen, the hand’s essence is lost amid the various analyses sketched of its figures from their correspondingly various theoretical perspectives. What Housset seeks, instead, is a truly philosophical account of the hand. And yet, this analysis also comes fraught with its own hazards. After all, even if one were able to approach the question of the hand from a strictly philosophical perspective, there is then the danger of traditional philosophical assumptions and prejudices about the nature of man (and hence the hand) intruding. Rather than revealing the phenomenon as it is, might not the philosophical tradition’s treatment of the hand obscure or even distort it? To uncover the essence of the human hand, thus, it will be necessary, Housset suggests, to question (and often abandon) the dominant philosophical horizons through which the question of our existence has been posed. And as for the hand itself, it will be necessary to find a logos that thinks it otherwise than how philosophy sometimes has. For Housset, this means first of all overcoming aspects of philosophy’s Greek and German anthropological inheritance:

“La deuxième difficulté était proprement philosophique: pour ne pas simplement raconteur des histories de mains, pour ne pas s’en tenir à des considérations anthropologiques, aussi importantes soient-elles, et pour parvenir à developer une ontologie de la main ou pour defender l’idée que la verité de la main est au-delà de l’ontologie, il me fallait une véritable these sur le devenir corps du corps, sur l’incorporation, et cela supposait de pouvoir montrer que l’identité de la main, comme identité d’exode, puisque la dignité des mains, leur glorie, est de s’oublier dans l’action, ne pouvait pas relever de la comprehension parméndienne de l’être. Ce travail a donc pris son temps afin de deployer une conception de l’incorporation qui ne soit ni grecque, ni nietzschéene, ni husserlienne, et qui défende l’idée qu’il faut manier pour voir, pour parler et pour répondre.” (5-6).

The aim, then, is to take an approach that liberates the phenomenon from whatever traditional philosophical assumptions are occluding it, while doing so in a way that gets to the heart of the hand as the regional analyses of other theoretical disciplines do not. In a word, Housset proposes a phenomenological treatise of the hand.

“En consequence, une parole philosophique sur la main ne peut être qu’une description phénoménologie de la main à partir de son mode de donnée propre; la main se donne à la conscience, après reduction, comme un ensemble d’actes: manipuler, apprehender, travailler, œuvrer, toucher, se toucher, parler, tâtonner, caresser, tendre, écrire, donner” (8).

As the first chapter “Prendre et Manipuler” makes clear, the resulting analyses exemplify that approach, for they are neither haphazard nor disjointed. There is a logic governing the hand’s acts to which Housset attends, a logic his exposition renders explicit by tracing the eidetic laws interconnecting the acts in question. In turning to the basic acts of taking and manipulating, for instance, Housset is doing so while simultaneously formulating a background question that he works out as the chapters progress. By first examining the acts of taking and manipulating, Housset invites us to wonder whether the paradigm of power they presuppose is truly the best way to understand the hand’s essence. Is this the deepest dimension of the hand? As Housset writes, “Tel est le cœur de la question: la main vraiment main est-elle celle qui prend, qui decide, qui impose, ou bien est-elle celle qui est toujours un dialogue, qui si comprend toujours comme une réponse dans la poignée de main comme dans le soin?” (10). In the same spirit of Heidegger’s own criticisms of representational thinking, here Housset thematizes the hand as something whose way-of-being undercuts the modern cult of power, control, and independence, the technological conception of man as the measure of things, as the one who gives to himself his own destiny by mastering what encounters him through his own desire and strength alone. As Housset says,

“Une telle question ne va pas de soi aujourd’hui et demande à être construite, dans la mesure où l’homme moderne, issue des Lumières, se prend pour la mesure de toute chose et, dans son reve d’un pouvoir fondé sur le savoir, il se définit d’abord par le projet de se prendre en main, d’être son propre projet et d’être ainsi le créateur de lui-même” (Ibid.).

Very early on, as we see, Housset is already carefully crafting the foundation for the work’s later critical reflections on the modern technological era’s mishandling of our humanity. For as he notes, any faithful description of the hand’s openness to the world entails a recognition of the limits to the hand’s powers, and so in turn our finitude. This recognition is one that we today, with the Enlightenment philosophical tradition epitomizing it, dislike to admit: “Cela dit, cette reconnaissance de l’essentielle finitude de l’action humaine est peut-être ce qu’il a aujourd’hui de plus difficile, car elle suppose un renversement complet de la représentation de son être” (11). Even when the hand is considered in light of its capacity to grasp or manipulate things, it must not be forgotten that this capacity presupposes a more originary receptivity to what already first encounters and solicits it. Whereas we tend to conceive of ourselves as subjects able to take and do, Housset’s opening chapter initiates a thoroughgoing deconstruction of the modern myth of the will to power. A self-understanding that sees itself as an autarkic being capable of creating itself by imposing its virility on its surroundings, as he says, overlooks the hand’s true fragility. In a comment reminiscent of Michel Henry’s observation regarding life’s inability to be the origin of its own powers, so Housset emphasizes how nobody has given his hands to himself. Furthermore, nor is anyone immune from the constant threat that its powers will suddenly abandon us: “Ainsi, la main n’est pas un bien don’t l’homme disposerait toujours déjà, mais une possibilité qu’il n’a qu’à la developer sans cesse, dans la conscience de pouvoir la perdre à tout moment, volontairement ou involontairement” (12). According to Housset, this fragility means the manual nature of existence is normative.[1] One can succeed or fail at having hands! As he says, “nous devons apprendre à avoir des mains, comme nous devons apprendre à marcher et à penser, dans la conscience de leur fragilité” (12). By this Housset does not mean that everyone is (or is not) an amputee, is (or is not) a paralytic. Rather, insofar as the modern notion of self-sufficient and invulnerable man is a myth, Housset means to accentuate how in turn it falls to each of us to recognize and embrace that weakness. The point is we may do so to better or worse degrees:

“En effet, encore une fois, il est difficile et necessaire de déconstruire l’idéal modern de la main conquérante, invulnerable, qui sait trancher dans le vif, en montrant quelle image de l’homme est à l’origine d’un tel ideal, et cela de facon à pouvoir retrouver une certaine humilité des mains” (13).

This deconstruction of Camus’s Sisyphean rebel who persists in trying to forge meaning on his strength alone serves to underscore Housset’s original phenomenological purpose. The hand, we see indeed, is neither simply a thing, an instrument, or an organ, but a way of standing open to the world. Highlighting the sense in which the hand is something more, Housset alludes to the notion of style, a theme from Husserl’s and Merleau-Ponty’s own philosophies to which he will often himself recur in the pages that follow:

“La main n’est donc pas une chose ni une partie du corps, mais elle un movement, un verbe, une puissance de manifestation du sujet agissant, et en cela elle est pleinement esprit et pleinment corps, sans qu’il soit possible de dissocier en elle ces deux dimensions de l’existence” (13).

Here already, if only obliquely, Housset has introduced into the account of the hand’s power to take and manipulate the more primary notion of style, a phenomenological notion denoting a fundamental dimension of human existence he in turn will explore at length in later chapters.

The hand, which thinks, and which is not simply the expression of a mind but rather the expression of the whole of one’s existence as man, cannot thus be reduced to a marginal or regional analysis. If we cannot think without hands, and if thinking itself distinguishes us from the animals, reflection on the human hand leads to a consideration of the ancient conception of the difference between man and the animals. Whereas man dwells and builds amid a world, animals simply live in an environment. The hand explains this difference, for in our case the hand possesses a power of touch whose sensitivity far surpasses what is known to the animals. Following Aristotle, Housset notes that of the five senses, touch is the most basic, for as the power of refinement and taste, it most marks the humanity of man:

“Ainsi, comme l’explique Jean-Louis Chrétien dans L’appel et la réponse, le toucher n’est pas d’abord pour Aristote l’un des cinq sens, mais ce qui fait que l’homme n’est pas un simple spectateur et qu’il est par le toucher engage dans le monde, cet enagement étant à la fois ce qui l’expose et ce qui lui permet d’agir dans le monde” (82).

Yet if Housset agrees with the classical distinction between man and animal, he is not completely satisfied with the common picture of it. At this point in the text, his many mentions of working and building will have brought to the reader’s mind Hannah Arendt’s famous analyses of these acts. And in chapter two, “Travailler et Œuvrer,” Housset indeed takes up Arendt directly. Man acts with his hands. He works with them. Such work takes many forms: work of the farmer, the surgeon, the writer, the carpenter, the painter, or the postman. What are we to make of this work? Were one to follow Arendt’s line of reasoning in The Human Condition, accepting its firm distinction between the private and the public, the oikos and the polis, and hence a corresponding further distinction between labor (travailler) and work (œuvrer), one will be inclined to conclude with her that, in our modern society, work as the ancients produced it no longer is. As Arendt and Heidegger (or Jacques Ellul and Neil Postman) have noted, today most of what we fabricate is not a work in the classical sense, but an object, a product made only with an eye to consumption.[2] But if it is correct that the ancient work of art is irreducible to a product, must it be said with Arendt that only artists remain true handworkers? Housset is unconvinced, for he doubts it is so easy to distinguish the labor of the body and the work of the hands absolutely. Here he aims to subvert the Greek logos in the name of a view that instead sees value in all work, at least in principle. He says,

“La main chrétienne se distingue donc de la main grecque par cette idée que le travail n’est pas une simple nécessité, mais participe à l’accomplissement de l’homme et que le corps participe au salut dans l’union de l’homme à la terre” (58).

Overturning the modern myth of man as the measure, it is also necessary to jettison the idea according to which there is a clear dividing line between a domain of manual labor somehow less noble than work. In the name of a more thoroughgoing humility, it must be recognized such a distinction does not hold, for everything (evil excepted) done with the human hand has its dignity. Having encountered this stretch of text, one inevitably will have called to mind the biblical story of toil’s origin. A page over, Housset fulfills the reader’s expectation, mentioning the Genesis account explicitly:

“[S]elon Genèse I, 28 ‘Emplissez la terre et soumettez-la,’ le don des mains n’est plus le don par la nature de l’organe de tous les organs, mais un don de Dieu pour achever la Création […] le travail n’est ni une simple soumission à la nécessité, à laquelle il faudrait idéalement échapper pour être libre, ni ce qui simplement sauverait de l’oisiveté et de tous les vices quis sont liés” (59).

Work (and labor) takes on a spiritual dimension, says Housset, for in putting them to use, our hands become “armes de vertu, de justice et de beauté” (Ibid.). Against the Greek view, it is not that man attends to life’s necessities in the home only then to act freely in public. To the contrary, paradoxically, he is always already free in virtue of his placing himself in submission to God. Neither the servant of the world nor a human master (or today a corporate employer), he is the servant of God. It is this reversal of perspective on work that gives a new understanding to labor, and hence a greater exigency to even our most quotidian or unrefined of deeds. From the eternal perspective humbled in the sight of God, the smallest deeds are a work too.

In the opening segment of chapter three, “Toucher et Se Toucher,” Housset observes how the question of taking and work show that the hand opens us beyond ourselves while always returning to itself: “la main est à la fois ce movement de s’avancer vers le monde et de la ramener à soi” (79). Equally reflexive and transitive, the hand’s movement entails we recognize that touch is self-implicating and self-transcending. Housset’s rigorous account of the way the hands touch and are touched (and even touch themselves) is of such complexity that doing its nuance justice exceeds the scope of what is here possible. Better anyway for oneself to look and see what Housset does to rework a longstanding phenomenological problem that commanded the attention of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. Maybe the greatest importance of Housset’s analysis of touch lies further on, when, in chapter four’s “Parler et Écouter” attention turns directly to a number of themes that occupy the book’s remaining pages: time, history, speech, listening, writing, and others. For if, as we read, “la main est en elle-même un movement de transcendence vers les autres et vers les choses” (158), far from being only what puts us in touch with things, the hand “elle est également ce qui lie l’homme aux autres hommes” (119). And an encounter with others is crucially different than one with mere things. It is because we are linked to others, for instance, that we have a personal history. For our encounters with others leave their mark: “Ma main en tant qu’elle est la mienne porte mon histoire, mais également ma manière d’être, le style de ma relation au monde” (124). And if the hand links us to others, giving us a history, this is so because the hand, which is itself entwined with the word, allows us to both speak and listen. Hence, in order to understand the hand’s history, its relation to others, and so with an eye to the later question of style, “pour la comprendre plus largement comme une capacité de parole et d’écoute” (124). Now as Housset notes, for someone as Husserl, one’s personal history is a matter of a temporal synthesis, one whose passivity sediments past perceptions and experiences into memories and thus a stable identity that in turn can serve as the basis for further free deliberative action and thought: “Sans reprendre ici les analyses de Husserl sur la synthèse passive, il est possible de s’appuyer sur elles pour élucider l’historicité de la main: elle a ses perceptions sédimentées, ses souvenirs, les actes qu’elle a poses” (125). Passive synthesis, as Husserl would call it, explains habit’s formation. Without it, the hand would not remember or know as it does. The Husserlian analysis is sufficient so far as it goes. It accounts for a crucial dimension of human embodiment successfully. According to Housset, however, it does not go far enough, for its description of manual habit as owing to temporal synthesis remains beholden to the idea that the hand is an expression of the mind, and hence still just an organ. But more importantly, Husserl’s account of the hand’s history overlooks a paradox Housset stresses must be addressed. It is one Housset describes as a circle: “Tel est le cercle: le monde ne peut apparaitre qu’à un sujet qui s’éprouve dans l’unité de son historicité, néanmoins le sujet ne peut se saisir dans son historicité qu’en agissant dans le monde” (128). Here again, for Housset the point is to see in this circle a radical fragility of the human hand and mode of being, one the myth of modern man discussed earlier neglects to acknowledge:

“Au-delà de toute téléogie organique ou rèflexive, l’expérience ne reconduit-elle pas à une absolue contingence du don des mains, à savoir qu’elles ne peuvent pas se réduire à une capacité innée du corps et de l’esprit, mais sont plutôt une capacité recue d’ailleurs?” (133).

The hand forges its identity by welcoming what lies outside itself and beyond its control. In this sense, it comes to be what it is, not through an auto-constitution, but through a movement of transcendence into the world where, meeting what it does, it answers to what has addressed it. The hand’s mode of presence to the world, thus, is not one of virility and initiative, but dialogue, as it always is in conversation with what it hears. As Housset says, “Elle devient radicalement autre, elle trouve son identité dans son envoi dans le monde, une identité qui est donc toujours fragile, sans point fixe et stable, car elle se construit à partir de l’appel des choses” (139).

If the preceding chapter four explores the eidetic link between hand and word, that bond inevitably leads to a consideration of writing, “dans la mesure où l’écriture engage toute la capactité du corps à render visible le monde” (153). Housset opens chapter five “Écriture et Style” by observing with Husserl (and Derrida too who comes up now and again) that “le champ d’écricture est un champ transcendental sans sujet actuel” (154). Writing assures the objectivity of ideality, by in effect establishing a repository of sense where such sense is available, waiting to be activated by anyone who comes across it. And yet, as Housset notes, there is an empirical fragility at work even here in the constitution of this transcendental language. Books, after all, can be lost, censored, buried, or burned. Housset will here criticize Husserl for failing to emphasize the sense in which even the incorporation of an ideal geometric language’s sense in writing is still for all that a work of the hand, or better, a work of the whole body. The blindness, says Housset, is due to Husserl’s decision to characterize the hands themselves in terms of the subject’s auto-constitution. Husserl, he will say, has introduced a kind of universalized architectonic where there is not one. The cost of this intellectualism, he continues, is evident in Husserl’s struggle in the Crisis to account for today’s epistemic, moral, and spiritual waywardness. Husserl fails to come to terms with radical evil. And if Merleau-Ponty himself never addresses the moral dimension of the hand squarely, neither says Housset does Husserl, who, despite his elaborate analyses of embodiment in texts as Ideas II, still maintains an ocular stance toward things. As Housset comments,

“Autrement dit, en dépit de toutes ses analyses sur le corps, Husserl en reste à une philosophie de la vision dans laquelle la seule réponse au mal est l’exigence d’une vision plus rigoreuse de l’universel. Il est possible de voir là un manque de prise en considération de la radicalité du mal, mal qui est plus qu’une erreur, un oubli ou une fatigue, et qui peut se comprendre comme une volonté délibérée de mainmise et de destruction, voire comme une jouissance de la negation” (157).

In the wake of this discussion of modernity’s inability to explain radical (but banal) evil, it is here that Housset takes up Heidegger’s later work on thought and speech explicitly. If, as Housset with Heidegger says, “Toute pensée est une œuvre des mains,” this is because the hand, which is more than an instrument to manipulate things, is “qui est une écoute du logos” (159). In an accompanying footnote to this stretch of text, Housset quotes with approval Heidegger, who himself in the passage in question emphasizes the essential connection between man and the hand: “Ce n’est pas l’homme qui ‘a’ des mains, mais la main qui porter l’essence de l’homme, car la parole comme domaine d’essence de la main est le fondement de l’essence de l’homme” (162). Now as Housset observes, if thought is a work, a work of the hands even, this is because of writing: “ce travail de la pensée, qui est un travail des mains, suppose l’écriture” (163). Housset’s early disagreement with Arendt should not be misunderstood. Here, it is clear how one should not take Housset’s criticism of Arendt’s position to mean he believes that there is nothing deeply disturbing about our modern condition. Far from it! Housset addresses this lingering potential misunderstanding when, emphasizing the interlacement between hand and word, he goes on to explain how modern technology attenuates that connection, thereby dehumanizing man. According to Housset, technology treats the hand as an organ. And what is the danger of doing so? If the Heideggerian formula according to which the hand thinks in fact is true, so too writing takes place with and through the hand itself. Housset’s concern, then, is that modern technology which veils our relation to being, leads us to forget writing is an act of the hand. And so, as he says, we consequently lose touch with our humanity: “Une main qui n’est qu’un organe pour taper sur un clavier, ou encore pour ‘textoter’, etc., réduit nécessairement le mot en moyen de communication et le perd comme espace de pensée” (167). Housset is mounting a criticism of the technological era’s thoughtlessness in terms of its corresponding mishandling of the human hand. In a world of touch screen devices, there is less space for the work of the hand, and so too there is an absence of thought. The hand, whose true integrity consists in its capacity to hear and respond to the word, instead is deformed into a machine tool that manipulates.[3] Hence, thought recedes and language wanes.

“Sans entrer dans toutes les analyses du Gestell, il s’agit de montrer que l’essence de la technique modern correspond à une degradation de la main en simple organe qui s’adapte à l’évolution de la technologie, mais qui n’a plus sa place dans le travail de la pensée; elle ne fait plus apparaitre, elle communique” (165).

Alluding to a thesis that will be familiar to readers of Jean-Luc Marion’s account of love in Prolegomena to Charity and The Erotic Phenomenon, Housset for his part claims it is love that puts the hand to work in a way worthy of what calls it. Only then are the world and its things no longer reduced to unfeeling and thoughtless manipulation. To anticipate another gesture Housset will explore two chapters on, here it is a matter of the caress. One must have a loving touch: “Le main manie vraiment quand elle se laisse prendre et organizer par l’armour, donc dans le paradoxe d’une dépossession et d’une possession” (167). Love’s delicate touch, as Housset stresses, makes possible a writing that overcomes the banal communication of technological chatter, by instead showing what has not been seen or else reminding us of what we have forgotten. It turns us from a virtual world, redirecting our attention back to the visible world. Writing, then, when it accedes to its task of giving voice to the things which have spoken to it, lets things speak rather than cancelling out what they say: “écrire, ce n’est pas imposer sa mesure à la chose, mais c’est laisser la chose être sa propre mesure, c’est en user dans un respect, qui est une reconnaissance de sa parole” (169). Concurring with what Jean-Yves Lacoste has said in Thèses sur le vrai of Angelus Silesius’ rose or Gerald Manley Hopkins’ sky, Housset’s analysis reminds us the written word is able to show what we had not seen. True speech shows.

Following on this description of writing as a work of the hand, Housset turns next to the notion of style. For here, to begin with, the term is not to be taken in its “usage en rhétorique or en historie” but rather “comme une structure de l’existence.”[4] Style, in the existential sense, is a matter of one’s distinctive being-in-the-world: “La question du don des mains va ainsi conduire à decrier le style comme une manière d’être au-devant de soi en agissant dans le monde” (171). Contrary to a line of argument that would dismiss the notion of style as unfit for philosophical analysis because of its ambiguity, Housset argues that the notion’s polysemy is precisely what makes it so fecund. Taken in a first sense, style is a linguistic feature. As Housset says, in that regard every writing bears a unique signature. Style in this way concerns the fluctuation around a norm—what Housset terms a “catégorial-objecif” notion concerning the work’s general form of expression and the singularity of the author. But Housset notes style, taken as a general structure of the intentional mode of being-in-the-world, does not alone suffice to explain how writing is an act of the hand. Further at stake, in short, is one’s personal history, but not, as we had seen with Husserl in the context of passive synthesis, a history constituted by oneself. Instead of an auto-constituiton of a self in its own history, Housset has in view an irruptive history, one that shattering the enclosure of the self exposes whoever it calls to a future which would otherwise have remained closed. Borrowing from Merleau-Ponty, Housset sometimes will use the term “verticalité” to denote this rupture. Now, if here existential style concerns a personal rhythm, it is an attunement no longer reducible to a subjective perspective of what is otherwise objective (as if style were a mere lens or gloss), but rather a mediopassive mode of encounter. This style is a “tonalité fondamentale,” a manner of adjusting oneself to the manifestation of being. With this other history freed, man stands open to a destiny calling him. Adjusting himself to the truth of being, the work of his hands accordingly becomes neither an act of prideful strength nor a pure act of freedom, but a free response to a call. As for writing, it becomes the hand’s vocation, our answer to what has first addressed us.

If in his reflection on style Housset mentions Husserl and Heidegger first and primarily, in turn he invokes Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty, Housset notes, not only observed acutely that style is an expression of our relationship to the world, but also that there is a connection between style and the hand. As readers of the Phenomenology of Perception know, for Merleau-Ponty a gesture’s meaning does not consist in some intention residing in the mind initially, for its sense is to be found nowhere else but in the gesture itself. The hand (or the entire body) speaks, which is why even the sleeping body, assuming the pose it does, is never entirely mute. It is this excess of sense underlaying the propositional domain of discourse that Merleau-Ponty claims the writer and painter express. According to Merleau-Ponty, the world itself has a style. Summarizing the upshot, Housset concludes,

“On comprend bien alors que le style n’est plus ici un écart par rapport à une norme ou un mode singulier de constitution, mais est cette charnière entre ma chair et la chair du monde qui m’envoie dans le monde; il est cette cohesion sans concept, antérieure à toute synthèse d’indentification et sans laquelle cette synthèse demeurerait une intellectualistation de la sensibilité” (185).

Housset’s study of the hand has to this point shown why the hand cannot be understood as a tool or an organ, a lesson chapter six’s “Tâtonner et Caresser” magnifies. Returning to the work’s earlier chapter on touch, here the issue is that of the caress. In keeping with the work’s central thesis that our existence takes form only in response to what encounters it, so here Housset will insist that this is so with the caress: “l’étude de la caresse va venir confirmer que la main est une capacité reçue de l’autre corps” (191). For as he continues a few lines down, if the hand in the caress “touche l’intouchable” (192) this is so because the hand is constantly groping for what always retreats in the face of the hand’s advance. Following Jean-Luc Marion’s paradoxical statement in The Erotic Phenomenon, Housset notes accordingly how the caress touches nothing: “la caresse il ne s’agit plus vraiment d’un contact, ou même du toucher, et on peut risquer le paradoxe selon lequel la main qui caresse ne touche pas une autre chair, puisque cette chair se dissipe quand on s’en approche” (201). As Housset goes on to say, it is this hand’s act of groping for what it cannot find that “donne à toutes les autres leur signification véritable” (Ibid.). In language deliberately reminiscent of Levinas and Ricœur, Housset attempts to pass from ontology to ethics, claiming that this constant retreat of what encounters the hand is nowhere felt more profoundly than in the encounter with the human other, who, no matter how close we get, still recedes as one approaches. As he explains,

“plus on approche l’autre la caresse, plus le mystère de son existence corporelle se dévoile. L’autre homme n’est pas une énigme qui se dissiperait peu à peu un fonction des syntheses d’identification successives, mais il se rencontre comme un mystère qui ne cesse de se refuser” (193).

In characterizing the reciprocity between call and response structuring the fundamental tenor of human existence, Housset shows how this conversation between things and ourselves is manual, ever unfurling through the hand that gropes for something to hold onto.

For this reason, Housset declares it is Levinas who above all has come the closest of the phenomenologists to revealing the hand’s truth. Unlike Husserl for whom the hand remains the power of perception and freedom, Merleau-Ponty for whom the hand is what gives things to be seen in the world, or Sartre for whom the hand participates in the drama of desire, Levinas sees how the hand’s fundamental dimension consists in “dolence, capacité à souffrir, à éprouver la douleur, mais également affliction par rapport à cette douleur” (211). Here Housset quotes with approval Levinas’s assessment of the hand in Totality and Infinity: “La main est par essence tâtonnement et emprise” (216). The hand trembles in its ache for contact. And so, the other is there, always appearing within the horizon of indeterminateness forever soliciting the hand that seeks to traverse its mystery.

Taking up the manual acts it has, Housset’s work as a whole, we have seen, undertakes a reversal of the modern myth of self-sufficient man, a deconstruction culminating in the work’s final chapter “Recevoir et Donner.” We grope for stability and assurance. And when we receive that assurance, it is always given to us, which is to say, it arrives as a gift we must receive. Now, the subject of the gift is not new to phenomenology. At least in the phenomenological context, indeed, the term has almost become synonymous with the work of Jean-Luc Marion, Housset’s own dissertation director. It is only proper, then, that a study of the human hand as this one should end as it does, with a meditation on receiving and giving and thus the gift, the very phenomenon to which the study owes its title. At the beginning of the last chapter, Housset will speak of “la main nue,” a hand having nothing but its own possibility of becoming what it will through responding to what it encounters. This is not the hand of a superhero, says Housset, but a fragile, humble, and weak hand dispossessed of everything. These are the hands of someone who has accepted the realization he has never given himself his own beginning. In this resulting humility of the hands abandoned to their own weakness, this powerlessness, says Housset, “ouvre sur une autre forme de puissance, qui est la puissance même de l’amour” (235). Love allows one to give without concern for a return. And just the same, love is also what strengthens us to receive, since, in impatience or pride where love is absent, too often we consequently refuse to receive what is offered us—there is nothing more pride despises than to be helped! This ingratitude, which here takes the figure of the modern subject who thinks he is in charge of himself, encloses itself within itself, refusing stubbornly to receive assistance from anything beyond itself or what its fellow man can provide. Such a figure, hence, refuses the greatest gift our hands may receive. For these closed hands refuse to receive grace. This, then, Housset will suggest so boldly, is the final position of the human hand that, succumbing to the cul-de-sac of defiance, knows no power but its own. This is the hand that does not take hold of God’s hand. Cut off from “l’amour de Dieu,” it is one that finds no destiny to which it is able confidently to consecrate its works. For, everything it does is destined only to fade.

Here, concluding our review with the gift and work in mind, what are we thus to say of Housset’s own work as a whole? Shall it endure? Bemoaning the embarrassing state of the philosophial literature of the time, Hannah Arendt in correspondence with Karl Jaspers said, “The academic journals are full of nonsense that not even the author believes but that is necessary for his career. None of these journals pays a red cent; very few of them are read.” Housset’s book is not nonsense; neither can the author’s sincerity, which can be felt on every page, be doubted; and his writing makes plain it was born of aspirations rising high above the petty ones known to those who write for an academic career. With a work as this, thus, it is entirely fitting to conclude with a note of prognostication. What future awaits this work? To be sure, Housset largely remains a name unknown to Anglophone readers. In the face of that unfortunate obscurity, an author could be forgiven the temptation to doubt the use of writing, especially when the truly philosophical works that result are bound to be less understood and appreciated now by reading audiences than in Arendt’s day. One imagines hearing Housset in Caen groaning: “Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labor that I had labored to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun” (Ecc 2:11). Is, however, this sigh of futility warranted here? Perhaps not! In an age when a work as this one receives far less attention than it deserves, that very neglect just serves to underscore its importance, for the relative obscurity in which it is received belies its fidelity to the philosophical spirit. Work of good that it is, Le don des mains will stand the test of time, and it will be read long after so much else written today is not. May there be readers who enjoy it now!


[1] Analytic philosophy currently is undergoing an “normative turn,” particularly in ethics, moral psychology, and the philosophy of action. Meanwhile, in the phenomenological milieu, Steven Galt Crowell, my dissertation supervisor of record, has more than anyone explored the normative dimension of human existence, first, in Husserl, Heidegger and the Space of Meaning: Paths towards a Transcendental Phenomenology (Northwestern: 2001) and, again more recently, in Normativity and Phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger (Cambridge: 2013).

[2] Hubert Dreyfus’s overview of technology in Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I (MIT: 1991) still provides an excellent statement of this concern that today everything increasingly is being reduced to the measure of flexibility and efficiency.

[3] Crucially, it should be noted that for an ideological program as transhumanism to succeed, it is as necessary for humans to become like machines as for the machines themselves to become humanlike. The melding of man and machine depends essentially on the dehumanization of the former.

[4] There are many fascinating overlaps between what Housset will say here of style and what Claude Romano, taking up the history of authenticity, says of Cicero, Castiglione, Montaigne, Rousseau, and others in Être soi-même: Une autre histoire de la philosophie (Gallimard: 2019).

Alexander Schnell: Qu’est-ce que la phénoménologie transcendantale ? Fondements d’un idéalisme spéculatif phénoménologique, Jérôme Millon, 2020

Qu’est-ce que la phénoménologie transcendantale ? Fondements d’un idéalisme spéculatif phénoménologique Book Cover Qu’est-ce que la phénoménologie transcendantale ? Fondements d’un idéalisme spéculatif phénoménologique
Krisis
Alexander Schnell
Jérôme Millon
2020
Paperback
246

Marguerite La Caze (Ed.): Phenomenology and Forgiveness

Phenomenology and Forgiveness Book Cover Phenomenology and Forgiveness
Marguerite La Caze (Ed.)
Rowman & Littlefield International
2018
Paperback $39.95 / £24.95
248

Reviewed by: Rhonda Siu (University of New South Wales)

Marguerite La Caze’s aim as editor of the volume, Phenomenology and Forgiveness (2018), is to enhance phenomenology by investigating ways that it could examine forgiveness as an experience (La Caze 2018, vii). Forgiveness, she claims, has become an increasingly important issue in philosophy given recent developments such as the global reconciliation commissions in South Africa and the Solomon Islands (vii). Moreover, La Caze believes that phenomenologists can offer insightful analyses of first-person experiences of forgiveness, not least because many of them have struggled intensely with the issue of forgiveness themselves (e.g. Husserl, Sartre and Stein) (vii).

Two key aspects inform the approach to phenomenology adopted in this volume. First, the volume features an open-ended, comprehensive view of phenomenology that La Caze terms “wild phenomenology”; this view explains why thinkers not typically associated with phenomenology (e.g. Jankélévitch, Camus, Arendt and Derrida) have also been included (x). Second, the volume features “critical phenomenology”, continuing a tradition established by philosophers like Simone de Beauvoir, Frantz Fanon and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and developed by more contemporary thinkers like Matthew Ratcliffe, Havi Carel and Jill Stauffer (La Caze 2018, xiv; Murphy 2018, 199). While adherents of critical phenomenology retain phenomenology’s traditional emphasis on first-person experience, they also diverge from its emphasis on subjectivity by focusing instead on intersubjectivity (Murphy 2018, 199). Here, La Caze refers to Lisa Guenther’s notion that critical phenomenology is not simply a theory but a “practice of liberation”; that is, it conceives of phenomenology as a philosophy that is constantly transforming, and which, in turn, transforms the world (Guenther 2017, 203, cited in La Caze 2018, xiv). Hence, contrary to the common view that phenomenology is purely “descriptive” (Murphy 2018, 199), this volume insightfully demonstrates how it has real-world application through its capacity to inform and motivate action. The volume has a facilitative tripartite structure encompassing: (1) “Experiences of forgiveness”, (2) “Paradoxes of forgiveness”, and (3) “Ethics and politics of forgiveness”. Before evaluating the volume further, I will discuss the key claims posited by the writers of each section. 

  1. Experiences of Forgiveness

The writers of section one reveal how the complexities of forgiveness are accentuated when it is examined in terms of the lived experiences of individuals and collectivities. They also reveal how the specificity of these experiences may prompt us to question those conventional notions of morality and religion that are intended to have universal application. In chapter one, Shannon Hoff examines what constitutes a morally “good” action in relation to Hegel’s account of conscience, confession and forgiveness in Phenomenology of Spirit (Hoff 2018, 4). According to her interpretation, this complex issue of moral action is staged as a confrontation between a moral agent who performs what she considers a “good” act and a judge who assesses its morality (or lack thereof) (4). Importantly, this confrontation embodies a necessary contradiction. Theoretically-speaking, applying moral standards is meant to be universal, unambiguous and objective (7). However, in actuality, realising a moral law through action is necessarily performed from a biased standpoint because a specific agent must devise her own understanding of this law in a highly distinctive situation (4-5). In this situation, both the agent and judge are human and thus imperfect; lacking omniscience, they can only view things from their own perspectives, perspectives that are necessarily shaped by their own experiences, projects and interests (4-6). Rather than self-righteously reproaching an agent for her biased standpoint, Hoff argues that we should assess an action’s moral value through intersubjective means, that is, by simultaneously empathising with others’ situations and being open to their criticisms, and vice versa (15).

Importantly, Hoff offers valuable insights into how Hegel’s account of forgiveness can be applied to tackle controversial political issues. Her analysis is particularly relevant to a political environment increasingly characterised firstly by “intersectionality” (17), wherein multifaceted and often conflicting notions of identity render pursuing justice even more complex. Secondly, the political terrain has also been significantly altered by the rise of social media (12), whereby the “public naming and shaming” that occur, for example, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram often only permit a reductive response to complex political issues. Consequently, productive public discourse is stifled; one is either praised or condemned for supporting or dismissing a viewpoint. By contrast, Hoff demonstrates how one could respond constructively to sensitive socio-political issues like adopting another’s perceived oppression as one’s own cause (12). She provides the example of a Westerner (e.g. a “middle-class, white, Canadian man”) combatting what he perceives as the mistreatment of women in a manifestly different cultural environment (e.g. a “specific, conservative, Muslim culture”) (11). Hoff claims that such an individual’s desire to perform a “good” act should neither be ridiculed nor dismissed (8 and 14), for instance, by claiming that he is not equipped to help just because he is neither Muslim nor a woman. Rather, she argues that we should view his pursuit in a positive light as his chance for further education, self-interrogation and change; ideally, he would seek to learn more about the other’s situation (from the other) and critique his own actions based on any newly-acquired knowledge (14).

In chapter two, Nicolas De Warren explores how Arendt’s phenomenological approach to forgiveness emphasises its temporal, intersubjective and ontological dimensions (De Warren 2018, 25). Understanding Arendt’s conception of forgiveness, de Warren claims, requires an understanding of how it is bound up with two other key concepts in her philosophy: “natality” and “plurality” (25). Forgiveness, for Arendt, firstly entails plurality because the act of forgiving requires at least two people (the forgiver and the forgiven); one cannot forgive one’s own act of harming the other (33). Secondly, Arendt grounds her concept of natality in the interrelated notions of “respect” and “distance” (37-38). For De Warren, Arendt’s emphasis on respect means that she thereby departs from traditional moral or religious conceptions of forgiveness. Rather than emphasising conventional concepts like “salvation, charity” and “intimacy”, Arendt highlights the gap that respect (re)institutes in the self-other relationship that allows the other (whom one has forgiven) to appear “unequal to her appearance” (38-39, emphasis in original). That is, the other is thereupon presented as different from her past self; her identity no longer coincides with her misdeed/s (34). This reinstitution of distance, de Warren claims, is essential to natality as it allows the self-other relationship to begin anew; the other reacquires her “agency” and capacity for action, aspects she effectively gave up by doing us wrong (33-34 and 39). By thus freeing us (or in Arendt’s terms, “redeeming us”) from the immutability of the past, forgiveness brings about the “re-temporaliz[ation]” of interpersonal relationships (25-26, 30 and 34). As will become apparent, many writers in the volume also draw explicitly or implicitly on this concept of forgiveness as renewal; indeed, Arendt’s philosophy seems to form the volume’s undercurrent. 

In chapter three, Simone Drichel draws on Emmanuel Levinas’ writings to explore how forgiveness is experienced during and after trauma. Drichel finds it curious that forgiveness does not feature more prominently in Levinas’ philosophy, given its relevance to his account of “traumatic subject constitution” in more mature works like Otherwise than Being (Drichel 2018, 43-44). Importantly, she challenges what she views as Levinas’ “‘counter-intuitive’” claim in his notion of “ethical relationality” that one’s “vulnerable exposure” to others is always experienced as a “‘good trauma’” (44 and 55). Indeed, Levinas even suggests that this vulnerability should be embraced instead of dreaded or evaded (46). In her challenge to Levinas, Drichel investigates the links between his later idea of the “traumatic force of the il y a” (in Otherwise than Being) and psychoanalytic accounts of trauma (44 and 52). While acknowledging that Levinas himself was unsympathetic towards psychoanalysis, she also argues that there are key similarities between Levinas’ conception of the “il y a” and the psychoanalyst, D. W. Winnicott’s conception of “early infantile traumatization” (50-51). In both notions, Drichel claims, the reaction to trauma is a “flight into monadic existence” or a defence mechanism that the individual employs to protect herself against trauma (52).

Such a reaction, Drichel claims, is problematic because it is damaging to both ethics and relationality. By fleeing into a state of “invulnerability”, the traumatised individual thereby becomes insusceptible to the other’s “ethical demand”, rendering her effectively “‘ethically impaired’” (50 and 52, emphasis in original). Drichel argues that this “unethical ‘inversion’” undermines Levinas’ ethical framework and is thus something to which he should have paid more attention (52-53). To increase its robustness, Drichel suggests that Levinas’ trauma-based ethics needs to be supplemented by a psychoanalytic interpretation of trauma’s devastating impact (51). She draws on the Hungarian psychoanalyst, Sandor Ferenczi and the Austrian author and Holocaust survivor, Jean Améry’s suggestions that forgiveness is only possible through restoring ethical relationality, that is, by restoring the self’s capacity and willingness to leave its fortress of invulnerability and be rendered vulnerable to the other once again (54-57). As with Arendt, forgiveness for Drichel thus involves the renewal and transformation of the self-other relationship, which she conceives broadly as reinstituting an “ethical” relation with the “world of others” (58). Moreover, for Drichel, this willingness to re-experience vulnerability in turn relies on the community’s establishment of a secure, “‘holding environment’” around the individual (an expression she borrows from Winnicott) which tempers the sense of isolation that follows the traumatic event (45 and 55).

In chapter four, Peter Banki takes up this theme of trauma by examining how a devastating event like the Holocaust can dramatically change one’s views of forgiveness. To do this, Banki investigates the contradiction between Vladimir Jankélévitch’s position on forgiveness in Forgiveness (Le Pardon) (1967) and his later work, Pardonner? (1971), a contradiction acknowledged by Jankélévitch himself (Banki 2018, 66 and 72). In his earlier work Forgiveness, Jankélévitch argues for a “hyperbolical ethics of forgiveness” based on love, whereby even the unforgivable must be forgiven (66). However, later in Pardonner?, Jankélévitch claims instead that the unforgivable cannot be forgiven; indeed, for him, the mass murder of Jews (the Shoah) marked forgiveness’ demise (72). Banki, however, does not view this contradiction as a weakness of Jankélévitch’s philosophy, claiming instead that it is an appropriate response to the “hyper-ethical” nature of the Holocaust (66). The inhumane crimes of the Shoah cannot be forgiven because neither proportionate punishments nor specific offenders can be attributed to them (73).

For Banki, if forgiveness can be said to be found in such circumstances, it involves acknowledging Jankélévitch’s contradiction for what it is rather than trying to resolve it (66). This form of forgiveness, Banki suggests, is apparent in Jankélévitch’s decision to reject a young German’s invitation to visit him in Germany (74-75). In his letter, the German expressed feelings of accountability for the events of the Holocaust but challenged the idea that he himself was guilty for crimes he had not committed (74). Partly responsible for Jankélévitch’s refusal of the invitation was his radical view that virtually all Germans and Austrians were “Nazi perpetrators and collaborators” (72). Banki approves of Derrida’s interpretation of Jankélévitch’s refusal as the confrontation between two conflicting discourses: the reconcilable and the irreconcilable, whereby the unforgivable (e.g. mass murder) ultimately cannot be forgiven (75).

Interestingly, Banki also takes Jankélévitch’s thought even further by claiming that, in the context of forgiveness, lesser and more mundane wrongdoings can be viewed in the same way as inhumane crimes like the Shoah (77). This is because any wrongdoing cannot be entirely forgiven; a trace of the unforgivable will always remain. This leads Banki to the radical conclusion that forgiveness does not exist and may have never existed (77). In saying this, Banki’s reading of Jankélévitch departs from religious accounts of forgiveness (e.g. the Judeo-Christian account) which assume that forgiveness occurs whenever it is undertaken in the spirit of good will and magnanimity (77). Banki’s suggestion that forgiveness may have never existed is perhaps the most radical view of forgiveness or unforgiveness presented in the volume. While Banki does suggest that an “impure forgiveness” based in Jankélévitch’s thought may yet be created in the future, he does not really expand on what this might look like (77). His chapter thus ends with a promising suggestion for future research.

  1. Paradoxes of Forgiveness

The writers of section two take up the previous notion of contradiction as their overall theme when exploring collective forgiveness, self-forgiveness and the role of forgiveness in politics (or lack thereof). In chapter five, Gaëlle Fiasse demonstrates how Paul Ricoeur’s account of forgiveness, for example, in Memory, History and Forgetting, displays interesting points of similarity and difference to/from Derrida, Jankélévitch and Arendt’s (Fiasse 2018, 85 and 88). Like certain aspects of Jankélévitch and Derrida’s philosophies, Ricoeur conceives of forgiveness as an “unconditional gift” of love (91). As Fiasse explains it, Ricoeur’s innovative conception of forgiveness is represented by the intersection of two asymmetrical axes, with the asymmetrical aspect implying that a wrongdoing does not automatically imply forgiveness of it. The upper and lower poles of the vertical axis are occupied by the unconditional gift of forgiveness and the “depth of the fault of the wrongdoer”, respectively (87). Influenced by Jankélévitch, Ricoeur begins his account with the gravity of the misdeed rather than the unconditional gift of forgiveness to emphasise the magnitude of the wrongdoing and the need for the wrongdoer to be held accountable for his/her unjust actions (88). Moreover, like Arendt, forgiveness, for Ricoeur, implies a renewal of the self-other relationship through the reinstitution of agency and action to the wrongdoer (90).

On the one hand, Fiasse acknowledges Ricoeur’s claim that forgiveness can only be realised between people rather than political and juridical institutions (87 and 92). (In my later discussion of chapter seven, I will show that this specific view of Ricoeur’s is also shared by Edith Stein.) On the other hand, Fiasse also posits that the above-mentioned institutions may play a larger role in Ricoeur’s own philosophy than he sometimes suggests through his notion of the “incognito” (an expression she borrows from Klaus Kodalle) or “spirit of forgiveness” (87 and 93). She highlights how, in these institutions, the “incognito” of forgiveness tempers the violence involved in punishments, for instance, by allowing the wrongdoer a fair trial and access to rehabilitation, and also facilitates the resumption of regular interpersonal relationships voided of hatred and vengeance (87, 93 and 95). In emphasising this possibility of renewal, Ricoeur, Fiasse claims, thereby departs from Derrida’s belief that forgiveness is unattainable (85 and 87).

In chapter six, Jennifer Ang explores this key theme of renewal from the perspectives of both forgiveness and self-forgiveness. Like Banki, she investigates how experiencing a traumatic event like the Holocaust can prompt a serious reconsideration of one’s position on forgiveness. To do this, Ang draws on the Italian-Jewish writer, chemist and Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi’s notion of the “gray zone”, a notion she applies to challenge the supposedly clear-cut distinction between “innocent” victims and “morally reprehensible” collaborators under totalitarian regimes like Nazism (Ang 2018, 103). Levi, Ang claims, questions one’s right to morally condemn collaborators if one has not lived through the traumatic events of the Holocaust. Accounting for Levi’s disapproval of hasty moral condemnation, Ang is not interested in whether we could or should forgive the Nazis or collaborators. Rather, she uses key concepts in Sartre’s phenomenology such as bad faith, shame and guilt to explore how individuals responded to morally ambivalent situations during World War II (103).

Ang attributes different types of “bad faith” to different types of Holocaust collaborators, depending on the type and degree of their “collaboration, complicity and compromises” (108). Active collaborators who held privileged positions like the president of the Lodz ghetto, Chaim Rombowski, were in “bad faith” because they erroneously believed that they could act with absolute freedom, that is, completely unconstrained by their facticity (105-106). Ang claims that these collaborators engaged in self-deception; despite recognising that they were accountable for their immoral decisions, they chose to believe that they could not have acted otherwise (106). Turning to the other extreme, Ang claims that Holocaust survivors like Levi who were severely plagued by guilt and shame were also in “bad faith” because they erroneously believed that they were fully defined by their facticity, of which their past choices were a large part (106 and 108). They also mistakenly believed that those who died by suicide or other causes during the Holocaust were better and more courageous people than themselves (108 and 113). Recovery for these tormented survivors, Ang argues, entails realising that their past does not fully define them because they had been thrown into a “gray zone” wherein any decision would have been morally ambiguous (112). Acknowledging this would allow these survivors to reconfigure their perception of themselves at the end of the Other’s “look”; they would gradually be able to release their feelings of self-hatred and project themselves towards an open future (109-12). Viewed from this reconfigured perspective, survival, Ang suggests, could be perceived not as shameful but rather as an act of defiance against the anti-Semite’s machinations (113).

In chapter seven, Antonio Calcagno explores Edith Stein’s social ontology, redirecting the reader’s attention from how individuals experience forgiveness/self-forgiveness to the phenomenon of collective forgiveness (Calcagno 2018, 118). On the one hand, Stein concurs with Max Scheler that collective responsibility and forgiveness are possible (117). On the other hand, Stein disagrees with Scheler’s notion of the “collective person” whereby individual members “identify” and merge with each other to form a “super-individual”; these members genuinely “feel themselves as one person” (117 and 121). According to Calcagno, understanding Stein’s position on collective forgiveness requires understanding her distinction between two types of sociality: society and community (118). Societies are formed when their members come together to attain a specific objective whereas communities are characterised by a more potent lived experience of sociality whereby people are connected by a “shared sense or meaning”, such as grieving over a mutual friend’s passing (119-20 and 126). While acknowledging that forgiveness in a community can be similarly conceived as a shared sense or meaning, Stein, like Ricoeur, maintains that acts of extending and receiving forgiveness can only transpire between individuals, not groups (118). What prevents Stein from agreeing with Scheler’s notion of the “collective person”, Calcagno suggests, is her “strong sense of individuation” (121). This in turn arises from her view that the combination of “body [and affect], psyche and spirit” that is expressed in an individual’s “personality” is idiosyncratic to that individual (121), thereby implying the impossibility of attributing a singular combination of traits to multiple unique individuals.

Calcagno’s innovative move here is extending Stein’s account to consider how forgiveness can also feature within a society as a common goal (124). He provides the example of the Canadian government’s commitment to achieving reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals. This involved formulating, accepting and adhering to, the recommendations set forth by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the latter of which was responsible for investigating injustices within the residential school system (124-25). As my imminent discussion of chapter eight will demonstrate, Geoffrey Adelsberg, by contrast, views the Canadian government’s attempt at reconciliation with a more critical eye. Nevertheless, Calcagno’s overall suggestion about forgiveness’ role in a society highlights forgiveness’ potential contribution to socio-political change and thus warrants further investigation.

In chapter eight, Adelsberg’s analysis of forgiveness revolves around a real-world event, namely the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock, North Dakota (Adelsberg 2018, 131). Adelsberg uses this event as a case study to support his claim that causing enduring harm to others is damaging to, and defeats the purpose of, appeals for forgiveness. During the protests, a group of military veterans represented by Wes Clark, Jr., requested forgiveness for past injustices caused by settler colonialism in the Oceti Sakowin Territory (131). On the one hand, Adelsberg acknowledges the positive aspects of this request; it was a gesture of respect towards the natives and constituted the first steps towards showing regret and accountability for the settlers’ unjust actions (133 and 138). On the other hand, Adelsberg claims that Clark’s appeal for forgiveness ultimately fell short of its aim to renew the relationship between both parties (131-32). Justifying this claim, he refers to Glen Coulthard’s critique of the Canadian politics of reconciliation, drawing especially on Coulthard’s claim that the discourses of transitional justice had been misused therein. According to Coulthard, such discourses had been wrongfully mobilised to forgive past injustices rather than to recognise the devastating truth of present and continuing wrongdoings (134). Applying similar criticisms to the Standing Rock protests, Adelsberg claims that current issues like land rights, Native sovereignty and self-governance have been similarly overlooked (131 and 134). Taking a phenomenological perspective, Adelsberg concludes that Clark failed to achieve a “renewed moral relationship” between the parties because he neither recognised the gravity of continuing wrongs nor sought collective ways to rectify them (132).

Adelsberg makes his second main criticism of Clark by drawing on Leanne Simpson’s critique of Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau’s approach to reconciliation (138). Like the figure of Trudeau depicted in Simpson’s critique, Clark’s response, Adelsberg claims, failed to transcend a “gestural politics of juxtaposition”; that is, his appeal for forgiveness attained its significance mainly because it embodied a different and improved approach to reconciliation and forgiveness from the past (138-39). For Adelsberg, this entails that Clark’s message lacked real-world effect. It did little to advance the movement towards taking collective responsibility for injustices because Clark was not sanctioned by his peers to deliver his message of forgiveness; the views he expressed were thus mainly limited to his own (132 and 139-40).

  1. Ethics and Politics of Forgiveness

Further exploring themes already introduced in the volume, the writers of section three examine the role of forgiveness in morally and politically ambivalent situations created under totalitarian rule. In chapter nine, Matthew Sharpe examines Camus’ notion of forgiveness in works written after L’Homme Revolté (1951) that were influenced by the events of World War II (Sharpe 2018, 149). Sharpe identifies three key features of Camus’ account of forgiveness in these later works: (1) an emphasis on self-forgiveness, (2) the separation of forgiveness from notions of both “absolute innocence” and “objective guilt” or “original sin”, and (3) the important role of forgiveness in establishing and sustaining cohesion amongst people (160-61). Like Ang and Banki’s analyses, Sharpe’s interpretation of Camus features the perspective that the inhumane world created by totalitarian regimes like Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia significantly reconfigured how thinkers perceived forgiveness (153 and 155). In Camus’ own view, totalitarianism “institutes a world without innocents, and without innocence”, thereby rendering forgiveness impossible (153).

In chapter ten, David Brennan investigates how Václav Havel’s views of forgiveness were developed against the background of the turbulent post-Communist period in Czechoslovakia and were informed by his phenomenological conception of political morality (Brennan 2018, 166). Prior to its downfall in 1989, the Communist Government employed informants to uncover possible dissidence amongst its citizens to secure maximum control (165). Havel, a dissident himself, became President in 1990 and thus had to address the challenging issue of collaborators, some of whom had severely mistreated their fellow citizens (166 and 170-71). Brennan focuses on the ambivalence of Havel’s response to the collaborators. While Havel denounced the witch-hunt provoked by the newly instituted “lustration act” (1991), he nevertheless did not stop the “public naming and shaming” of those who had committed severe wrongdoings (170-71). According to Brennan, this is because Havel recognised that those who had been mistreated deserved justice and that he could therefore not mandate all citizens to forgive the collaborators (174). Nevertheless, influenced by Arendt, Havel was keenly aware of the centrality of forgiveness to renewal, both for individuals and within the wider political domain (170 and 173-75).

Havel’s inclusion of forgiveness in his response to the dilemma was heavily criticised by some (166 and 172). Brennan claims that Havel’s response was firstly influenced by his mentor, Jan Patočka’s notion of “living in truth”, that is, ensuring that our actions are governed by our relationships with, and accountability to, other humans rather than political exigencies. Under this view, politics is not the main determinant of action, but rather one consideration among many (167). Secondly, Havel, Brennan claims, was influenced by Tomáš Masaryk’s humanist philosophy and thus believed that morality could not be separated from politics (167-68). Accordingly, Havel was sceptical of passing hasty “guilty” or “not guilty” judgements on collaborators who had been placed in a morally compromising position by the government (169). Lastly, Brennan astutely points out that both Arendt and Havel recognised that many wrongdoings were committed unconsciously because collaboration was so deeply embedded within social relationships that it was hard to detect (174-75). Like Ang’s interpretation of Levi, then, Brennan’s analysis of Havel also raises the issue of whether one could be required to request forgiveness for wrongdoings over which one had little awareness and control.  

In chapter eleven, Karen Pagani, like Hoff, contextualises her Heideggerian analysis of collective, political forgiveness within the rise of information technology and social media (Pagani 2018, 181). Central to this development for Pagani is the ability for anyone to engage in public discourse, however informed their opinions may be (181-82). Pagani does not critique this development due to her belief that public discourse on political forgiveness must admit a diversity of views from various disciplines (182-83). Although recognising the challenge of trying to achieve agreement in this discourse, she, like political theorists such as Donald Shriver, stresses the need to establish “shared, conciliatory narratives” (181-82).

Pagani’s account nicely complements Ang’s analysis of individual self-forgiveness by demonstrating how self-forgiveness can also be collective. Pagani draws on Heidegger’s notions of “care, resoluteness, and the call of conscience” in Part II of Being and Time (1927) to explore the place of “self-reflexive ‘forgiveness’” in Dasein’s existence (181 and 190). Dasein, she claims, forgives itself when it accepts that it had diverged and will continue to diverge from its authentic self by being influenced by the “they-self” (190). Self-forgiveness is necessary to Dasein’s existence because Dasein can neither completely divorce itself from the world where the “they” reside nor remain permanently in an authentic state. For Pagani, forgiveness in Heidegger’s philosophy thus constitutes the path by which Dasein transitions between the “I-self” and the “they-self” (190). To advance her argument, Pagani extends this notion of self-forgiveness to the Dasein of a collectivity, arguing that a group of individuals can also be deceived by the “they-self” (191). Linking collective self-forgiveness to politics, Pagani, like other writers in the volume, emphasises renewal, which she conceives as the generation of new collectivities through the process of reconciliation (193).

In chapter twelve, Ann Murphy departs from the approach of other writers in the volume by not performing a phenomenological analysis of how forgiveness is experienced but concentrating instead on how forgiveness could enhance the phenomenological method (Murphy 2018, 197). While acknowledging the common view that the phenomenological method is primarily descriptive, Murphy is nevertheless more interested in how it could be carried out in a critical, “ameliorative” spirit to support and thereby advance ethical and political endeavours (197). Murphy begins her analysis by reminding us that even Edmund Husserl’s writings adopted this critical, ethical and political approach because he perceived the crisis in the European sciences as a wider “crisis of humanity” (197-98). Husserl, Murphy claims, thus endowed phenomenology with a “redemptive” power, an aspect shared by notions of restorative justice and forgiveness (198). Moreover, like Arendt, redemption for Husserl is achieved through renewal, which he conceives as critically examining the past to enhance the future (198).

For Murphy, the more contemporary practice of critical phenomenology draws further on this redemptive or “restorative spirit” that often remains concealed in phenomenology (199). Murphy claims that analysing shame as a “philosophical mood” is key to understanding how forgiveness can bring out phenomenology’s ameliorative potential (201-202). Drawing on the work of Michèle le Doeuff, Judith Butler and Levinas, she argues that philosophy’s shame stems from its misguided attempts to reject other disciplines by maintaining the illusion that it is the superior discipline (201-202). Furthermore, central to the redemptive potential of philosophical shame is its “ambivalence”; philosophy can either try to remain self-contained or it can engage in a constructive self-critique that acknowledges the merit of other disciplines (202). Influenced by Robert Bernasconi, Murphy concludes the volume on the hopeful note that this ameliorative approach will project phenomenology into an open future (204 and 206-207).

I conclude with some overall evaluative remarks about the volume that have been derived from the critical overview presented above. First, given its adoption of the “wild phenomenology” approach, this volume might be of more interest to readers with a similarly broad and open-ended understanding of phenomenology rather than those with a stricter understanding. Being sympathetic to the volume’s approach, I believe that the addition of thinkers not typically associated with phenomenology, especially Arendt and Derrida, produces an intricate, dialogical and consequently enriched discussion of forgiveness.

Second, while the volume covers both theory and practice (La Caze 2018, xv), its focus on critical phenomenology effectively highlights the practical implications of the phenomenological method in terms of how ideas of forgiveness are exemplified in, and can be applied to, real-world situations. Adelsberg’s phenomenological analysis of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests is a case in point. While critical phenomenology may not appeal to those interested in a primarily theoretical discussion of phenomenological ideas, I believe that this “practical” emphasis makes the volume highly accessible and engaging and provides promising openings for future research. (See, for example, my earlier comments on Banki and Calcagno’s chapters.)

Third, the volume offers important philosophical insights into the complexities of forgiveness by combining diverse and sometimes conflicting views of similar types or modes of forgiveness such as individual and collective forgiveness, and self-forgiveness. Diverse views of the same real-world events (e.g. the Holocaust and Canada’s attempts at reconciliation) are also provided, highlighting that there is rarely a clear-cut answer to how and when forgiveness might be given or not given. Indeed, the inclusion of an entire section on the “paradoxes of forgiveness” demonstrates La Caze’s appreciation of forgiveness’ complexities and nuances.

Lastly, despite the diversity of perspectives presented, continuity is maintained throughout the volume because central themes like trauma, conflict, renewal and futurity are regularly revisited. The choice of these themes is commendable in two main ways. First, and related to point three above, the writers’ analyses of trauma and conflict remind us that forgiveness is not a straightforward concept by directing our attention to situations where forgiveness’ limits are tested. Second, the focus on renewal and futurity highlights the important point that forgiveness is rarely an end in itself; rather, it is a pathway towards revitalised relationships and socio-political advancement. Overall, the volume provides an insightful, nuanced and frank exploration of forgiveness and was a pleasure to read.

References: 

La Caze, Marguerite. 2018. “Introduction: Situating Forgiveness within Phenomenology.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, vii-xxii. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Hoff, Shannon. 2018. “The Right and the Righteous: Hegel on Confession, Forgiveness, and the Necessary Imperfection of Political Action.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 3-24. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

De Warren, Nicolas. 2018. “For the Love of the World: Redemption and Forgiveness in Arendt.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 25-42. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Drichel, Simone. 2018. “’A forgiveness that remakes the world’: Trauma, Vulnerability, and Forgiveness in the Work of Emmanuel Levinas.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 43-64. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Banki, Peter. 2018. “Hyper-Ethical Forgiveness and the Inexpiable.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 65-82. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Fiasse, Gaëlle. 2018. “Forgiveness in Ricoeur.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 85-102. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Ang, Jennifer. 2018. “Self-Forgiveness in the Gray Zone.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 103-16. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Calcagno, Antonio. 2018. “Can a Community Forgive? Edith Stein on the Lived Experience of Communal Forgiveness.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 117-30. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Adelsberg, Geoffrey. 2018. “Collective Forgiveness in the Context of Ongoing Harms.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 131-46. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Sharpe, Matthew. 2018. “Camus and Forgiveness: After the Fall.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 149-64. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Brennan, David. 2018. “Václav Havel’s Call for Forgiveness.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 165-80. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Pagani, Karen A. 2018. “Toward a Heideggerian Approach to the Problem of Political Forgiveness, or the Dignity of a Question.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 181-96. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Murphy, Ann. V. 2018. “Phenomenology, Crisis, and Repair.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 197-208. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Jean-Luc Marion, Christiaan Jacobs-Vandegeer (Eds.): The Enigma of Divine Revelation: Between Phenomenology and Comparative Theology, Springer, 2020

The Enigma of Divine Revelation: Between Phenomenology and Comparative Theology Book Cover The Enigma of Divine Revelation: Between Phenomenology and Comparative Theology
Contributions to Hermeneutics, Vol. 7
Jean-Luc Marion, Christiaan Jacobs-Vandegeer (Eds.)
Springer
2020
Hardback 88,39 €
IX, 301

Hamid Taieb: Relational Intentionality: Brentano and the Aristotelian Tradition

Relational Intentionality: Brentano and the Aristotelian Tradition Book Cover Relational Intentionality: Brentano and the Aristotelian Tradition
Franz Brentano Studies
Hamid Taieb
Springer
2018
Hardback 77,99 €
XII, 213

Reviewed by: Marco Coratolo (Department of Philosophy, University of Liège)

Intentionality is a matter that has worried philosophers for a long time. Scholars unanimously agree that Franz Brentano is the one who introduced the issue into contemporary philosophy, bringing back a concern already raised by the Aristotelian tradition. Despite the tremendous amount of studies on intentionality, those who deal with its historical roots are still missing. Hamid Taieb’s primary aim in this book is precisely to fill this gap and to investigate the development of Brentano’s tripartition between intentionality, causality and reference. Furthermore, the volume examines whether others before Brentano had recognized this distinction in Aristotle. The starting point is Metaphysics Δ15, where a first demarcation between three different classes of relationships is established. Taieb reviews in detail the diverse interpretations that the Scholastic tradition has given of this passage. The final purpose is to show that Brentano conceives of intentionality as a relation that cannot be reduced to causality or reference and that this tripartition is historically anchored in Aristotelianism, regardless of the actual influence on Brentano’s work. Taieb tries to prove the validity of this proposal by scrutinizing an extraordinary number of works, including unpublished texts from Brentano’s Nachlaß. Thus, I shall confine myself to briefly showing the content of the different chapters and eventually present a personal assessment of this work.

The first chapter sets the stage by introducing some conceptual and methodological distinctions, also referring to the contemporary debate in philosophy of mind. The author points out that the main purpose of his research is exquisitely philological and not merely exegetical. Moreover, he stresses that the motivations that led to the distinction between intentionality, causality and (mental) reference are purely philosophical, and they appear throughout the history of philosophy. More specifically, the main reason for the tripartition between intentionality, causality and reference, is the so-called problem of non-existent objects.

Chapter 2 sets out the actual research and focuses in more detail on the connections between causality and intentionality in the Aristotelian tradition. The starting point is the debate between Burnyeat and Sorabji on psychic causality in the Aristotelian tradition and its connection with intentionality. It then goes on to analyse the concept of “discrimination” (κρίσις) before dealing with the medieval debates on causality and intentionality. Both Alexander of Aphrodisias and the Neoplatonist commentators identify a special type of psychic relation called “discrimination” (κρίσις), which is distinct from the being-affected by which sensation and intellection occur. The final result of the analysis shows that there has been a constant tension between causalist and intentionalist readings. Finally, it moves back to the evolution of Brentano, showing the similarities between his view and the Aristotelians. The Aristotelian tradition neither reduced causality to intentionality nor intentionality to causality but tried to draw a clear distinction between these two aspects. This is true as much for Scholastics as for Brentano. Of particular interest in this section is the introduction of two arguments for the distinction between intentionality and causality. The first comes from the Scholastic tradition and suggests, as some kind of thought experiment, that if God were the cause of our mental acts, it would, therefore, be necessary to distinguish between the object of our act and its cause (i.e. God). The second argument is more popular and is still being discussed in the contemporary debate on the problem of perception. The argument from hallucination claims that hallucinatory perceptual acts are intentionally identical to veridical acts, but are not so concerning the relationship between the agent and her environment.

Chapter 3 investigates the role played by Metaphysics Δ.15 and other texts, in particular, the section of Categories 7 about relations or πρός τι, in the debate on the characteristics of intentionality and its correlate. This is the most complex and articulated chapter, where Taieb presents his critical arguments in defence of a relationalist reading of Brentano’s intentionality. After reviewing some contemporary readings of Aristotle, Taieb argues that in the Athenian philosopher, we can already find the two main strategies provided by the advocates of relational intentionality when confronted with the problem of non-existent objects. One solution is to introduce intentional objects  (i.e. ficta,  impossibilia and common items), the other is allowing an unconventional relation without two relata. The first section (§ 3.2) deals with the concept of intentional object and its ontological status from Neoplatonists to Brentano, while the second part (§ 3.3.) focuses on the relationship between the intentional act and its object. The fulcrum of this chapter is the debate between continuist and discontinuist interpretations of Brentano. Both readings agree that Brentano after 1904 by dismissing irrealia, he also rejects unreal correlates. The real matter of discord is the notion of object. According to discontinuists (Marty, Kastil, Kraus, Chisholm, Baumgartner, Mulligan, Barry Smith, and Chrudzimski), an object denotes an unreal correlate that has only an intentional existence. The object is understood in relation to mental activity. Once the act ceases to be, the same applies to the object. According to this reading, once Brentano subscribes to reism, he discards both irrealia and intentional objects. Taieb supports this latter view and he argues that the key demarcation in Brentano is between the object tout court, which is not relative to the act, and the object as object, which is relative to the act. However, unlike standard discontinuism, Taieb argues that the late Brentano, in order to solve the problems raised by intentional objects, adopts a theory similar to Suárez’s ‘psychic denomination’. Intentionality entails neither an unreal correlate nor the existence of the object, and it is a real relation since the equation between reality and causality is rejected by the late Brentano. Conversely, continuists (Sauer, Antonelli and Fréchette) contends that the identification between the intentional object and the unreal correlate is erroneous and that there is nothing like an intentional existence. They argue that Brentano, from the beginning to the end of his work, has never dropped the notion of intentional object. This latter, as far as its existence is concerned, is ontologically neutral; namely it is nothing more than what is intended.

Chapter 4 deals with the notion of reference. Brentano qualifies the reference as a relationship of quasi-sameness (Quasigleichheit) between an immanent and transcendent object. After 1904, with his departure from immanent objects, he started to conceive the reference as a relationship of similarity (Ähnlichkeit),  as many medieval Scholastics did. One of the reasons that Taieb alleges for this shift to the notion of similarity is that sameness works between an immanent object and a real object, since these two entities have a sort of definitional overlap. In the relation between a cognitive act and its object, there is no such definitional overlap. Finally, the difference between reference, intentionality and causality is shown. Taieb also proves in this case that the arguments used by Brentano to support this distinction are already present in the Scholastic tradition, except for Aquinas who argued that intentionality is a relation of similarity.

Chapter 5 eventually draws some final considerations. Taieb first briefly reviews the main findings of the research and then presents some remarks of high interest in the philosophy of the history of philosophy. He argues that his work is meant to examine the philosophical dimension of texts from the past from the perspective of historical reconstruction. The occasional use of contemporary terms is only intended to clarify concepts that could be obsolete for most readers today, without neglecting the fidelity to the author considered. The final result is a holistic attempt at understanding an author’s thought and arguments by placing them in their context. This does not rule out the possibility that the same philosophical concerns may sometimes arise at different historical moments, and all the answers supporting them become disposable at the same time, regardless of the particular periods in which they appeared.

Taieb’s book is extremely detailed, scientifically rigorous and enriched by an outstanding philological apparatus. The only flaw I have managed to detect is that sometimes this primacy of philology seems to leave no room for exquisitely philosophical insights. For someone who is not a Brentano or Aristotle scholar, it might, in fact, be quite easy to miss the point or get lost in details. I believe, for example, that it would have been intriguing to see the broadest scope of the investigation and to further clarify the implications for the contemporary philosophical debate as well as a closer confrontation with the so-called new Brentanians, only partially addressed. However, the remarkable and exhaustive amount of work carried out by Taieb makes this publication extremely relevant. The uniqueness of the inquiry results in an excellent and thoughtful piece of work, opening up a fruitful area of research yet to be explored. Besides being a valuable tool for historians of philosophy, it can undoubtedly be of interest to all those concerned with intentionality, whether they are historians, phenomenologists or philosophers of mind.

Thomas Szanto, Hilge Landweer (Eds.): The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Emotion, Routledge, 2020

The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Emotion Book Cover The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Emotion
Routledge Handbooks in Philosophy
Thomas Szanto, Hilge Landweer (Eds.)
Routledge
2020
Hardback £190.00
648

Federica Buongiorno, Vincenzo Costa, Roberta Lanfredini (Eds.): Phenomenology in Italy: Authors, Schools and Traditions, Springer, 2020

Phenomenology in Italy: Authors, Schools and Traditions Book Cover Phenomenology in Italy: Authors, Schools and Traditions
Contributions To Phenomenology, Vol. 106
Federica Buongiorno, Vincenzo Costa, Roberta Lanfredini (Eds.)
Springer
2020
Hardback 103,99 €
IX, 178