Michael Staudigl, Jason W. Alvis (Eds.): Phenomenology and the Post-Secular Turn

Phenomenology and the Post-Secular Turn: Contemporary Debates on the 'Return of Religion' Book Cover Phenomenology and the Post-Secular Turn: Contemporary Debates on the 'Return of Religion'
Michael Staudigl, Jason W. Alvis (Eds.)
Hardback £115.00

Reviewed by: Thomas Sojer (University of Erfurt)

Are we living in a Post-secular age, and if so, how can it be understood (1)? By asking this question, Michael Staudigl and Jason W. Alvis introduce their remarkable anthology of contemporary debates on the ‘return of religion’.  The collection of eight essays was first published as a special edition of the International Journal of Philosophical Studies under the slightly different title Phenomenology and The Post-secular Turn: Reconsidering the ‘Return of the Religious’ in 2016. In contrast to the Open Access online version, this printed hardcover volume offers the rewarding invitation of reading and re-reading.

It is important pointing out one formal peculiarity: A separate section at the beginning of the anthology indicates that quotations should not be taken from the printed volume, but from the journal published in 2016 (vii-viii). Since the order of essays has changed, one will have to engage in a little arithmetic game when citing. In addition, as format of the original version in 2016 was adequately maintained, the person who cites has to disregard the page numbers of the 2018 physical copy, but to count the pages per essay from the 2018 physical copy before applying to the 2016 journal page count. Eight contributions from 2016 are offered with calculation as Open Access at Taylor Francis Online.

As the editors emphasise in the introduction, Anthony J. Steinbock provides the opening and basis of anthology by revealing what he thinks as all along missing from the secular realm. Steinbock’s paper The Role of the Moral Emotions in Our Social and Political Practices regards the current discourses on both post-secularism and the ‘return of religion’ as desiderata of our secular age to unfold a new understanding of moral emotions (12); e.g. emotions of self-givenness (guilt, pride, shame), of possibility (despair, repentance, hope), and of otherness (humility, loving, trust). With the new philosophical equipment of moral emotions on board, Steinbock proposes to emancipate the discourse on a possible return of religion from the oscillation between atheism and theism. He aims to re-introduce the experience of not being self-grounding at the very centre of a new discourse. Steinbock claims that moral emotions not only determine our internal spheres, such as the private, psychological or ethical domains but they relate ourselves to others with whom we find ourselves already involved (20). Thus, moral emotions are shaping the way we imagine political, social, economic and ecological dimensions of our world and elucidate modes of existence as modes of co-existence. However, in favour of values like subjectivity, rationality, and autonomy, Modernity has ignored and even denigrated moral emotions. Here, the phenomenological investigations of moral emotions shed light on the givenness of man revealing that the individual is not self-grounding but inter-personal and inter-Personal (22). This last capital letter refers to a vertical and de-limiting dimension of our social imaginaries. Steinbock observes in this regard that “the political is not merely ‘political’, as the ecological is not merely ‘ecological’. At the core of the experience is a pointer beyond itself. And this is precisely what has been missing in secularism” (24). To sum up, Steinbock’s contribution provides a valuable and welcome resource for everyone who is interested in the importance of moral emotions to the processes of social and political transformation throughout history.

By pursuing a phenomenologically inspired de-worlding, James G. Hart aims at a deeper meaning of being in the world, thus the meaning of world itself beyond the concept of a ‘megamachine’ (36). Via the mutual transitions from religious domination to secularism and the post-secular, the paper Deep Secularism, Faith, and Spirit asks about an original default stance of this development: Reading the New Testament Hart situates the biblical condition of humanity within a physical and social world of fundamental godlessness, calling it the ‘kosmos’ from which god finally redeems (29). Diametrical to the biblical default, Hart highlights sociological interpretations similar to which Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age defines as secularism as an historically evolution emerging from Christendom and consequently negating it. Here, Hart criticises Taylor for describing the conditions of experience exclusively within a framework of a sociology of religious belief based on Thomas Kuhn’s manner in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Hart accuses Taylor of ignoring the transcendental, phenomenological and metaphysical underpinnings of his hermeneutical analysis. Because of this ignorance, Taylor omitted in the eyes of Hart to consider an ‘agency of manifestation’, which is to understand the secular as a kind of pervasive deep background that pre-thematically and pre-conceptually shapes our consciousness of religious and secular experience (28). According to Hart, the deepest outcome of deep secularism has been manifested so far in the various strains of scientisitic and reductionist materialist naturalism, which dismisses the first-person experience as an illusion of the brain (44). Hart portrays present-day deep-secularism, unlike previous historical manifestations, as rejecting not only the contents of experience but experience as such, making knowing itself impossible. Concerning the debunking of belief in immortality by declaring the first-person experience an illusion, Hart outlines a dilemma that thinking of knowing in terms of a biological causality inevitably will self-destruct: He argues that “knowing cannot be a biological process because such processes as such (and our knowing of our knowledge of these processes) are not true or false, not necessary or probable, and have no syntax – as does our knowledge of these processes” (48). In this manifold and diverse contribution, Hart provides both philosophical and religious convincing ‘faith perspectives’ on questions about post-secularism due to deep secularism.

Another ‘faith-voice’, J. A. Simmons suggests that a disembodied, ahistorical, objectivist approach on faith (comma) in a postmodern/post-secular age was not only epistemologically but morally controversial (60). Consequently, he chooses to conduct phenomenological investigation by reflecting upon his personal lived existence as a so-called ‘postmodern Christian’ (52). Here, Simmons takes up Jean-Luc Marion’s warning against the intellectual arrogance of taking God’s perspective and finds a proposed solution in Merold Westphal’s notion that postmodernism is simply the idea that one cannot peek over God’s shoulder (59). By employing this extraordinary autobiographical approach, Simmons’ paper Personally Speaking … Kierkegaardian Postmodernism and the Messiness of Religious Experience performs what his original theory of Kierkegaardian postmodernism seeks to outline. In this regard, the attribute ‘Kierkegaardian’ implies that identity formation results from a specific social location. Simmons locates himself within four dichotomic propositions (58-59): as a person who ‘asks post-secularly’ out of his personal religious beliefs, not against them, he is motivated by Christianity, not threatening to it, he acknowledges his religious affiliation precisely because of his postmodern identity, not despite of it, finally he uses phenomenology in a postmodern/ post-secular context to immerse into his historical community not away from it. Against the backdrop of an unavoidable perspectival inquiry, Simmons discerns current debates in philosophy and theology as oscillation between an objectivist and a subjectivist solution (61). The objective side agrees that we remain within our contingent perspectives; however, God would enable us through divine revelation to grasp the Absolute Truth within these very perspectives. Simmons brands this version of epistemic realism ‘kataphatic orthodoxy’. On the other hand, the subjective side uncompromisingly rejects truth entirely following what Simmons brands consequently an apophatic orthodoxy (62). To neither pursue one nor the other extreme, he emphasises as Ludwig Wittgenstein calls it, the ‘rough ground’ of a hermeneutic analysis that can be obtained only in a personal approach (59). This personal access allows expressing the full radicality of faith. Only then God can be released from the equation to objective truth – hence articulating what a phenomenological concept of God entails: a God who is trouble (64). In addition to the fact that Simmons’ contribution is humorously written, it compellingly connects complex epistemological concepts with ordinary problems of a parishioner.

In the paper How to Overcome the World: Henry, Heidegger, and the Post-Secular Jason W. Alvis disputes in favour of the statement that only when we stop to take the obviousness and neutrality of the world for granted, we can indeed speak of the post-secular (74). The author finds an obvious and natural world challenged most prominently in the works of Martin Heidegger and Michel Henry, albeit in different ways: Heidegger criticises, on the one hand, a materialistic conception of world, which sees the world only as the sum of its parts. On the other hand, Heidegger rejects those religious and mystical interpretations of the world that portray its actual basis in an invisible, metaphysical essence beyond the material world (75): Heidegger’s concept of world is both ‘subjectively’ constituted by us, yet simultaneously constituting us within it. Additionally, it also constitutes our concepts of the world in a shared and public way shaping it for others (85). In his seminar on Heraclitus, Heidegger demonstrates the traditional understanding of ‘appearing’ is therefore misleading. The dichotomy between presence and absence needs to be abandoned in favour of paradoxical notion of what can be observed in the essential unfolding of an inconspicuous world (79). For Henry, on the other hand, it is the connecting link between ourselves and the inconspicuous world that consists of affects (82). He suggests a self-affection of life: The experience of oneself as living is what allows us to be affected by the world. Henry unveils thus a paradox of Modernity (84): While describing what is all too obvious in the world, this very description omits the most obvious notion of all which is that life itself being auto-affective. In the synthesis of Heidegger and Henry, Alvis proposes subsequently not to read the world as what appears as neutral and obvious but as exactly the opposite, namely the inconspicuous non-neutral. Alvis concludes the striking and insightful consideration as “what hides itself inconspicuously and presents itself as ‘ordinary’ or neutral is precisely what is pulling the strings of consciousness, directing the metaphysical backstage of everyday life” (87).

Taking Paul Ricoeur as a starting point, Christina M. Gschwandtner examines how fundamentalist groups cope with an inevitable ambiguity of human life between discordance and concordance within contemporary pluralist societies. Her paper Philosophical Reflections on the Shaping of Identity in Fundamentalist Religious Communities identifies the fear of losing personal and social identity as a significant factor within religious fundamentalism (102). Gschwandtner agrees with Ricoeur that religion is best studied through its language (93). However, she advocates by extending Ricoeur’s concept of religious language beyond biblical texts, in favour of all sorts of material culture with a foundational function, for example, Christian science fiction, Christian romance novels, movies, video games, homeschool materials, and religious social media platforms (94-95). Particularly interesting is what Gschwandtner’s reversed reading of Ricoeur’s linear account of secular de-mythologization (100): For Ricoeur, a community adheres to a first naïveté while accepting its own religious language uncritically as literal belief. The first naïveté is finally debunked as a myth by criticism, technology and science. Via a post-critical second naïveté the community re-mythologises the symbolic realm of the text, grasping a deeper meaning. Referring to current ethnological research, Gschwandtner reminds that most religious communities do not interpret their myths literally in the first place. However, facing the ambiguity of contemporary pluralist societies, these groups develop a ‘hermeneutic style’ of adopting a narrower and more literalistic interpretation of their founding texts (101). In this respect, Gschwandtner detects a tendency to abandon the mythical complexity and plurality of the past in favour of rigorously restricted and narrowed hermeneutics today. Furthermore, Gschwandtner demonstrates why Ricoeur’s linear and narrow depiction of hermeneutics partly misses recognising the violent potential of fundamentalist forces. Ricoeur believes, following René Girard, that while rituals may generate violence, sacred texts may contain it. Consequently, she suggests that beyond the “unnecessary (and unhelpful) bifurcation” between ritual and text, the question of individual identity formation must come to the fore (103-104). Even though Gschwandter criticises Ricoeur fruitfully in various aspects, by developing his ideas further, she remains faithful to the main ideas and emphasises about the strength of his hermeneutics in clarifying issues regarding religious fundamentalism. At this point it is noteworthy that the comprehensive notes (105-110) are remarkably outstanding, highly informative and in-depth.

In the paper Murdering Truth: ‘Postsecular’ Perspectives on Theology and Violence Robyn Horner first investigates how far the phenomenon of revelation is legitimised within philosophy by comparing Jean-Luc Marion and Jean-Yves Lacoste. On that basis, Horner asks the relation of revelatory truth claims and violence. With Marion’s concept of the saturated phenomenon, Horner reasons that it is phenomenologically feasible to describe revelation as an experience of excess, as the saturation of intuition (118). On the other hand, regarding the concept of Lacoste, revelation can also be interpreted as lacking and poverty of intuition or simply the experience of feeling nothing, closely link to the experience of atheist and believer (120). Horner associates the perspectives of both excess and poverty as a revelatory interruption that regards the potential for violence which needs to be examined in the light of the always-potentially-contrary-to-me nature of revelation (126). Although religious beliefs are often involved in violent conflicts, Horner rejects the idea of violence as a necessary corollary of God’s goodness. In this respect, she refers to René Girard’s mimetic theory emphasising the biblical pathway towards overcoming violence, as well as Kantian teleology, according to which a God who is violent by nature is incompatible with the good. What turned out to be fascinating is Horner’s suggestion on reading violence as an inauthentic hermeneutic of revelation (123). Consequently, she fails to define the hermeneutical perversion in response to the major world religious traditions but in response to the experience of revelation itself, echoing Marion and Lacoste instead. Here, Augustine speaks of two possible reactions to the truth: to love and to hate (125). Thus, violence can emerge if hatred for the revealed truth transforms into hatred for the otherness of the other in order to protect oneself from a truth that one may not wish to know. She concludes by warning that there is not only the danger of the horror religiosus, that is, provoking violence as a result of otherness in religious revelation. There is also the danger of inciting violence in secularism against the otherness of theism in general (127).

In the paper On Seizing the Source: Toward a Phenomenology of Religious Violence Michael Staudigl provides a compendious and insightful examination of the return of religion against the backdrop of religious violence. Because of the rationalised ghettoisation of religious violence by branding it as a form of senseless violence, Modernity structurally omits its own normatively embellished violence: “It is also high time to acknowledge various auto-idolatries of occidental reason that have rendered its assumedly liberating project inherently doubtful” (138) Staudigl’s concise yet comprehensive survey on contemporary debates illustrates the potential and the need to highlight the role of affective economies and cultural politics of emotions within the mechanisms of religious and non-religious violence (134-140). In response to this paramount challenge, Staudigl proposes fertilising as the so-called theological turn in French phenomenology and focuses example-wise on the concept of givenness in Jean-Luc Marion as well as on Paul Ricoeur who attributes an inherently hermeneutic character to a phenomenology of religion. Staudigl draws persuasively the conclusion that both approaches, however, do not embrace lived religion, but “attempt to rethink God in terms of superabundant ‘givenness’ or focus a textual hermeneutics that translates such givenness into the narrative semantics of the respective religious system of knowledge” (150). Starting from Ricoeur’s notion of mimetic rivalry and Jan Patočka’s waring of a return of orgiastic, Staudigl suggests reading religious violence as a product of monopolising appropriation of the originary source of givenness (153). A particularly interesting observation is that experiences of transcendence need to take flesh; in other words, they need to be translated into experiences of self-transcendence by a phenomenal or lived body which is both affectable and affecting (155). In resonance with Simone Weil’s linking of affectivity and thought in her notion of ‘I can, therefore, I am’, Staudigl foreshadows a re-embodying and materialising of Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of religion: “The sovereignty of the ‘I’ qua embodied ‘I-can’ is also its vulnerability.” (156) This approach of lived body gives remarkable insights into a new advent of archaic, brutal, and cruel violence, as what we witness in current wars of religion. Staudigl closes his observations with an intriguing foresight on the importance of lived religion and lived body as the affective medium building the reflective pivot of ‘carnal hermeneutics’ of a phenomenology of religion – which in particular do not obfuscate religious violence as the most irrational, while eclipsing the own rationalised forms of violence (160-161).

Against the backdrop of contemporary American democracy, the paper From Mystery to Laughter to Trembling Generosity: Agono-Pluralistic Ethics in Connolly v. Levinas (and the Possibilities for Atheist-Theist Respect) by Sarah Pessin explores possibilities for mutual respect and generous comportment between atheists and theists. William E. Conelly’s optimistic call to laughter in common between atheists and theist provides a discursive canvas for Pessin’s reflections. Starting from a philosophy of laughter in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, the author elaborates analogous to Henry Bergson’s sense of closed and open societies into  two discrete phenomenologies of laughter (187): The laughing atheist on the on hand adopts an open and laughing comportment. The trembling theist, on the other hand, transforms a closed and trembling attitude into open and trembling comportment. In this regard, Conolly’s call for laughing together generates two opposing comportments, causing more separation than union. The best option for Pessin is a new way to adopt comportment by opening and trembling, however open to both theists and atheists in a non-theistic way. For this purpose, she invokes Emmanuel Levinas’ understanding of open direction of eros and enjoyment on the one hand, and a trembling direction which places man on the brink of tears and laughter to responsibility on the other hand (188-189). Of particular interest are Pessin’s preliminary reflections on the problem of laughing together: She reminds us of an impossibility of the all-pardon thesis in Ego and Totality, which states that in a real society no duality between two subjects exists, without causing unpardonable harm to the Other’s Other: “post-secular politics is always a politics of interrupted justice – a justice, in other words, that is always agonistic and never able to attain some sort of pure [post-agonistic] state of inner-human consensus, love, and/or harmony.” (177)

In order to estimate the extraordinary performance of this anthology, a look at the helpful and carefully selected index (201-206) at the end of the book is advisable. The vast diversity of personalities, philosophical terms and subjects stands in direct contradiction to the concise size of the volume of just two hundred pages. All the more, it is the accomplishment of this volume to navigate around the very complex topic about the return of religion which assembles an inspiring spectrum of different approaches without losing the common ground, or as Wittgenstein would put it, the ‘rough ground’ of the post-secular turn.

J.L. Chretien: Spacious Joy: An Essay in Phenomenology and Literature, Rowman & Littlefield, 2019

Spacious Joy: An Essay in Phenomenology and Literature Book Cover Spacious Joy: An Essay in Phenomenology and Literature
J.L. Chretien. Translated by Anne Ashley Davenport
Rowman & Littlefield International
Paperback £29.95

Felix Duque: Remnants of Hegel: Remains of Ontology, Religion and Community

Remnants of Hegel: Remains of Ontology, Religion, and Community Book Cover Remnants of Hegel: Remains of Ontology, Religion, and Community
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Félix Duque. Translated by Nicholas Walker
SUNY Press
Paperback $19.95

Reviewed by: Oded Balaban (Dept. of Philosophy, University of Haifa, Israel)

Felix Duque is arguably the most important living philosopher in the Spanish-speaking world. Remnants of Hegel is the first book translated into English. It is not a mere interpretation of Hegel, but rather a critical study that attempts to drive the aspects of its subject matter toward their ultimate consequences using Hegelian criteria. In other words, if Hegel’s philosophy is a critique of Kant’s critical philosophy, then Duque’s exposition is a critique of Hegelian philosophy. Furthermore, and just as Hegel develops Kantian categories in order to reveal a truth that goes beyond Kant, Duque develops Hegelian concepts in order to deduce a truth that transcends them. Indeed, Duque says that “The Hegelian system, impressive as it is, ultimately reveals itself as a miscarried attempt to reconcile nature and theory, individuality and collective praxis” (Duque, x).

Moreover, I should begin my review by noting that the book is clearly written for readers who are well acquainted with Hegel’s philosophy. In this respect, my review will attempt to overcome this difficulty by limiting itself to a reading that makes it accessible to those who are not conversant with this philosophy.

The book itself contains five chapters:

Chapter I: Substrate and Subject (Hegel in the aftermath of Aristotle). This chapter is concerned with the famous expression made in the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit: “According to my view of things, which can be justified through the exposition of the system itself, everything depends on apprehending and expressing the true not as [nicht als] substance, but just as much [eben so sehr] as subject” (Duque, 17).

Chapter II: Hegel on the Death of Christ, is a discussion that seeks to analyze the transition from nature to society, or, rather, the transition from a natural human being to a historical being, and to a being having a second nature, which is the political life of man, a transition which is made possible by the understanding of society and politics as a higher level of self-consciousness.

Chapter III: Death Is a Gulp of Water. This chapter is concerned with terror in World History. More specifically, it is a critical exposition of Hegel’s idea of revolution and terror which primarily refers to the French Revolution. The politics of terror, the chapter argues, is the necessary result of trying to implement the revolution without mediations, that is, directly and as an abstract revolution (Duque, 83). Here Duque does not limit himself to an analysis of Hegel and his time, but also deals with its historical reception by the likes of Communism and Stalinism in the twentieth century. Such an idea of terror does much to radically undervalue the value of life and also makes us remember Hanna Arendt’s Banality of Evil. Indeed, terror is, paradoxically, a result of the French Revolution in its historical imagining of Napoleon, namely, the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity as mediated by his political force appearing as the opposite of those values’ true essence.

Chapter IV: Person, Freedom, and Community is an analysis of the last chapter of Hegel’s Science of Logic which is concerned with the notion of the absolute idea. It is an essential problem to understanding the book as a whole since Hegel begins and ends the book by praising this notion rather than explaining or developing it.

Chapter V: The Errancy of Reason. This chapter summarizes the previous chapters and engages in a holistic critical analysis of the topics discussed.

I would now wish to develop some ideas on Hegel inspired by reading Duque’s work and by my own understanding of Hegel’s philosophy.

Hegel’s logic is not normative. Unlike formal logic, which determines how we should think and not how we actually think, Hegel‘s Science of Logic, proceeds in the opposite direction by studying thought as it is as well as its development from the most abstract stage (the thought of pure being without further determinations) to the most concrete, this being the absolute idea as the unit of theoretical and practical thinking. Duque’s interpretation adopts this principle, and unlike the interpretations offered by Alexandre Kojève and many others, asserts that it should be taken literally, that is, by not trying to correct the author in order to understand him! Understanding by correcting makes the original a tabula rasa since it allows the interpreter to introduce any idea as it occurs to her or him to the work in the belief that it is an interpretation, while it is actually a creation of her or his own mind.

Hegel’s Logic is a reflective study of the concept. In Duque’s words, “the entire Logic is nothing but a relentless attempt to furnish a conscious and deliberate reconstruction of fugitive and fleeting linguistic forms and determinations.” (Duque, ix). The terms in his Logic do not have the fixity that they have in formal logic (both classical and modern), but their meaning varies according to the context, and especially according to the level in which the study is developed. Hegel perceives only the term, the word, as fixed, but not the concept or content that is expressed through words.

Hegel’s logic attempts to solve the classic problem of Aristotelian logic, in which “to say what something in the last instance really is, its ultimate logos, amounts to affirming all the affections, properties, and determinations of that thing” (Duque, 4). Hegel, however, is not successful in resolving this difficulty despite believing he is.

Hegel suggests that thought and reality, as well as mind and world, are inseparable in the sense that their meaning undergoes constant change and construction with respect to the conceptual level and context in which it takes place. A concept’s level of abstraction or concreteness thus simultaneously determines the degree of reality to which it refers. Put differently, this reading suggests that the Science of Logic ultimately serves as an ontological proof which not only proves the existence of God but also the existence of every concept subjected to actual thought. In other words, if I really believe in the concept of having a hundred thalers in my pocket, and not merely imagining them, then the hundred thalers become real and become part of my patrimony. I thus either have them in my pocket or, alternately, owe them and am obliged to pay them. This is not the case with Kant, since he merely imagines them, that is to say, recognizes from the very outset that they are not real thalers. This, in turn, is the difference between abstract and concrete concepts.

The process of concretion is clearly explained in the “logic of the judgment” discussion in the third part of Science of Logic, which is nothing but logic from the perspective of the relationship between the two essential components of judgment—subject and predicate. Thus, every judgment announces that the subject is the predicate. More explicitly, the subject of the judgment is the entity whose identity is being subjected to inquiry, and the answer is offered by all the predicates that refer to that subject. Each predicate thus changes the meaning of the subject, and, in reality, amplifies its meaning. In this respect, a subject is enriched by having more predicates attributed to it – as each of the latter forms another subject with other questions. In other words, to think is – formally – to pass from the subject, which functions as what is unknown and in need of becoming known, to the predicate, which functions as what is known and therefore as what bestows knowledge and meaning on the subject. It is thus a relation between a bearer of meaning (the subject) and a meaning (the predicate).

However, this relationship occurs within the frame of another relationship that occurs in the same intentional field. It is the relation (entirely unlike that of subject and predicate) between subject and object. Despite their difference, subject-predicate and subject-object relations cannot be separated but only distinguished. In effect, when the thought passes from the subject to the predicate, it does not consider the predicate (that is to say, it does not think about grammar) but its content, that is, the object or, rather, something that acquires the status of an object. The subject thus objectifies the target of though by means of predication. In the case of philosophy, that is to say, thinking about thinking, thought passes to something else, to what is being thought about, namely the object. And what is an object if not something that stands in front of the subject as a correlative to the subject? Hegel indeed argued that the object possesses nothing more than this relational character. The object is thus what was thought about by the subject. It is the entire universe existing insofar as it is the content of thought. There is no other universe. However, it is not the thought of my individual reflection. It is ultimately a universal reflection, and Hegel goes so far as to maintain that everything is Spirit (“There is nothing at hand that is wholly alien to spirit” (Hegel, Encyclopedia § 377, note, quoted by Duque, 38).

The Spirit is the objectification of subjectivity, the whole universe as thought of, a conceptualized universe, insofar as another does not replace it. But if something else remains, it is the task of thought to appropriate it, that is, as we said, to conceptualize it and thus imbue it with reality. This, in turn, is the secret of the coincidence of logic and metaphysics.

Thus, it turns out that the object is the complete expression of the subject. A strange reflection indeed. Fully aware of being a reflection and its denial at the same time—because it always returns to thinking about the object when it is supposed to be thinking about thinking about the object.

Hegel nonetheless moves backward. He rethinks the thought, concentrating not on content but on the fact of thinking about it. Hegel and his readers believed that they were thinking about Being when they were actually thinking about Essence; they thought they were thinking about Essence, and they were actually thinking about Concept! That is to say, Hegel was not concerned with a question of being but with the concept of being. It was not a question of essence but of the concept of essence, and it was not about concept but about the concept of concept. Hegel and his readers believed that they were thinking about substance when they were actually thinking about themselves—about the subject. Duque is therefore right in saying that all this does not mean we are solely concerned with thinking about substance, but also about the subject. This is because the substance is not even the truth, although it is a reflection, but this is a reflection that lacks reflection, or that does not know that it is a reflection. In other words, we are ultimately concerned with a subject thinking about itself.

The culmination of this backwards-advancing reflection is the Absolute Idea, which also serves as the culmination of subjectivity in the Subjective Logic (the third and last part of the Science of Logic). This must not be forgotten, as must the assertion that Hegel’s thought cannot migrate to another sphere, or does not enter it because Hegel does not need it, although he promises to explain something new, viz. the content of the Absolute Idea. But it is precisely here, at the end of the Science of Logic, that Hegel begins being poetic and stops being philosophical: he offers pure promises without any fulfillment. Such is the end of the great Science of Logic despite its colossality. Duque, in turn, ascribes a great deal of importance to this abrupt end in Hegel’s Logic. When the Absolute Idea is reached, according to Duque, “Everything else [Alles Übrige] is error, obscurity, struggle, caprice, and transience [Vergänglichkeit].” (Hegel, Science of Logic, quoted by Duque, 38). Is it not the case that everything should be included in the Absolute Spirit? Is the whole path unnecessary, as is the case of the ladder for the young Wittgenstein? This would go against the spirit of Hegel’s philosophy no less than his own assertion about error, obscurity, etc.

The Absolute Idea, then, does not fulfill Hegel’s intention. The universal absolute should deduce the individual in her or his singularity from itself because the individual is absolutely relational. It is a being that includes what is not her or him in itself, as well as what is other than itself, as the determinant of what it is. In other words, it is a concrete individuality understandable in its concrete universality. This is especially apparent when we think of the individual as a social being. If we take away all of the individual’s “environment” and context, namely, every socially shared issue and every general feature including language and clothing it will remain, contrary to what could be expected, an abstract individual: Just as when attempting to isolate the individual in order to understand it in her or his singularity, nothing remains and the very individual disappears. This, in turn, means that individuals are wholly social, that is, totally relational. This does not, however, imply that the individual is not individual, but that this is what it consists of: The more singular the individual, the more dependent she or he is on her or his network of relationships. Thus, the more relationships the individual has, the more individual she or he becomes.

When the individual denies her or his otherness, as in the case of the worker or the slave in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, she or he not only denies the other but it denies her or himself when alienating her or himself from her or his other because that other is her or his own other, not an abstract, isolated other. Thus, the more she or he is social, the more individual she or he becomes. The more she or he has relations to and dependencies on other individuals, the more she or he is a concrete singularity, a singularity determined by its relationships. This is entirely unlike the Aristotelian relations of genera and species, where the individual is obtained through isolation. The Aristotelian individual is obtained by excluding all difference. In Hegel the opposite is true: the more a thing includes the differentiated as differentiated in itself, the more individual it becomes. History is thus a process of socialization which is – in actual fact – a process of individuation. In Aristotelian logic, intension and extension are opposed: the greater the intension, the smaller the extension; the greater the definition, the smaller the subsumed individual(s). In Hegel, there is no such opposition. The individual is more social the more determined she or he is and the more she or he includes the other. Hegelian logic is not, however, intended as an alternative logic to Aristotelian logic, but rather as the self-consciousness of the Aristotelian logic as well as its inner development and evolution. Formal logic is thus a stage that the spirit must pass through in order to be finally be criticized by consciousness, as it is in the Logic of Essence, the second part of the Science of Logic, which engages in the critique of the “laws” of identity, non-contradiction, and the excluded middle.

I will now turn to the relationships between substance and subject. According to Aristotle, a substance is that which is neither said of a subject nor in a subject, namely, it is not a predicate as predicates are said about a substance (individuals, like this individual man or this statue). However, entities which say what a substance is are “secondary” substances, genera and species, that can be also subjects as well as predicates and are always general and never individual. However, saying what an individual is, has the genera and species as an answer, something that is not individual. The individual man belongs to a species, man, and an animal is a genus of that species. Thus, both man and animal are considered secondary substances. In this respect, Duque rightfully claims that the Aristotelian definition of substance as a negative definition arises from the impossibility of saying what it is without making it into something other than what it is. In other words, predicates will always betray their original intention since they cannot be individuals.

If there is something that is neither said of a subject nor exists in a subject, this is obviously because it is itself the subject, as Aristotle himself concedes: “All the other things are either said of the primary substances as subjects or in them as subjects” (Aristotle, Categories, 2a, 34–35, quoted by Duque, 6). Duque then proceeds to state:

Yet secondary substance does not exist of itself, unless it is given with primary substance. We are evidently confronted with a certain inversion here, with an irresolvable chiasmus: that which is first in the order of being is second in the order of logical discourse, and vice versa.” (Duque, 7)

The substance is for Aristotle the being of the being, and it is the fixed (permanent) side of change, something that does not change as things change. As a being of being it has a double function, meaning that it has two meanings in the sense that it is both the essence of the being and the being of the essence.

As the essence of being, the substance is the determinate being, the nature of the necessary being: the man as a two-legged animal. As the being of the essence it is the two-legged animal as this individual man.

This is a duality that Aristotle did not manage to resolve. When Aristotle says that the substance is expressed in the definition and that only the substance has a true definition, the substance is understood as the essence of the being, as that which reason can understand. But when, on the contrary, he declares that the essence is identical to determinate reality, as beauty exists only in what is beauty, Aristotle understands the substance as the being of the essence, and as a principle that offers necessary existence to the nature of a thing.

As the essence of being, the substance is the form of things and bestows unity on the elements that make up the whole where the whole is a distinct proper nature unlike its component elements. Aristotle refers to the form of material things as a species, and species is, therefore, its substance. As the being of the essence, the substance is the substrate: that about which any other thing is predicated but that cannot be a predicate of anything else. And as the substrate it is matter, a reality without any determination other than a potentiality. As the essence of being, the substance is the concept or logos that has neither generation nor corruption, that does not become but is this or that thing. As the being of essence, the substance is the composition, namely, the unity of concept (or form) with matter—the existing thing. In this sense, the substance comes to being and comes to its end.

As the essence of being, the substance is the principle of intelligibility of the being itself. In this sense, it is the stable and necessary element on which science is founded. According to Aristotle, there is no other science than that which is necessary, whereas the knowledge of what can or cannot be is rather an opinion. Substance is thus, objectively, the being of the essence and the necessary reality, and subjectively the essence of being, as necessary rationality. In short, the distinction Aristotle makes between primary substances (0ρώται οὐσίαι) and secondary substances (δεύτεραι οὐσίαι) consists of understanding the former as physical individuals and the latter as species (τά εἴδεα) and genera (τά γένη) of those individuals (Aristotle, Categories, 2a14).

In Hegel, on the other hand, the substance is the principle from which the individual is deduced. He argues for the primacy of the universal and the primacy of substance over the individual. Unlike with Aristotle, the universal is the principle of individuation, so that the individual has no meaning without the universal. This, in turn, is the basis on which his understanding of truth as substance but also as subject can be understood. Duque contends that “primary substance is entirely subsumed in secondary substance, or in universality. But this universality is indeed concrete since it bears and holds all particularity and all individuality within itself. It is concrete, but it does not yet know that it is.”  (Duque, 2018, 24). Namely, it doesn’t know that it is also a subject.

The intentional character of the subject, as it is understood in self-consciousness, means the understanding of the subject as the one that externalizes itself and then internalizes what was rejected, that is, that understands that this is its way of acting. It also means that being is ultimately recognized in reflection as a first instance, that is, as thinking. Substance is itself thinking, though not recognized as such. Ultimately, therefore, subject is a synthesis of self-consciousness and objectivity.

In judgment, when the subject moves toward the predicate, when it is objectified and when, in subsequent reflection, discovers that it returns to itself (since the predicate is predicated from the subject), then the subject ends up enriched with what the predicate attributes to it.

This, in turn, allows us to understand the controversial and somehow obscure dictum in the 1806 preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit:

According to my view of things, which can be justified through the exposition of the system itself, everything depends on apprehending and expressing the true not as [nicht als] substance, but just as much [eben so sehr] as subject (quoted by Duque, 17)

Hegel therefore contends that self-consciousness is externalized and thus becomes an object. But this posited object is itself the very subject that has been placed as another, thus appearing as an opposite to itself: it knows itself knowing the other.

And this happens because that object is not, as it were, a natural object, a given, but an object created or engendered (like any object, according to Hegel) by self-consciousness. They are, then, two momenta, that of subjectivity (being-for-itself) and that of objectivity (being-in-itself). In reality, however, they are not merely two momenta, but a single reality split into two momenta that are only true in their opposition and in their unity. For subjectivity does not become true if it is not objective and true objectivity cannot be natural but only produced by human endeavor (in the broad sense of the word). This is why the fact that men, at one point in history, had subjected other men to work, to externalize themselves, to produce objects out of themselves, and thus transform a given natural environment into a human environment, is a necessary step in human development, as this is a human creation, an elevation above the natural.

A misreading, according to Duque, is to believe that the substance is not true as if the subject has nothing to do with the substance (or mutatis mutandis, a misreading that believes that freedom has nothing to do with necessity). Just as reason does not exist without understanding, subject does not exist without substance. The subject is thus the conceptual understanding of the substance and the consciousness of necessity. Put differently, it is a continuation of Spinozism taken to its logical extreme.

Simon Høffding: A Phenomenology of Musical Absorption

A Phenomenology of Musical Absorption Book Cover A Phenomenology of Musical Absorption
New Directions in Philosophy and Cognitive Science
Simon Høffding
Palgrave Macmillan
XXII, 282

Reviewed by: Camille Buttingsrud (The Danish National School of Performing Arts)


“Who is playing?” (2). This question, which opens Høffding’s book, is prompted by the late Danish bassoonist Peter Bastian’s story of how he experienced looking at his own fingers “sprinting up and down the fingerboard” of the instrument he was playing, in awe of the skill of his own fingers. Høffding wants to understand the nature of such an unusual experience of the self, undergone by musicians in “those Golden Moments when it suddenly takes off”, as Bastian puts it. The debate regarding how best to comprehend and describe such altered states of subjectivity – found in, for instance, artistic absorption – has occupied theorists of expertise, cognitive scientists, and phenomenologists for a number of years. Høffding’s general approach is to find continuities between the various positions in this debate. The theory of one of the main voices in the debate, Hubert Dreyfus’ theory of skilled coping, is strongly disputed in Høffding’s book (94), though. Skilled coping is the idea that in expertise decision-making and skill acquisition are based on bodily coping rather than representational knowledge. Høffding’s own account of expertise, specifically of musical absorption, is built up through the chapters, and fully unfolds towards the end of the book.

Høffding develops his phenomenology of musical absorption by means of empirical as well as theoretical research. On the empirical side, he bases his investigation on a series of qualitative research interviews with the Danish String Quartet; on the theoretical side, Høffding’s work is rooted in the philosophy of mind and classical and contemporary phenomenology. Furthermore, theories from aesthetics, psychology of music, sleep science, and psychiatry are used in the comparative chapters of the book.

Throughout the book, Høffding focuses on three overlapping themes: the absorbed minimal self, the absorbed reflective self, and the absorbed body (6). These aspects of subjectivity are all part of what Høffding eventually calls performative passivity, a notion inspired by Edmund Husserl’s theory of passive and active synthesis (Husserliana 11).

Høffding’s book is divided into three parts: “Meeting the Danish String Quartet”, “Comparative Perspectives”, and “Phenomenological Underpinnings of the Musically Extended Mind”.

Part One, which presents his empirical research, starts with an elaboration of the qualitative interview processes. We are guided through Høffding’s cooperation with four classical musicians (Asbjørn, Rune, Fredrik and Frederik Ø) and are presented with interesting quotes from Høffding’s interviews with them. Høffding gives a detailed description of his method of phenomenological interview, or PI. PI is methodologically inspired by the work of “Susanne Ravn and Dorothée Legrand in particular” (15), and is developed because “classical phenomenology, apart from phenomenological psychiatry, has not been engaged with interviews” (27). PI is also inspired by Dan Zahavi’s work and by Shaun Gallagher’s idea of phenomenological factual variations relying on empirical data. As a supplement to the established phenomenological practice of thought experiments through eidetic variation, the idea is that “real cases” might serve the same function, and “force us to refine, revise, or even abandon our habitual way of thinking” (See Zahavi 2005 on “real-life deviations”, in Høffding 27).

Høffding takes the musicians’ first-person perspectives seriously and tries to dispense with other theories, explanations, and beliefs about musical absorption, letting the descriptions speak for themselves. The musicians’ descriptions comprise what he calls “tier one” in PI. “Tier two” is the phenomenological analysis of the empirical material, where structures behind the experiences are disclosed (19). Høffding explains how the two tiers are linked and overlap; phenomenology frames the research but the empirical material also informs the phenomenological investigation. To ensure transparent access to his data and work methods, Høffding provides an extensive explanation of how to conduct a phenomenological interview (33), and of his specific work with the quartet.

The musicians are presented one by one. We get to know the violinist Frederik Ø as a complex musician, with an initial need for “a little control” (47) during the performance of concerts. However, after his father’s sudden death, he becomes “emotionally involved in a different fashion” (50) and experiences what we later learn is intense absorption. Rune is the other violinist in the quartet, he is also a folk musician (54). During performances he is “letting the body take over”, and occasionally he experiences extremely intense absorption (57). Asbjørn plays the viola in the quartet. He easily gets intensely absorbed and regularly finds himself in “the zone”, as he calls it, during their concerts. Fredrik is the cellist of the quartet. Like Rune, Fredrik has also experienced the kind of extremely intense absorption one could call an “artistic blackout” (66). Fredrik is intensely absorbed during most concerts.

After the musicians’ profiles, Høffding presents a chart to distinguish the different kinds of experiences Frederik Ø, Fredrik, Asbjørn and Rune have described. Høffding names the chart “a topography of musical absorption” (73) and defines its five main categories as standard absorption, mind wandering not-being-there, frustrated playing, absorbed not-being-there, and ex-static absorption (74).

Standard absorption is the default mode of performing, Høffding writes. The quartet is often in this state, and the state covers a wide range of experiences. Standard absorption includes feeling slightly bored, such as when playing a concert is “just another day at work”, and it also includes more concentrated absorbed playing. In general, the performance runs smoothly in this state – the musicians feel satisfied, are not intensely absorbed and not too challenged (76).

To be in mind wandering not-being-there is the experience of playing automatically while non-related thoughts and associations pop up in one’s mind simultaneously. The quartet calls it “going to Netto”, indicating the experience of leaving the performance mentally to think about what one might need to shop later (77). This is not a state the musicians find themselves in very often.

Likewise, they do not often experience the state of frustrated playing. This mode of performance is one of pure survival. During and after an obstacle, interruption, or other externally imposed experiences, the musicians are intensively focused on trying to get back to standard absorption (80).

Absorbed not-being-there is one of the two states of intense absorption. It is the rare experience of being “completely gone” or “lost in the music” during performance (81). Even if they subsequently cannot conceptually recall the experience, the musicians describe it as bodily pleasant, euphoric, and “of high emotional and existential value” (82). This experience has been described as “lack of awareness, blackout, trance, or even that it wasn’t the musician himself who played” (81).

The other, and more frequently experienced, state of intense absorption is called ex-static absorption. Høffding takes its name from the Greek and Latin description of “standing out from” (85), “not only in the sense that one perceives the world in a distanced, disinterested fashion, but also that this kind of “neutral registration” pertains to oneself”. Here, Høffding aims to capture the intensely absorbed experience a musician has “in the zone”, when his sense of self is altered by the absorption. There is “a heightened overall perception” (86) and the musician feels “invincible”, “powerful” and in “control” of the situation as a whole (84) in this state.

In the following critique, I shall return to the experiences and descriptions of some of these modes of absorption.

In Part Two, Høffding presents and discusses theories of interest for a comparative study of absorption. We are introduced to viewpoints in the expertise debate, material on artistic and aesthetic experience, theories of sleep and dreaming, and the theory of flow, in addition to the phenomenology of schizophrenia.

Besides debating Dreyfus, Høffding engages in the expertise debate through the works of John Sutton et al. and Barbara Montero (102). The former’s theory of Mesh shows how conceptual reflection and bodily coping overlap in skilful activity; while the latter’s argument against “the just-do-it” principle is that thinking does not interfere with acting and “should not be avoided by experts” (106). Høffding is open towards these philosophers’ ideas on how conceptual reflection occurs in musical absorption.

In the discussions on artistic and aesthetic experience, dance and art appreciation is taken into account, and Høffding makes use of theories by Dorotheé Legrand as well as Mikel Dufrenne to finetune his arguments.

In the chapter on dreaming and sleeping, Høffding looks at Evan Thompson’s work and compares lucid dreaming and dreamless sleep with the musicians’ experiences of ex-static absorption and absorbed not-being-there, respectively. In this part of the book, Høffding draws a line between standard playing, mind wandering and absorbed being there, and sees this as a development where “the intentional threads are slackening” (151) and the musician gradually detaches more and more from the situation and his self.

Through the study of theories on schizophrenia, Høffding finds traits of hyper-reflection (168) and self-intimation in the musicians’ experiences of ex-static absorption. Although, where schizophrenia is an ipseity-disturbance (171), Høffding sees a musician as having a robust sense of self (163).

In Part Three, Høffding discusses musical absorption in light of Husserl’s notion of passive and active synthesis and presents his own theory of performative passivity. Høffding defines it as the experience of “altered agency over the process of playing”, “of someone or something other than me causing the music to unfold” (188). The main assumption behind his theory of performative passivty is that musical action is not primarily generated by active egoic consciousness but by a passive enlarged sense of subjectivity (188). The enlarged subject can easily include levels of egoic consciousness, though; there are constant and fluid shifts between passivity and activity (188). In this way, he sees no dichotomy between reflection and pre-reflection in absorption.

According to Høffding, a well-trained body schema is necessary to achieve intense absorption; only experts with thousands of hours of practice behind them can enter these states (215). The music itself and “letting loose of one’s emotions” can boost the opening of the passive dimension (215), and the unfolding of the music through one’s instrument and the bodily we-intentionality and interaction with other musicians are all intertwined with the passive, enlarged self (244).

Høffding closes with a chapter on how playing together feeds the musicians’ sense of passivity. We learn of musical we-ness, partly through Merleau-Ponty’s notion of intercorporeity; the shared and anonymous body (241).

According to Høffding’s findings, there is a path from ordinary absentmindedness and daydreaming, past the state of mind wandering whilst performing, to the most absorbed state of performative passivity (70). In passivity, Høffding claims, the musicians’ body schemata afford the musicians to perform automatically and enable them let go of attending to the technicalities of the performance (199). To Høffding, musical absorption “is a question of “happening” rather than “doing”” (252) and he ends the book by claiming: “Pleasure, beauty, meaning, and encounters with others, in addition to being something we create, is something to which we must be receptive” (255).



In his book, Høffding is open about not having had first-person experience of intense musical absorption (13). He also shares his inability to hear the difference between absorbed musicians’ performances and their performances under stress: “I find myself unable to detect whether a particular performance instantiates standard playing or playing under unusual stress” (100). He writes that intense absorption and its seemingly contradictory experiences of being “more conscious/present”, on one hand, and “less conscious/not present”, on the other (85), generates “a fundamental inability to understand and adequately express the nature of this experience” (85). At the same time, he rejects theories from peers with first-person experience of intense absorption (178). These facts are not necessarily problematic. But in light of them, it is difficult to see, prima facie, how Høffding is entitled to see his own work as “a paradigmatic case” – “the first of its kind” – and to claim that his conclusions will “serve as universal” within his field (30). In other words: he has never experienced x himself, he cannot perceptually detect x in others, he claims that x resists coherent description, he rejects the theories of those who have themselves experienced x – and, nevertheless, he declares his theory of x to be “paradigmatic” and “universal”. But let us not prejudge this. Let’s have a closer look at Høffding’s work and see whether it lives up to its own expectations.

Absorption as Phenomenon

The main goal of Høffding’s book is to investigate absorption. So, how does he understand the term absorption and the experiences behind it? Etymologically, the term absorption has developed from the Latin word absorbeo, which means “sucked or swallowed up”. The musicians’ experiences of being absorbed in terms of being “swallowed up”, are categorized by Høffding as absorbed not-being-there and ex-static absorption. These two are collectively referred to as intense absorption throughout the book.

According to Høffding, musicians are absorbed during all the five states in his topography, including frustrated playing and mind wandering not-being-there (73). But are these two states genuine experiences of absorption?

In frustrated playing, mind wandering not-being-there, as well as in standard absorption, Høffding includes the merely habitual activity of doing what one has learned by heart as an example of musical absorption. What does this all-embracing attitude do to Høffding’s theory of absorption?

Everyone experiences habitual activities, so let’s have a look at a plain example from our everyday lives. Learning how to bike demands conceptual reflection. As soon as you’ve mastered the skill, though, the task is engrained and will be experienced pre-reflectively. You can chat with your friends or listen to music while biking without being disturbed in the performance of the task. The same goes for artists and the elaborate skills they master. There is a level of performance where one is merely doing what one has memorized, and where random reflections and perceptions easily come and go on top of the execution of the activity itself, which has become second nature.

The question is: does this level of habitual mastering of skills qualify as absorption? As a practitioner of performing art, my answer is no. And so, as a philosopher, I find the dilution of the term absorption rather confusing. It is not clear how, for example, standard absorption is distinctly different, consciousness-wise, from situations like my biking example. Musical absorption is initially presented as “a self-transforming experience” (5), and the opening questions of the book: “Who is playing?” and “What kind of self is present when the musician is intensely absorbed in his music”? (2), are supposedly asked in order to investigate these altered experiences of the self. But only two out of Høffding’s five states of absorption constitute actual self-transformation and appear distinctively different from everyday experiences of consciousness; namely, absorbed not-being-there and ex-static absorption. That Høffding draws evidence from the musicians’ experiences of (what are quite plausibly) non-absorbed states in order to make his final points about what absorption as such amounts to, is a basic flaw in the argumentation that weakens the final theory.

That being said, seen as an overview and topography of musical performance, Høffding’s categorization chart nicely distinguishes different experiences musicians may have during practice, rehearsal and concert playing, and as such it is highly applicable.

Distance, Disinterest, and Detachment

In the construction of his arguments, Høffding appears to favour certain interpretations of the musicians’ statements, interpretations that emphasize occurrences of distance, disinterest, and detachment in absorption.

In one of his early interview sessions, Høffding categorized his transcriptions of the interviews in groups, one of them being “distance in absorption” (41). In his theoretical comparison chapters, he discusses how phenomenological psychopathology points to the existence of “unnatural” self-distance (8) in schizophrenia and finds parallels to this in the musicians’ experiences (162). He states that the musicians have “a superior bodily self-coinciding and self-reliance” (170), though, and sees the juxtaposing as a tool to understand how the “empirical foundation of ordinary consciousness (…) is prone to variation” (171). In a similar way, Høffding compares the musicians’ alleged experiences of self-distance in intense absorption to experiences of deep sleep (absorbed not-being-there) and lucid dreaming (ex-static absorption) (145).

Ex-static absorption “consists in a distance to oneself, one’s actions, and one’s body” (167), Høffding claims; whereas absorbed not-being-there is “entirely vacuous” (83), “followed by an almost total amnesia” (81). But how are the musicians phrasing these experiences?

Frederik Ø shares how he changes after his father’s sudden death and plays a concert where he lets go of his previous need to have “a little control” (47). During the concert it is “as if everything just disappears (…), I am not really there (…). Everything just is. So it is exactly both being present and not being present simultaneously” (50). He continues: “It is like… the feeling of looking over a large landscape (…), you cannot see the individual parts, you just know that all of it contributes to the being, and that you actually could affect the little things (…)” (51). Høffding sees Frederik Ø as being at a “distance from his own mental life” here (146).

Asbjørn tells us about the same experience of being “both less conscious and a lot more conscious (…)” (60). In his ideal absorption he is “this commander just moving the pieces and making the perfect phrase without trying, just because it is there and I can do anything I want” (62). In the same quote he talks about his ability to be aware of many musical elements at the same time, through his “hive mind” (62). We learn how he is “neutrally registering” the audience, not like a co-player but “looking at the set-up” and feeling like “a commander deploying the troops and control it (…)” (84). Høffding interprets Asbjørn’s experiences as “disinterested observation” (84).

Through his investigations of spatial experiences in schizophrenia, sleep, dream, and intense musical absorption, Høffding finds that they share traits of detachment (151), distance (85), and disinterest (192). Høffding takes these disconnections to the self and to the situation very literally. He compares the musicians’ experiences of being “a commander” and “flying over a landscape” with experiences of physical distance. In ex-static absorption one is thus too far away to have any agency, Høffding claims, “sitting in an airplane high up in the sky” perceiving from a great distance ”a very large landscape without parts” (147). When in absorbed not-being-there, the experience is of being too close to the music” to “perceive it well” (148). It’s like “looking at a large Monet from very close up” (147).

Høffding is referring to the altered perception of objects in the intensely absorbed states and offers us a discussion on the matter and a thorough explanation of his view. But is this the best way to interpret what the musicians experience?

Artists in general seem to claim that intense absorption is their ideal state of performing and the quartet is no exception. They stress how being intensely absorbed makes them “listen in a better way” (59), feel “powerful” (81), in “very deep control” (61), and feel “intense euphoric joy” (66). This sounds more like descriptions of total involvement – not like disinterest, distance or detachment. Is there an alternative to Høffding’s interpretation which captures the presence, engagement, and interest the musicians indicate they experience in intense absorption?

One way of describing it would be that in intense absorption the musician’s focus shifts from being on particular objects to embracing the situation as a whole. This does not indicate distance; on the contrary, it describes the integration with something larger than oneself that often happens in these states. As there is no experience of distance or disinterest in one’s bodily and affective self, but rather an increased focus through the body, intense absorption could be seen as a state characterized by bodily and affective agency. Høffding’s understanding, as well as the most common way of understanding agency, is based on the traditional dualistic and hierarchical idea that the self equals the mind, and that the bodily self is “automatic”, “pre-egoic”, and without the ability of agency – an understanding that often falls short in matters of art.

One could say that in intense absorption the mind is put on hold or is participating in a sparse manner; at that stage, judgments and objectifications are not needed to perform the activity. The bodily self has full power and control over the musical performance, works hard, and enjoys it.

Just like it is possible to be totally engaged in the analysis of a philosophical text, only to later to “wake up” and realize one is hungry or that one’s leg is “asleep”, one can shift focus from an everyday consciousness in performance to an utterly engaged bodily and affective focus.

Some of the above mentioned aspects seem close to what Høffding finds in his theory of performative passivity: the “blurring of the subject/object distinction” (215), “a powerful change in the deepest layers of subjectivity” (175), the opening to something larger than one’s self, for instance “musical interkinesthetic affectivity” (246), and the reliance upon the bodily (195). But Høffding favours the understanding of passivity and a receptive self in intense absorption and finds ways throughout the book to emphasise this.

In his theoretical investigations, Høffding occasionally uses quotes outside of their intended contexts. Referencing Evan Thompson, Høffding writes: “Lucid dreaming is essentially marked by a phenomenal distance to oneself (…)” (154). But on the page referred to in Thompson’s book “Waking, Dreaming, Being” (2015), there is no mention of distance in lucid dreaming. Thompson elaborates upon the I as dreamer and the I as dreamed in this manner: “These are not two entities or things; they’re two kinds of self-awareness, two modes of self-experience” (Thompson 2015, 140).

In another example, Høffding discusses the experience of objects in passive intentionality with Dan Zahavi. He mentions Zahavi’s “recent, comprehensive work on Husserl” (184), and glosses Zahavi as making a point about passivity (184). But the actual page concerns “the world annihilation” thought-experiment from Husserl’s “Ideen 1”, and says nothing about passivity.

Another example of biased use of theoretical evidence is Høffding’s references to the Kantian notion of aesthetic disinterest. He interprets this disinterest as “not soliciting engagement, but mere distanced observation” (124) and compares it with the quartet’s experiences of “observation as neutral” and not being “part of the set-up” (125). Though I’m far from being a Kant scholar, it is clear enough that Kant’s notion of aesthetic disinterest differs from our everyday understanding of the term disinterest. The Kantian term covers an interest in the aesthetic object as experienced in its own right – the immediate, direct perception of the aesthetic object. The lack of interest is a lack of interest in the object’s utility and determinate meaning. Høffding seems to understand and use aesthetic disinterest in a different manner – as an experience of observing from a distance without engagement.

Performative Passivity

Høffding interprets Husserl’s theory of passive and active synthesis as holding that passive and active are opposing ends of a smooth continuum. As such, Høffding repeatedly mentions that the theory “fits like hand in glove” (178) with the altered state of the self found in intense absorption; characterizing this type of absorption as that of extreme passivity and differing from other types of absorption mainly in degree. Taken together with his lack of patience for the expertise debate’s dichotomy between reflection and pre-reflection (113), one gets the impression that passivity and activity in passive and active synthesis must be experiences of consciousness that are altogether different from reflection and pre-reflection – a Husserlian gem unknown to most of us, presented in this book as the resolution of dualistic thinking about artistically absorbed subjects. But a more thorough look at Husserl’s theory, in parallel with Høffding’s book, shows that even though the distinction between activity and passivity is not the distinction between reflection and pre-reflection, we are not faced with a distinctly alternative description of subjective experience. The theory of passive and active synthesis is Husserl’s further investigation into how the deepest pre-reflective layers of subjectivity influence and cooperate with the subject’s active and intentional acts, being it on a pre-reflective or a reflective level. Musicians are, doubtlessly, undergoing passive and active syntheses during their concerts. We all are, every day. There is nothing extraordinary in experiencing passive and active syntheses. Husserl’s theory is rather an extraordinarily profound description of our consciousness structures (as far as this author understands Husserliana 11).

I agree with Høffding, though, that describing intense absorption “as a certain relationship between reflective and pre-reflective awareness, or as a specially trained form of reflection or pre-reflection” (176) is insufficient. This terminology is based on an out-dated, dualistic hierarchy where mind reigns over a body, upon which it simultaneously depends. Yet, Høffding still seems to buy into this hierarchy by describing a bodily and affectively active subject as “passive” – just because the subject’s mind is passive. By calling one of the intense states absorbed not-being-there – when his qualitative material states that it is an experience of “really being there” (57) and of being “immensely present” (67) – Høffding seems to ignore the fact that there are parts of us that are indeed there in intense absorption, even when “the head is completely empty” (57). To be fair; Høffding does not entirely deny this in his conclusions. But his semantics, and what seems to be his overall view of what a subject is, contradicts his evidence.

So, how does Høffding see passivity as compatible with absorption? Does it make sense to say that musicians get increasingly immersed in their work by means of a path from absentmindedness to mind wandering, past daydreaming to intense absorption – all during habitual playing? (70) It sounds rather vacuous – and Høffding actually labels absorbed not-being-there as “vacuous” (83). What would be one’s drive and motive, as a musician, then? Høffding’s answer is that music as a structure affords cooperation and absorption (252) – one is simply drawn to it.

When asked how the “primitive phenomenality” of a passive self can produce “complex and beautiful music”, Høffding answers that the musical work performed through the body schema and the musicians’ “emotional engagement” is sufficient for that purpose (250).

Perhaps this process of random perception of impressions from one’s life-world, combined with “letting loose of one’s emotions” during the performance of one’s memorized work is enough for some performing artists. I am not able to tell. But when it comes to creators of art, this theory’s applicability seems even more limited. Improvising performers are creators, alongside painters, composers, choreographers, sculptors, poets and others. Creating and producing art from scratch cannot be explained as habitual activity and haphazard receptivity.

Many creators, like many performers, experience their artistic activities as a kind of “conversation” with the world and their fellow human beings – just like Fredrik does (64). There are things you want to express and share through your art. “In the same way that I do not think about the technicalities of talking, so do I not think about the technicalities of playing”, Fredrik says (64), and divulges that these processes are not necessarily conceptually reflective – neither are they passive and anonymous.

Trusting the body schema in order to “let go” and get absorbed, might prove to be problematic for creators and performers of improvised art. Høffding claims that “if those micro movements are not in perfect place, the necessary trust will not be relegated and the distanced or ex-static view of one’s own body will not be enabled” (171). In improvised dance, in much jazz music, and in the performance of classical Indian ragas, for example, there is no way of preparing “every micro movement” – these art forms are created and performed simultaneously.

It is, therefore, not clear to me how Høffding’s theory of performative passivity could serve as universal within the field of musical absorption. Besides, I am far from convinced that this theory accounts for the active body in sufficient detail. That being said, I find Høffding’s qualitative research and cooperation with the four musicians intriguing and inspiring.

What Høffding writes is of importance. We are not often made aware of our possibilities of mere receptivity, of “letting go” (of the mind’s activities), of “being open” and “one with the world” in the way radical passivity allows us. Høffding’s book reminds us of these possibilities. Undergoing these aspects in passive and active synthesis is necessary in order to become absorbed in artistic and aesthetic activity and experience. I don’t find the theory of performative passivity sufficient as an argument for what absorption amounts to, but I appreciate the book. It bears evidence of a hardworking, passionate, insistent, and thorough philosopher and researcher.


Husserl, Edmund. 1966. Analysen zur passiven Synthesis: Aus Vorlesungs- und Forschungsmanuskripten 1918-1926. Nijhoff: Den Haag.

Thompson, Evan. 2015. Waking, Dreaming, Being. Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy. Colombia University Press: New York.

Zahavi, Dan. 2017. Husserl’s Legacy. Phenomenology, Metaphysics, and Transcendental Philosophy. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Günter Figal: Philosophy as Metaphysics: The Torino Lectures, Mohr Siebeck, 2019

Philosophy as Metaphysics: The Torino Lectures Book Cover Philosophy as Metaphysics: The Torino Lectures
Günter Figal
Mohr Siebeck
Paperback 24,00 €
IX, 177

Jorella Andrews: The Question of Painting: Re-thinking Thought with Merleau-Ponty

The Question of Painting: Rethinking Thought with Merleau-Ponty Book Cover The Question of Painting: Rethinking Thought with Merleau-Ponty
Jorella Andrews
Hardback £76.50

Reviewed by: Nikoleta Zampaki (National and Kapodistrian University of Athens,

The Question of Painting. Re-thinking Thought with Merleau-Ponty offers a unique and refreshing perspective on fields including visual studies, phenomenology, ecophenomenology, inter-artistic relations, and studies of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy. By developing an inter-artistic approach, Jorella Andrews demonstrates how phenomenology is relevant for painting. The title indicates the central thesis: perception and experience are aesthetic, so that there is an art of painting and an art of perception. Perceptual experience is open to interpretation in a way that is analogous to works of art.

The book is organized around a chronological account of Merleau-Ponty’s works and thought and its connections with art, highlighting how painting, as a way of exploration and artistic expression, articulates its contents and discourses on many aspects of daily life. Indeed, in the Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty points us in this direction: “Essence and existence, the imaginary and the real, the visible and the invisible, painting blurs all our categories in unfolding its oneiric universe of carnal essences, of efficient resemblances, and of silent significations”. (1) The instauration of appearing as such in painting is interpreted extensively through Andrews’ book. Painting represents but at the same time paints the invisible visibility of the visible. The focus here is on Merleau-Ponty’s later works, especially The Visible and the Invisible, Eye and Mind, and the Notes de cours 1959-1961. Andrews’ aim is to illuminate and trace a new ontological perspective as it emerges in these works.

Andrews reads works of art, particularly paintings, as disclosing a certain mutation of man and being. Moreover, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology examines the embodied and interactive perception as well as the matter of experience. Phenomenological and artistic reflection are closely connected and this book clarifies how artistic standpoints ought to be examined in parallel with phenomenological investigation. In Merleau- Ponty’s thought aesthesis and aesthetics are intertwined. Embodiment has its own vitality and the feedback between artist and artwork represent the relation between body and world. Thus, Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of art centers on bodily presence, representation and feelings in the context of experience. The book also describes Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetic world as an opening contraction of the human world. Sensory experience is implicated in aesthetics and both are grounded in the body. The painter both experiences the world through the body and draws the world’s Totality. It is insofar as he or she is in contact with the realm of the visible that she or he is able to experience this Totality. This cosmic model of representation can be described as a Gestalt.

Andrews analyzes nature, rationalism, empiricism, dualism and behaviorism through the cognitive field that remarks the significance of Gestalt. In place of empiricism and intellectualism, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology offers a vision on the matter of subjectivity and world as an accommodation of thought. Merleau-Ponty’s critique of Cartesian representationalism and its consequences has been taken up within cognitive philosophy and the philosophy of mind. Cartesian rationalism was unable to overcome the central artistic dimensions of depth. Andrews describes all these fields deeply and thoroughly, and she frames and places Merleau-Ponty’s thought within an artistic context.

Drawing on the concept of aesthetics, the book focuses on the presentation of the cooperative relationship between being and environment, as well as the structure of being and its presence in phenomenological and artistic context. Indeed, in the act of reading this book, all of our senses are participating to realize Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetic experience. We can perceive its uniqueness, which can be described by Merleau-Ponty’s terms and experience. This books draws the visible invisibility to the visual field of phenomenology and aesthetics. Our nature is collaborating with the Gestalt to touch Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts on art, a goal to which Andrews contributes with her magisterial writing.

The first part of the book reinserts phenomenology and its eco-spirit into the critical and theoretical framework of phenomenology and painting. Every being has its own consciousness and exhibits the structure of itself. The matter of embodiment and embodied perception are central axis of Merleau-Ponty’s thought throughout his works. Paul Cézanne was the painter who remains the basic example in in Merleau-Ponty’s works, thought he also draws on other painters, including Paul Klee and Henri Matisse. The formal philosophical thought of Merleau-Ponty intersects with the works of Cézanne and other painters as if they express what in transcendental phenomenology remains a mystery. The analysis of flesh follows from Merleau-Ponty’s recuperation of Cézanne, Klee and Matisse in their effort to capture the primodial and perpetual a priori opening to the open and the power of sense making. Flesh is the primordial instituting linguistic power that opens the world sensibly and instituting the human being as independent into the experience of the world.

Andrews refers to the theoretical framework of the art 20th and 21st centuries and engages a wider and better vision of the artistic discipline in order to introduce Merleau-Ponty’s thought on painting. Her reading of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of flesh is relative to painting. There is a carnal ground binding into a style of particular differentiation between brushwork, coloration, and technical processes, for instance that of impressionism or expressionism. Many philosophical and artistic concepts cover and at the same time unfold the question of painting and its impact on Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy. Three basic phenomenological ideas are embodied perception, lived body, and visible matters. Perception relies on lived experience and requires the contribution of our body, making the embodied nature of cognition form our perception.

The second part of the book considers extended thought and draws an illuminating connection among the body, embodiment, and the matter of art. Andrews shows that embodiment plays a major role within art, enabling the artist to integrate the spatiotemporal features of the body’s environment. Perception amounts to the body’s engagement with the world and picture our reality, a co-constitution of the lifeworld and the brain. The subjective body (Leib) and the objective body (Körper) forms a dialectical unity. Andrews recalls that the subjective body is the background of all the forms of experiences and especially the artistic. Inter-corporeity is the basis of our experience and artistic dimension whereas objectification is secondary aspect.

In the third part of the book Andrews focuses on linguistic concepts and on the theme of representation both in Merleau-Ponty’s work and in art. The phenomenon of resonance between linguistic tool and art is investigated extensively. Discourse plays the major role in the expression’s tools and mechanisms of artistic references. For example, Merleau-Ponty’s metaphors, as Andrews makes clear, are used as expressions of the lived experience of the subject and show how his thought is formed around the aesthetic experience of the phenomenological process. His metaphors hide an experimental and experiential spirit. The author exposes Merleau-Ponty’s immanent expressivity and creation of meanings. Underlying Merleau-Ponty’s conviction that personal expression (speech) is more meaningful than the impersonal (sedimented language) is a fundamental naturalism.

The fourth part of the book focuses on Merleau-Ponty’s terms such as flesh, visible, invisible, and chiasm as the main points of reinserting painting and artistic discourse into phenomenology through an ontological perspective. The field of vision and its depth through being’s embodiment is given in a vivid spirit, through memorable examples. Merleau-Ponty holds that the perceiver is embedded in the aesthetic space and interacts with it through experiences and senses. Flesh is the bridge between Leib and nature. Andrews notices the linguistic frameworks that aim to take our lived experience and inter-corporeity into an account of art. Linguistic resonance is strongly at play in inter-affectivity and artistic responses and leads that involved the entire subject’s body.

The book demonstrates how deeply the phenomenological and artistic traditions are connected and draws a perspective through a prismatic discipline in the phenomenological context. Andrews presents and re-presents the matter of intra-corporeality in the sense that subjectivity and objectivity are in dialogue. The microscopic world of living is in dialogue with the macroscopic world of painting through the linguistic resonance of inter-artistic relations. Moroever, the picture of embodiment and embodied cognition that is developed here impacts debates concerning the dignity of the person and life. The accounts of perception and of art are organic, interdependent, and dynamic.

The whole book provides an overview of Merleau-Ponty’s thought. But it also offers new points of view on the fields described above and never loses sight of the phenomenological field of Merleau-Ponty’s eco-artistic perspective. Andrews reinserts the reader to Merleau-Ponty’s thought and way of thinking as living communication with the world. The book contributes significantly to the intense debate concerning oculocentrism in the 1980s and guided by phenomenology at every critical juncture. In conclusion, it addresses major topics and motivates readers to explore an interesting field of research, which is still open to new interventions. The book is a welcome affirmation of the fluidity and versatility of Merleau-Ponty’s thinking, and promises to open the door to new intellectual and phenomenological creativity.


Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1964. Le visible et l’invisible, C. Lefort (ed.), Paris: Gallimard.

Friedrich Stadler (Ed.): Ernst Mach – Life, Work, Influence, Springer, 2019

Ernst Mach – Life, Work, Influence Book Cover Ernst Mach – Life, Work, Influence
Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook, Volume 22
Friedrich Stadler (Ed.)
Hardback 124,79 €
XIII, 805

Jean Wahl: Philosophies of Existence, Routledge, 2019

Philosophies of Existence: An Introduction to the Basic Thought of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers, Marcel, Sartre Book Cover Philosophies of Existence: An Introduction to the Basic Thought of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers, Marcel, Sartre
Routledge Library Editions: Existentialism
Jean Wahl
Hardback £80.00

Shigeru Taguchi, Andrea Altobrando (Eds.): Phenomenology and Japanese Philosophy, Springer, 2019

Phenomenology and Japanese Philosophy Book Cover Phenomenology and Japanese Philosophy
Tetsugaku Companions to Japanese Philosophy, Volume 3
Shigeru Taguchi, Andrea Altobrando (Eds.)
Hardback 103,99 €

William James, Carl Stumpf: Correspondence (1882-1910), De Gruyter, 2019

Correspondence (1882-1910) Book Cover Correspondence (1882-1910)
William James, Carl Stumpf. Edited by Riccardo Martinelli
De Gruyter
Hardback 109,95 € / $126.99 / £100.00