Raffaele Pisano, Joseph Agassi and Daria Drozdova (Eds.): Hypotheses and Perspectives in the History and Philosophy of Science

Hypotheses and Perspectives in the History and Philosophy of Science: Homage to Alexandre Koyré 1892-1964 Book Cover Hypotheses and Perspectives in the History and Philosophy of Science: Homage to Alexandre Koyré 1892-1964
Raffaele Pisano, Joseph Agassi and Daria Drozdova (Eds.)
Hardcover 139,09 €

Reviewed by: Anita Williams (Murdoch University)

As the title suggests, this edited book showcases Alexandre Koyré’s contribution to the field of history of science. The volume makes a major contribution to this field by showing the breadth of Koyré’s work and illustrating its significance in reshaping our understanding of the history of modern science. For an English speaking audience, the book is particularly exciting because the authors discuss Koyré’s legacy in both Anglo-Saxon and European contexts as well as the full range of Koyré’s opus, written in English, French, German and Russian. As a result, the book fulfils its aim, as outlined by Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent: to ‘reconsider Koyré’s works in a broad international perspective’ (ix).

Given the edited books aim to pay homage to Koyré’s work as part of the Koyré anniversary project, it is not surprising that the majority of contributions focus on Koyré’s unsurpassed and trailblazing contribution to the history of science, which forms the overall narrative of the book. By way of introducing this review, I will start with a rather striking omission regarding the organisation of the book: the edited volume is put together in alphabetical order, rather than around themes, and the introduction mainly lists summaries of the papers, rather than providing an overall framework for making sense of this volume. The organisation of the book detracts from the overall high quality of this publication and the nuanced arguments between the authors on key themes in Koyré. Rather than being foregrounded, the central themes of the edited book are left for the reader to find. In this review, I will discuss the different papers around the book’s focal motifs, which are: (1) Koyré’s ground-breaking influence on the history of science and, most notably, his influence on Thomas Kuhn; (2) the unity of Koyré’s oeuvre; (3) Koyré’s discussion of Galileo’s experiments and the mathematical character of modern science; (4) studies that extend Koyré’s analysis of the central figures in the history of modern science; and (5) Koyré’s relationship to Edmund Husserl as well as phenomenology more generally. I will use these themes to structure this review.

Several authors outline that Koyré helped to establish a new historiographical approach in the field of history of science. Chiefly, many authors note that Koyré introduced the now widely used term ‘scientific revolutions’ and this term summarises the difference between Koyré and earlier historians of science. Koyré sees modern mathematical science as a radical disjuncture between ancient and medieval understandings of the world, on the one hand, and the modern conceptualisation of nature as mathematical, on the other. In brief, for Koyré, modern science is not the culmination of a linear progression of human thought, but, instead, should be acknowledged as a radical change in the way the world is understood. Famously, Koyré has summarised this change as a shift from the closed Cosmos to the open universe, a profound change that he states is only rivalled by ‘the invention of the Cosmos by Greek thought’ in the first place (Koyré 1968c, 16).

Joseph Agassi and Jean-François Stoffel tackle Koyré’s general contribution to the history of science and how Koyré changed this field. In chapter 1, Agassi proposes that Koyré’s greatest contribution to the history of science is to present a different way of reading foundational texts of modern science. He argues that Koyré reads these texts as akin to reading the classics of the arts and humanities. By doing so, Koyré is not only able to bridge the gap between the arts and humanities, on the one side, and the sciences, on the other, but also reveals the metaphysical basis of modern science. In chapter 20, Stoffel critically reviews Koyré’s reconceptualization of the Copernican revolution as the spiritual or ontological “revolution of the 17th century” (424). Stoffel outlines that an important abiding theme in Koyré’s work is the separation of the world of science from the world of life (430) and this provides the framework for Koyré’s discussion of the Copernican revolution. Stoffel concludes by suggesting that the Koyré’s claimed separation between the scientific and the living world is without historical foundation and, instead, may reflect ‘the turmoil of his era that Koyré was marvellously echoing’ (447). Both Agassi and Stoffel highlight that Koyré changed the way the history of modern science is understood, but disagree on what Koyré’s insights should mean for current historians of science, leaving the discussion for the reader to continue.

J. C. Pinto de Oliveira and Amelia Oliveira, John Schuster and Antonino Drago focus on showing Koyré’s impact on the history of science via his influence on Kuhn. Each author discusses the relationship between Koyré and Kuhn in a different light. In chapter 15, Pinto de Oliveira and Oliveira discuss the relationship between George Sarton, Kuhn and Koyré. The main focus of this paper is the relationship between Sarton and Kuhn. From the footnotes, the emphasis on the relationship between Kuhn and Sarton seems to stem from the authors’ suggestion that Kuhn extends Koyré, while Koyré retains sympathies for Sarton (footnote 2, 278) and ‘still has one foot in the “old” historiography’ (footnote 12, 284). However, the relationship between Koyré and Kuhn is not the main focus of the paper. Instead, the authors present the case study of William Harvey’s discovery of blood circulation to illustrate the benefits of a Kuhnian inspired historiography, over Sarton’s approach. In chapter 19, Schuster explicitly outlines how Kuhn extends from Koyré as well as suggesting some difficulties Kuhn faced, given his admiration of Koyré’s work. Schuster specifically focusses on Kuhn’s early work in the history of science. He argues that Kuhn pushes Koyré’s approach to speak directly to the importance of experiments and experimental equipment in modern science, illustrating the case through Kuhn’s engagement with classical and Baconian sciences, in particular his explanation of the Copernican revolution and the rise of new experimental sciences. Schuster argues that there remains a tension within Kuhn’s account of the rise of modern science that is visible by two incommensurate explanations that can be derived from Kuhn’s work: one approach suggests the beginning of modern science is best analysed through looking for points of rupture between the old and new sciences and another suggests that Baconian sciences are born from a ‘continuous process of scientificity’ (413). Schuster leaves this tension open for future thinkers in the areas of ‘sociology of knowledge and Scientific Revolution studies’ (418).

In chapter 7, Drago presents the counterargument and argues that Koyré’s contribution to history of science is more profound than Kuhn’s own contribution. Drago writes that ‘Koyré introduced into the historiography of science the account of a conflict, i.e. the conflict between ancient and modern science’, while ‘Kuhn presented a peaceful development of science over two centuries’ (134). Drago convincingly argues that, while Kuhn adopts the term scientific revolution from Koyré, what the two scholars mean by revolution significantly differs between them. Together, Pinto de Oliveira and Amelia Oliveira, John Schuster and Drago show that a nuanced analysis of the relationship between Koyré and Kuhn is still a fruitful area for further investigations.

In chapter 18, Marlon Salomon pays attention to the way in which Koyré, himself, understood his relationship to the history of modern science and how he differentiated his own approach. He summarises Koyré’s approach by separating between two ways of engaging with the past and, in so doing, Salomon shows that Koyré’s interest in history is to ‘critique’ and ‘denaturalization’ current scientific evidence (380). One approach to the past takes current scientific ideas as natural and factual and reads the history of science with an eye to discarding old and obsolete theories and to focusing on the theories that support the current scientific models and evidence. Such an approach renders the history of ideas as a ‘showcase of curiosities’ (380), at best, and irrelevant to present concerns, at worst. By contrast, as Salomon outlines, Koyré’s approach to the history of ideas is ‘to apprehend the old theories, not at the moment of their death agony but at the moment of their birth’ (382). Salomon drives home that Koyré’s interest in the history of ideas is to enable a critique of the contemporary modern scientific understanding of the world by concluding that ‘Koyré is a thinker of the limits’ (384).

Following on from Solomon, Charles Braverman and Daria Drozdova attend to another key topic: the question of what ties together Koyré’s oeuvre. In chapter 2, Braverman argues that Koyré’s central concern is showing how the notion of space changed with the rise of modern science: modern science conceptualises space as geometrical and this affects all domains of human endeavour, which shows the relevance of Koyré’s assertion of the unity of human thought. To demonstrate his point, Braverman examines the case of André-Marie Ampère in order to show the ‘value of Koyré’s methodology’ (37). In chapter 8, Drozdova suggests that Koyré’s characterisation of modern science is bifurcated and cannot be reduced to one central claim. Instead, according to Drozdova, Koyré shows that both the “destruction of the Cosmos” and “the geometrization of space” are equally important to understanding rise of modern science. Braverman and Drozdova both foreground the importance of the geometrization of space to Koyré’s conceptualisation of the modern scientific revolution.

The next major theme addressed by the volume is Koyré’s thorough examination of the work of Galileo Galilei. As the authors that talk to this theme seek to demonstrate, Koyré made two central and controversial claims about Galileo. First, Koyré outlines the importance of imaginary or thought experiments for Galileo (see Koyré 1968b). Second, Koyré argues that Galileo sides with Platonism (see Koyré 1968c). These two arguments are closely tied together because, as Koyré, himself, notes:

‘for the contemporaries and pupils of Galileo, as well as for Galileo himself, the dividing line between Aristotelianism and Platonism was perfectly clear…the opposition between these two philosophies was determined by a different appreciation of mathematics as science, and of its role for the constitution of the science of Nature…if…one claims for mathematics a superior value, and a commanding position in the study of things natural, one is a Platonist’ (Koyré 1968d, 15).

The authors in this volume, who address Koyré’s work on Galileo, importantly draw attention to the controversy regarding Koyré’s engagement with Galileo and the ways in which this debate has influence subsequent work in the history of science.

Francesco Crapanzano, Mario De Caro and Gérard Jorland all address the theme of Koyré’s account of Galileo’s experiments. In chapter 4, Crapanzano discusses the evidence for and against the factual existence of Galileo’s experiment on the law of falling bodies at the leaning tower of Pisa. He accents Vincenzio Viviani’s – Galileo’s biographer’s – role in documenting this experiment. Crapanzano suggests that Viviani may have used the description of Galileo’s experiment with literary flare: ‘to celebrate the grand master in the best way possible, that is, by corroborating his stance with an experiment that publicly disavowed Aristotelianism’ (82). However, Crapanzano also outlines that there were other experiments supporting the law of falling bodies carried out in this time period, hence, the role of the Pisa experiment is not decisive. He concludes that Koyré ‘disproving the experiment’ played a crucial part in ‘affirming’ Koyré’s ‘perspective on the genesis of scientific theories’, but, ultimately, highlighted ‘one of the first signs of [Koyré’s] prosperous and controversial thesis of Galileo’s Platonism’ (82). In chapter 12, Jorland addresses the evidence for and against the existence of Galileo’s experiments more generally. Jorland suggests that Koyré questions Galileo’s experiments ‘on two very different grounds’: (1) ‘whether Galileo had ever performed experiments’ and (2) ‘if he had, whether [Galileo] had obtained the experimental results that he claimed’ (210). Jorland covers the work of several historians – most notably Stillman Drake – after Koyré who scoured Galileo’s private notes for evidence that he performed experiments or tried to reconstruct Galileo’s experiments to show that it was possible for Galileo to have performed them. Jorland concludes that ‘Galileo did perform experiments, but their results were not precise enough to be reliable’ (220). In a similar vein, in chapter 10, Gaukroger argues that Galileo conducted real experiments and puts forward that Koyré overlooks the prominence that experiments played in the development of modern science due to his focus on the mathematical-idealised structure of science.

In chapter 5, De Caro agrees that Galileo performed experiments. However, in contrast to Crapanzano, Jorland and Gaukroger, De Caro defends Koyré’s view of reading Galileo as a mathematico-physico Platonist. As a result, De Caro spells out that ‘the “sensate esperienze” (“sensible experiences”) that Galileo mentions as crucial in his scientific method, are not the experiences of everyday life, as it was for Aristotelians, but the observations, experimentations, and thought experiments’ (99). De Caro concludes that Koyré correctly identifies that the scientific method ‘could fully flourish only if one assumed, as Galileo did, that the natural world has an inherently mathematical structure that we are endowed to grasp when we reason mathematically’ (102). Crapanzano, Jorland, Gaukroger and De Caro highlight the continued importance of discussing the relationship between the modern mathematical sciences and the experiment.

In a related theme, Mauro Condé and Diederick Raven specifically discuss Koyré’s claim that the foundation of modern science is mathematics. In chapter 3, Condé draws attention to Koyré’s early work on mathematics and shows how his training in mathematics is important to his later history of science and explains Koyré’s argument that metaphysics precedes technology. In chapter 17, Raven also foregrounds the importance of the mathematical foundations of modern science: he writes that for modern science ‘mathematics is the key to understanding the world created for us’ (354) because ‘God created the universe’ (355) and ‘the mind is for understanding quantities’ (355). Raven presents a fascinating comparative analysis, suggesting that it is important to consider the Christian roots of modern science. He argues that Christianity’s confrontation with Aristotle creates the seeds for the scientific revolution because there is a contradiction between the Christian creator and an Aristotelian understanding of the universe, which leads to nominalism. Condé and Raven agree that Koyré’s focus on the mathematical character of modern science is central to his approach, but Raven extends this further to argue for the importance of the Christian tradition in the development of modern science.

Another motif across the volume, which draws different together authors, is those authors who extend from Koyré’s analysis to investigate various scholars pertinent to the history of modern science. In chapter 6, Dominique Descotes starts from Koyré’s lecture on Pascal to reassess the importance of Pascal’s work to the history of modern science. In chapter 11, Glenn Hartz and Patrick Lewtas discuss the importance of Descartes’ voluntarism throughout his work. In chapter 13, Anna Maria Lombardi follows Koyré’s lead to examine Kepler, focusing on the importance of the relationship between music and the harmony of the world for Kepler. In chapter 16, Raffaele Pisano and Paulo Bussotti pay attention to Kepler’s notion of force. Kepler did not agree with the infinite universe, as they note: ‘if the size of the universe were infinite then it should have…a uniform geometrical-cosmological and well-defined structure’ (335). In addition, Kepler believed that ‘the infinite was unthinkable for a human being’ (335). Pisano and Bussotti agree with Koyré that Kepler is a thinker that dwells on the cusp of the closed Cosmos and the indefinite universe, but conclude that Koyré overestimates the influence of Aristotle on Kepler. Descotes, Hartz and Lewtas, Lombardi and Pisano and Bussotti all show that Koyré’s approach points the way to further investigations and re-examinations of premier modern scientific scholars.

The last theme that I will discuss is Koyré’s relationship to the phenomenological tradition, which is discussed by three authors: Massimo Ferrari, Rodney Parker and Anna Yampolskaya. In chapter 9, Ferrari talks to the similarities and differences between Koyré and Ernst Cassirer. Ferrari argues that Cassirer and Koyré need to be understood in light of their respective philosophical backgrounds: Marburg neo-Kantianism and Husserlian phenomenology, which explain two important differences identified by Ferrari. First, Cassirer presents a linear history, whereas Koyré looks for breaks in, and differences between, Ancient and Modern science. Second, Cassirer looks for a priori foundations of science, while Koyré looks for the essential structures of modern science and traces their origins. Similarly, in chapter 14, Rodney Parker argues that Koyré needs to be understood in relationship to Edmund Husserl and phenomenology. He explicates that Husserl’s rejection of Koyré’s dissertation is not a reason to consider Koyré without Husserl. He contends that the disruption to Koyré’s studies, and his subsequent move to France, should not be understood as a new beginning, but, rather, as a continuation of Koyré’s project of phenomenology aimed at explicating the historical a priori, which he adopts from Husserl, albeit in a unique way. The important theme that links Husserl and Koyré is their focus on Galileo and the mathematisation of nature: Husserl provided a starting point for Koyré’s nuanced and detailed engagement with the history of modern science. In chapter 21, Yampolskaya outlines the impact of Koyré’s work on studies in the history of religion, namely on the work of Emmanuel Levinas and Michel Henry. Yampolskaya’s main focus is to review the exchange between Koyré and Levinas on the infinite and the finite as well as Henry’s extension of Koyré’s work on Jacob Böhme. However, during the course of the paper, Yampolskaya illustrates the relationship between Koyré and early French phenomenology and provides insightful commentary about the relationship between Koyré, Husserl and Heidegger. Yampolskaya concludes by suggesting that at the heart of the discussions between Koyré, Levinas and Henry is the ‘problem of truth’ (469) and that the ‘necessity of truth for the being of humans is a lesson of Koyré that French “theological” phenomenology would do well to retain’ (469). Ferrari, Parker and Yampolskaya expose the importance of understanding Koyré in light of the phenomenological tradition that was so influential upon him.

Outside Ferrari, Parker and Yampolskaya, the volume largely discusses Koyré outside of the phenomenological tradition and I would suggest that this is the main limitation of the volume. The book starts by outlining the impossibility of separating Koyré’s philosophy and history of science and, thereby, the importance of understanding Koyré’s work as a philosophy and history of science. On this point, Pisano quotes Koyré in his introduction to the edited work:

‘History of Science without philosophy of Science is blind…[and] philosophy of science without History of Science is empty’ (xx).

Yet, it is my contention, as I shall briefly outline, that without an appreciation of Koyré’s tie to Husserl and phenomenology more generally, the impossibility of splitting philosophy from the history of science cannot be fully appreciated.

The main source of disagreement throughout the edited volume seems to be Koyré’s characterisation of modern science as mathematical, rather than experiential. As Ferrari highlights, Koyré ‘strongly criticized the “virus of empiricist and positivist epistemology” which had also “infected” the history of science’ (159) and this also entails a reconsideration of the role of observation and experiment in modern science. Koyré’s critique of the empiricism and positivism inherent in modern science is not unique to him, but is rather a central characteristic of phenomenological philosophy, stemming and extending from Husserl.

For Koyré, modern science is not a triumph of observation over tradition and authority (Koyré 1972 [1950], 89–91). Instead, modern science is characterised by ‘an Archimedean world of geometry made real…in substituting for the world of the more-or-less of our daily life a universe of measurement and precision’ (Koyré 1968a, 91). Koyré’s point stems from and echoes Husserl’s own words: modern science surreptitiously substitutes ‘the mathematically substructured world of idealities for the only real world, the one that is…experienced and experienceable’ (Husserl 1970, §9, 48–49). As Parker in this volume notes, Husserl also addresses Galileo’s mathematisation of nature (265–269, also see Husserl 1970, §9, 23–59). Husserl names Galileo a revealing and concealing genius because he ‘discovers mathematical nature’ and ‘blazes the trail for the infinite number of physical discoveries and discoverers’, but in so doing he conceals the world as we experience it (Husserl 1970, §9, 51–52). Husserl sees modern science as permeated by a thoroughgoing confusion between the real and the ideal, where ‘what is acquired through scientific activity is not something real but something ideal’ (Husserl 1970, ‘The Vienna Lecture’, 278), but we mistake ‘for true being what is actually a method’ (Husserl 1970, §9, 51). Koyré concurs with Husserl’s identification of the confusion between the constructed world of the modern scientist and the tangible world of experience.

Additionally, Koyré’s philosophy of science cannot be separated from his history of science because he takes seriously the problem of the historical a priori that Husserl gestures towards. Husserl writes: ‘but we come back again to the fact that historical facts…are objective only on the basis of the a priori. Yet the a priori presupposes historical being’ (Husserl 1970, Objectivity and the World of Experience, 350; Parker also notes this, 247). In other words, the question of conceptual understanding cannot be separated from the supposedly objective facts and, furthermore, the question of the origin of concepts, theories and models is a question of tracing them back to the historical context in which they arose.

Husserl’s critique of the mathematisation of nature in Galileo, as well as the recognition of the problem of the historical a priori, form the background to Koyré’s own engagement with Galileo. Koyré does not merely reiterate what Husserl has said, but looks to the history of modern science in order to extend and assess Husserl’s claims about Galileo and the birth of modern science. When Koyré discusses the experiments of Galileo, it is precisely the distinction between the ideally constructed world of the scientist and the real world of our living that Koyré has in mind. Koyré’s claim is not simply that Galileo’s inferior equipment prevented him from preforming his experiments, but, more importantly, that it is ‘impossible in practice to produce a plane surface which is truly plane’ (Koyré 1968b, 45). A plane is a geometrical idea, not a real thing and, as Koyré writes, ‘perfection is not of this world: no doubt we can approach it, but we cannot attain it’ (Koyré 1968b, 45). For Koyré, ‘imaginary experiments’ or “thought experiments” step in where the real experiments end in order to bridge the gap between the world of more-or-less and the perfect world of geometry. He states that imagination ‘is not embarrassed by the limitations imposed on us by reality. It achieves the ideal, and even the impossible’ (Koyré 1968b, 45). According to Koyré, thought experiments play an important role in modern science because imagination can act as an intermediary between the mathematical and the real. Whether Galileo actually performed the experiments in question or not, does not affect the point that Koyré is making here: we cannot attain perfection in the real world.

Furthermore, the principle of inertia cannot be derived from experience because it is impossible to experience: nowhere can we actually see a body left to itself, uniformly moving in a straight line. Martin Heidegger aptly describes this point when he states:

‘modern science, in contrast to…medieval Scholasticism and science, is supposed to be based upon experience. Instead, it has [the law of inertia] at its apex. This law speaks of a thing that does not exist. It demands a fundamental representation of things which contradict the ordinary’ (Heidegger 1967, 89).

For Koyré, inertia is implicit in Galileo’s conception of motion, which will later be made explicit by Newton (Koyré 1968c, 19). As Koyré notes, ‘the Galilean concept of motion (as well as that of space) seems to us so “natural” that we even believe we have derived it from experience and observation’ (Koyré 1968d, 3), yet ‘for the Greeks as well as for the thinkers of the Middle Ages the idea that a body once put in motion will continue to more forever, appeared obviously and evidently false, and even absurd’ (Koyré 1968c, 19). As Koyré points out, it is the experiment, where we interrogate nature and force her to yield to our questions, that is decisive for modern science, not sensible experience (Koyré 1968c, 18).

The equivocation between experiment and experience is an ongoing problem for phenomenology and, therefore, worth reiterating here because the meaning of experience is at the heart of the difference between phenomenological philosophy and modern science. Yet, the meaning of experience is often left unclarified. The tradition of modern science leads to an understanding of human experience as unreliable and as reduced to a mere dependent copy of the, purportedly, external world. Modern science is not based upon unreliable experience, but upon experiments that are repeatable. The modern experiment presupposes that nature is mathematical, in other words, that nature can be measured and mapped with exactitude. On this account, the experiment allows us to move closer to the exact determination of nature by isolating ‘components’ and ‘variables’ and measuring them as well as the specific interactions between them. Phenomenology questions the mathematical conception of nature by suggesting that the scientific method operates by idealising and, then, formalising the things it investigates. Hence, what the scientists attains is not a better description of the tangible world, but a measurement of a mathematised or formalised ideal. Phenomenologists foreground this disjunction between the experimental basis of modern science and human experience as it is lived through. Furthermore, phenomenologists rethink the meaning of experience and problematise reducing experience to sensations as well as making experience equivalent to objectified repeatable data. Phenomenologists foreground that human experience is always meaningful which entails that we are able to see the same thing through different perspectives. However, this does not mean that human experience is perfectly replicable: our experience is typified, more-or-less the same, roughly similar, etc. On the other hand, human experience is not an accumulation of sensations because we always intend something whole, we always see more than we actually see. The meaning of experience is a central question for phenomenology as well as understanding modern mathematical science. I conclude by suggesting that it is important to read Koyré in light of the phenomenological critique of modern science that distinguishes the experiment from experience, brings into question the reduction of experience to sense-data and attempts to rethink experience as always intending something meaningful.

Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. 1967. What is a Thing? Translated by W. B. Barton and Vera Dutsch. Boston: University Press of America.

Husserl, Edmund. 1970. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy. Translated by David Carr. Evanston: Northwest University Press.

Koyré, Alexandre. 1968a. “An Experiment in Measurement.” In Metaphysics and Measurement: Essays in Scientific Revolution, 89–117. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Koyré, Alexandre. 1968b. “Galileo’s Treatise De Motu Gravium: The Use and Abuse of Imaginary Experiments.” In Metaphysics and Measurement: Essays in Scientific Revolution, 44–88. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Koyré, Alexandre. 1968c. “Galileo and Plato.” In Metaphysics and Measurement: Essays in Scientific Revolution, 16–43. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Koyré, Alexandre. 1968d. “Galileo and the Scientific Revolution of the Seventeenth Century.” In Metaphysics and Measurement: Essays in Scientific Revolution, 1–15. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Koyré, Alexandre. 1972 [1950]. “Introduction.” In Descartes Philosophical Writings, edited by Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Thomas Geach, vii–xliv. London: Nelson’s University Paperbacks.

Dorothée Legrand, Dylan Trigg (Eds.): Unconsciousness Between Phenomenology and Psychoanalysis

Unconsciousness Between Phenomenology and Psychoanalysis Book Cover Unconsciousness Between Phenomenology and Psychoanalysis
Contributions To Phenomenology, Volume 88
Dorothée Legrand, Dylan Trigg (Eds.)
Hardback 106,99 €
XVII, 281

Reviewed by:  Philip Hoejme (University of Amsterdam)

The 88th volume in the series Contributions to Phenomenology – Unconsciousness Between Phenomenology and Psychoanalysis deals with the unconscious as a phenomenological concept. The volume, edited by Dorothée Legrand and Dylan Trigg, contributes to the discussion of how different interpretations within phenomenology deal with unconsciousness. The focus is on the manifestation of an unconscious within the phenomenological tradition, both explicit and implicit. This way of working with a psychoanalytic concept within phenomenology is described by the editors in the introduction as, “all authors let themselves be informed by psychoanalysis and are oriented by phenomenology.” (ix). The first chapter examines this from within the phenomenological framework developed by Husserl, while the second chapter does the same with phenomenology as developed by Merleau-Ponty. After these two chapters, the following chapters describe and examine the limits of phenomenology, together with what might lie beyond these limits. In the third chapter, questions concerning the status of the unconscious within the limits of phenomenology are dealt with; the fourth chapter starts to move beyond these limits. This chapter deals with topics such as anxiety, affect figurability, and non-linguistic modes of thinking. The fifth and last chapter briefly looks at what is beyond phenomenology, examining the notion of surprise as an unconscious phenomenological marker and the unconscious in both psychoanalysis and surrealism, relieving psychoanalysis of its insistence on interpretation.

In the first part, Within the Husserlian Framework, Dermot Moran and Alexander Schnell examine the unconscious within Husserlian phenomenology. Husserl is considered as dealing with an unconscious in the sense that, for him, “patterns of intentional behaviour that have ‘sunk down’, through habituation, so as to be unnoticed or ‘unremarked’ (unbewusst),” (15) evidently closely resemble Freud’s own description of the unconscious.

“Bernheim had given the injunction that five minutes after his [the patient] awakening in the ward he was to open an umbrella, and he had carried out this order on awakening [from hypnosis], but could give no motive for his so doing. We have exactly such facts in mind when we speak of the existence of unconscious psychological processes.” (Freud, 2012[1916-1917]: 234-235)

In addition to this, Moran writes that “Both [Freud and Husserl] have a conception of human life as the harmonization or balancing of conflicting forces”, (12) suggesting that there is an unconscious to be found, opposed to consciousness. For Husserl, as for Freud, unnoticed behaviours constitute how humans “saturate situations with meaning including imagined intonations and implications.” (22). This point is close to the psychoanalytical claim that we tend to instil meanings and desires on situations or people unconsciously. In these situations, psychoanalysis would, through analysis, come to make these unconscious processes part of our conscious experience. This means that psychoanalysis would often confront us with desires, wishes or fears we did not know we had, or that run counter to what we perceive. Schnell, in his text, takes the perspective that “if consciousness is defined by intentionality, the unconscious can only refer, in phenomenology, to a non-intentional dimension of consciousness.” (27). Thus, he links the conflicting forces to a difference between intention and non-intention.

Such an understanding seems to be in line with Moran’s notion that the similarity between Husserl’s and Freud’s views is their claim that life is filled with unconscious meaning. Schnell generalizes three kinds of phenomenological unconscious, based on the works of Husserl, Levinas and Richir. The first is an unconscious he describes as being constituted when moving beyond the “immanent sphere” (45). He calls this generative unconsciousness, signifying an unconscious that has “a surplus of meaning both beyond and below phenomenology’s descriptive framework” (25). The second kind of unconsciousness is hypostatic unconsciousness, which, according to Schnell, relates to genetic unconsciousness much as Freud’s death drive relates to the life drive. This is a relationship between a drive to be a self and a drive to be with the Other (viz. to be social). Freud, prior to postulating the death drive, had written only of the libidinal drive, but in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), the death drive was added. The death and life drives relate to each other as creation and destruction, and in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Freud again develops the death drive to explain the aggressiveness (the death drive) of some civilizations. The third kind of unconscious phenomenology is the reflective unconscious, reflecting not only on itself but also on the two other types of the unconscious. Hence, this third kind of unconscious brings with it a totality of all these variations of the unconscious.

The second part, From the Specific Perspective of Merleau-Ponty, elaborates on the unconscious in relation to the writings of this French philosopher. Emmanuel de Saint Aubert, in his essay, argues that the unconscious, as proposed by the late Merleau-Ponty, is not constituted by repressed representations. Instead, the unconscious is understood by Merleau-Ponty as cited by de Saint Aubert (50): “the fundamental structure of the psychological apparatus … [and as our] … primordial relationship to the world.” In this understanding of the unconsciousness, Merleau-Ponty posits the idea of “the body as mediator of being” (as cited by de Saint Aubert [52]). Such an understanding breaks with the classical Freudian notion of the unconscious. For Freud, the unconscious was composed of repressed representations, forbidden desires, and unfulfilled wishes. By breaking with this understanding, Merleau-Ponty reveals an interpretation of the unconscious that equates it to a bodily aspect of lived life. This is taken up by Timothy Mooney, who expands on the assertion that habits are modes of the unconscious, as already posited by Moran and Schnell in their essays on Husserlian phenomenology. In his essay, Mooney uses Merleau-Ponty’s examination of phantom limbs, where “a patient keeps trying to walk with his use-phantom leg and is not discouraged by repeated failure.” (63) This is an example of how bodily habits, in Merleau-Ponty, become unconscious. Hence, an amputee can attempt to move an amputated arm repeatedly because such an action has become habitual, even if the arm is no longer there.

By examining the way in which one’s past experiences shape bodily habits, and how these habits come to influence one’s future, Mooney argues that the unconscious nature of habitual bodily functions constitutes an unconsciousness that, at the very least, shares some similarities with unconsciousness in psychoanalysis. These are bodily (unconscious) habits: a “common embodiment” (xi) shared by all, meaning that we all have unconscious bodily habits. As examples of these, the fact that I am hardly aware of breathing, or that most of us use hand gestures when speaking, seem to be instances of such habits. However, this is a radically different notion of the unconscious from the one proposed by Freud, who claimed that the unconscious is created by a repressive culture that ties us together. Lastly, James Phillips examines the notion of a nonverbal unconsciousness in Merleau-Ponty. This understanding of the unconscious interprets it as being the nonverbal part of ordinary thoughts. Such an understanding of the unconscious is, however, a development of the Freudian concept of unconsciousness, which is more of a repression of desires and wishes.

The third part, At the Limit of Phenomenology, examines whether it is possible to talk of a phenomenological unconscious. Questions pertaining to this inquiry are dealt with over four essays. In the first essay, one of the editors of this volume, Legrand, examines both how the unconscious in psychoanalysis and phenomenology deal with revealing the/an unknown as a way to examine how the unconscious in psychoanalysis breaks the defined limits of phenomenology. Legrand, in her essay, clearly expands upon what was already stipulated by Schnell, for whom the unconscious in phenomenology constitutes those instances where habits have become second nature, i.e. unconscious. In Danish, there is an idiom: jeg gjorde det på rygraden (trans. I did it on my spine, viz. without a second thought.) This is an example of how we accept that some things come to us from an unconscious place, e.g. that we often do things without being aware of many of the underlying processes. However, Legrand argues that there are problems with relating phenomenology and psychoanalysis to each other. This problem becomes clearer in the essay by François Raffoul, who continues Legrand’s line of thought by examining Heidegger’s ‘Phenomenology of the inapparent’ and Levinas’ claim that ‘the face of the Other’, understood as a secret, an unknown, posits an ethical dimension that creates a limit for phenomenological inquiry.

In this essay, the limits of phenomenology are tested by Levinas’ claim that ethics is first philosophy. In Levinas, the face of the Other is an unknown: it cannot be reduced to an object by the conscious perceiver. This is the limit of phenomenology mentioned by Legard. By claiming that the Other is unknown, Levinas’ phenomenology brings up an ethical aspect in its phenomenological investigation; an ethical aspect that also constitutes an unconsciousness. In his introduction, Raffoul writes that “What the term ‘unconscious’ designates, perhaps improperly, is such an alterity escaping presentation, an alterity that frustrates any effort of presentation by a phenomenological disclosure.” (114) This alterity is what Levinas posits in the face of the Other, which comes to frustrate any further phenomenological disclosure because it is an inapparent, or unknown. Thus, if it is impossible to get rid of the unconsciousness in phenomenology, Joseph Cohen’s essay expands on this by seeking to answer the question of whether there could be an unconsciousness that will not let itself become conscious. Or, as Cohen poetically frames this question, is there a night which is not followed by a day? Husserl, Cohen posits, did not see this being a possibility, as for Husserl there “always lies the possibility of conversion … of transforming the unfamiliar into the familiar, the improper into the proper, the ‘un-world’ into the world.” (135) However, as Cohen explains, there is an unconscious in Husserl that precedes any self-consciousness: an unconsciousness of the night. Husserl claims that this awakes in the morning as a consciousness, but in Cohen, this conversion of the unconscious to consciousness does not happen.

Following Cohen down into the night, Drew M. Dalton, in line with de Saint Aubert, insists upon the unconscious nature of bodily experience. Thus, he comes to regard the body (the dead body, a corpse) as an entity that can be recognized by consciousness, without being a consciousness. A corpse, in this view, is “an inhuman asubjective unconsciousness,” (xiii) and the dead body comes to confront a subject with an ethical dilemma, namely its own vulnerability. This ethical dimension is similar to how the face of the Other, in Levinas, brings ethics into the phenomenological endeavour. Hence, the corpse comes to constitute an unconscious unknown to us, but which nonetheless fills us with dread: an experience of our own mortality. Following Freud’s claim that the corpse is the uncanny par excellence, Dalton, in concord with both Freud and Lacan, concludes that the face of the Other, and the corpse, constitute a traumatic presentation, captivating us, perhaps, much as a deer is captivated by a light rushing towards it.

The fourth partr, With Phenomenology and Beyond, begins with the second editor’s essay. Here, Trigg elaborates on the experience of not fully being ‘me’. By examining states of consciousness where this very fact, of being conscious, is ambiguous, Trigg examines unconscious bodily states. As an example of such an experience, Trigg offers up hypnagogia: a state wherein the subject might experience lucid dreams or sleep paralysis. In such a state, Trigg argues, one is simultaneously both conscious and unconscious. Trigg describes this in the following way: “the hypnagogic state is a liminal state, it occurs in-between dreaming and waking, such that there is an overlap between the two spheres.” (164). Consequently, hypnagogia is a bodily unconscious experience, similar to that already discussed by Cohen and Dalton. There seems to be a clear resemblance between a dead body (Dalton) and the body of someone experiencing sleep paralysis, since neither body, to any perceiver, constitutes a conscious subject. On this topic, Freud wrote that “The state of sleep is able to re-establish the likeness of mental life as it was before the recognition of reality.” (Freud, 1911: 219) Hence, in Freud’s own writings, we are also able to find a description of sleep that relates it to the realm of the unconscious, or the unreal. This interpretation is echoed by V. Hamilton, who, in her book Narcissus and Oedipus writes that “For Freud, the sleeplike state of withdrawal involved ‘a deliberate rejection of reality’” (Hamilton, 1982: 30). It is not only during sleep, or in hypnagogia, but also in actual sleep and in sleeplike states of (mental) withdrawal, that we reject reality in favour of something else. In all of these instances, Trigg argues, we encounter a phenomenon that might constitute an unconscious state of being within (and beyond) phenomenological inquiries. That this point is also found in Freud’s writings suggests that this unconscious, which Heidegger claimed could not be dispelled from phenomenology, is to be found in psychoanalysis. It should be added, however, that the unconscious for Freud is a mental process, and not, as it is here, an unconscious state or phenomenon.

Whereas the unconscious for Freud is created by culturally repressed drives, Thamy Ayouch posits an unconscious that is not created by the cultural repression of natural drives. Instead, Ayouch suggests an unconscious which is an instituted affectivity: “This notion bridges the gap between past and present, the self and the Other, activity and passivity, but also nature and culture.” (199). By reformulating the unconscious in this way, Ayouch deals with non-binary gender configurations far more convincingly than Freud, who thought that homosexuality and heterosexuality develop based on a child’s successful resolving of the Oedipal complex. An unconscious not understood as in a binary relationship with consciousness greatly differs from Freud’s perspective. This critique of Freud has also been put forward by others: an example of such can be found in works by Judith Butler (see, for example, Subjects of Desire, 1988, or Gender Trouble, 1999.) Ayouch writes that the concept of institutional affectivity, as taken from Merleau-Ponty, leads to the conclusion that “sleep would be only a content of the transcendental subject, the Unconscious only a refusal to be conscious, and memory only a consciousness of the past.” (200). This line of argument (refusing to be conscious) is taken up by Dieter Lohmar, who sets out to examine non-linguistic modes of thinking using the phenomenology of Husserl. One such mode of thinking is called scenic phantasma, or daydreams (211). These are modes of thinking that Lohmar describes as allowing a subject to play out different life scenarios. Thus, in such instances, “we are playing out possible solutions to a problem, mentally testing our options, their usefulness for a solution and their respective consequences.” (211) Daydreams are unconscious acts, and Freud saw these as an escape from reality. But for Lohmar they are also private, and therefore not located within the consciousness of anyone other than the person experiencing the daydream. Another kind of unconscious day-to-day experience is examined by Line Ryberg Ingerslev. In her essay, Ingerslev examines how many habits have become unconscious processes in our day-to-day lives (see: Moran, Schnell, and Mooney.) Habits, in this sense, are understood by Ingerslev as unconscious processes that prevent us gaining self-familiarity. Hence, habits allow us to ‘automate’ functions that relieve us of familiarity with ourselves, freeing up our mind for other tasks. Ingerslev argues that our lack of unified control over many aspects of our bodily life, constitutes breaks with a unified conscious experience of life. This, Ingerslev claims, is the effect of an unconscious phenomenon at work. As an example of this, one might think of riding a bike, or similar actions. During such feats of motor control, the subject is hardly aware of the minor adjustments being made unconsciously to maintain balance. We might also add that if one attempts to be conscious of this activity, it probably becomes even harder to cycle. This is not unlike the earlier claim by Mooney. Ingerslev concludes by positing that one does not consciously act, but instead responds to actions already instigated unconsciously by habits.

The fifth and last part, Beyond Phenomenology, concludes this volume by examining those experiences located beyond phenomenological inquiries. Both of the texts examine the notion of surprise, either as a biological response to outside stimuli, a response which can be measured, or as a way to create art within the surrealist art movement. Natalie Depraz argues that surprise constitutes a disturbance of one’s conscious life, which is both objective and measurable. As an example of this, she states that the pounding of the heart due to a shock might be a way to measure the unconscious, since this is an unconscious reaction to outside stimuli. This she relates to Freud’s notion of ‘slips of the tongue,’ a concept developed by Freud in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901[1904]). In this idea, the unconscious thought comes to reveal itself to the subject by (unconsciously) forcing its way into verbal language. A racing heart, according to Depraz, opens up the possibility of examining the unconscious as the cause of a bodily reaction. The beating of the heart is like a slip of the tongue in Freud’s example. Both are posited as measurable evidence of an unconscious, in the sense that the reaction is instigated unconsciously. But there are also differences between the two examples: the beating of the heart is an objectively measurable fact, whereas a slip of the tongue could (possibly) be a wilful act.

Another kind of unconscious is scrutinised by Alphonso Lingis, who examines artistic creation within the surrealist movement as a form off unconsciousness. Lingis begins by questioning the role of the unconscious in orthodox psychoanalysis, asking how the unconscious could function if freed from psychoanalysis’ insistence on using interpretations to root out the cause of the unconscious. Such an examination leads to an exposé of the surrealist movement, whose adherents, inspired by the theories of Freud, used the technique of automatic writing (among other techniques) to stimulate their production of art. Lingis writes that the technique of automatic writing is similar to Freud’s technique of free association, a technique grounded in the inquiries made by Freud and Bernheim in the early days of psychoanalysis. Freud and André Breton (a key figure from the surrealist movement Lingis focuses on) differ considerably regarding the importance of the latent content in dreams. While Freud was interested in this content, Breton was, on the other hand, “interested in the manifest images for their irrational and marvellous, poetic character.” (264) By focusing on the manifest content, Breton moved the focus from interpretation to experience, thus breaking with the orthodox psychoanalytic focus on the latent dream content and the primacy put on interpretation.

In conclusion, this volume succeeds in its aim of describing and examining the psychoanalytic unconscious from within, at the limits of, and beyond phenomenology. The authors and editors have written a contribution to the field of phenomenology that clearly examines what a phenomenological unconscious is, how one can think of an unconscious as a concept within phenomenological discourse, and how the notion of the unconscious can push beyond the limits of phenomenology. In particular, I would highlight the fourth chapter, as it deals with phenomena that are also central to psychoanalysis and the works of Freud. By connecting seminal works within phenomenology (Husserl, Heidegger, Lavinas, and Merleau-Ponty) with different psychoanalytic works (particularly the works of Freud and Lacan) this volume brings these two disciplines into a fruitful relationship with each other. I do, however, wish to point out that the theoretical breadth of the psychoanalytic notion of an unconscious is dealt with in a limited fashion, but this is in line with the overall goal of this volume. Specifically, I would have liked to see more discussion of the differences between Freud’s and Jung’s conceptions of the unconscious. It would also have been interesting to incorporate an examination of the disagreement between Freud and Ferenczi: a difference of opinion relating to the technique of free association, or some discussion of the Rorschach test as a way of measuring unconscious processes. Notwithstanding these minor flaws, this volume is of interest to anyone concerned with either phenomenology or psychoanalysis (both clinical and theoretical), as it bridges the two disciplines over an impressive span of topics, without becoming trivial. The themes tackled might cover a broad spectrum, but what they all have in common is a questioning and engaging examination of how an unconscious might be found within, at the limits of, or beyond phenomenology. In addition, the volume is written in clear and accessible language, making it a useful starting point for anyone who might be interested in a phenomenological examination of the unconscious.


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Freud, S. (1911). Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XII, Case History of Schreber, Papers on Technique and Other Works (1911-1913), 213-226. Hogarth Press.

Hamilton, V. (1982). Narcissus and Oedipus: The Children of Psychoanalysis. Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Sonja Frohoff: Leibliche Bilderfahrung: Phänomenologische Annäherungen an Werke der Sammlung Prinzhorn, Springer, 2018

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Sonja Frohoff
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Malte Brinkmann (Ed.): Phänomenologische Erziehungswissenschaft von ihren Anfängen bis heute: Eine Anthologie, Springer, 2019

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VII, 574

Iulian Apostolescu, Anca Irina Ionescu (Eds.): Existență, responsabilitate, transcendență, UAIC Publishing House, 2018

Existență, responsabilitate, transcendență. Volum omagial Jan Patočka însoțit de Conferințele de la Louvain. Despre contribuţia Boemiei la idealul ştiinţei moderne, de Jan Patočka Book Cover Existență, responsabilitate, transcendență. Volum omagial Jan Patočka însoțit de Conferințele de la Louvain. Despre contribuţia Boemiei la idealul ştiinţei moderne, de Jan Patočka
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Sebastian Luft, Ruth Hagengruber (Eds.): Women Phenomenologists on Social Ontology: We-Experiences, Communal Life, and Joint Action, Springer, 2018

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Jason W. Alvis: The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn, Indiana University Press, 2018

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Jason W. Alvis
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Thomas Hünefeldt, Annika Schlitte (Eds.): Situatedness and Place: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on the Spatio-temporal Contingency of Human Life, Springer, 2018

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Saulius Geniusas, Paul Fairfield (Eds.): Hermeneutics and Phenomenology: Figures and Themes, Bloomsbury, 2018

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James Mensch: Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining, Brill, 2018

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Studies in Contemporary Phenomenology, Volume: 17
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