Véronique M. Fóti: Merleau-Ponty at the Gallery: Questioning Art beyond His Reach

Merleau-Ponty at the Gallery: Questioning Art beyond His Reach Book Cover Merleau-Ponty at the Gallery: Questioning Art beyond His Reach
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Véronique M. Fóti
SUNY Press
2020
Paperback $31.95
164

Reviewed by: David Collins (McGill University)

Overview

There are at least two approaches to what may be called ‘applied phenomenology’: one involves performing a phenomenological analysis of one’s own by closely attending to, describing, and critically interrogating one’s first-personal experiences of some phenomenon; the other involves applying existing phenomenological theory—i.e., the results of another’s, or one’s own, prior phenomenological analysis—to some phenomenon in order to understand it in phenomenological terms. (These are not the only approaches, of course, and they need not be mutually exclusive.) With respect to art and aesthetic experience, the first approach can be seen in Mikel Dufrenne’s The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience (1973) and in Samuel Mallin’s Art Line Thought (1996). (For an example of an analysis of a painting that employs Mallin’s body phenomenology, see Crippen 2014.) The second approach is more common, not only in phenomenological reflections on art but in applied phenomenology generally. Done well, it is a matter of putting some phenomenon into dialogue with an established phenomenologist so as to explore how his or her theory can inform and enrich our understanding and, ideally, our experience of the phenomenon—and, reciprocally, how the phenomenon can clarify, challenge, or modify the theory. (For an example of such a dialogue between Merleau-Ponty’s thought and art, see Hacklin 2012.) However, there is a risk of merely translating our pre-existing understanding of the phenomenon into the language of the theory in a way that adds neither to our understanding nor to the theory, but merely fits the phenomenon into the theory’s framework.

Véronique M. Fóti’s new book, Merleau-Ponty at the Gallery, takes the second approach, promising to put Merleau-Ponty’s reflections on visual art—along with other elements of his philosophy—into dialogue with the work of five 20th century artists in a way that will shed new light on these artists’ works and practices while illuminating, and in places challenging, Merleau-Ponty’s thinking. Unfortunately it does not live up to this promise or to the precedent set by Fóti’s previous work on both Merleau-Ponty and the phenomenology of art (see, e.g., Fóti 1992, Fóti 1996), which includes her recent volume exploring the notion of expression in Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetics, ontology, and philosophy of biology (Fóti 2013). This is not to say that Fóti’s new book is not interesting or valuable, only that it is not as valuable as it might have been. It will interest readers familiar with Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception but who are less familiar with his aesthetic reflections or his late ontology, since one of the strengths of the book is Fóti’s explications of these elements of his thought. Another strength is her discussion of the works and practices of the artists she has selected and her use of them to illustrate Merleau-Ponty’s ideas. In this respect, Fóti’s book is valuable for showing how well his ideas fit the work of artists beyond those he himself wrote on. Fóti’s research here into and engagement with art historical and critical work on the artists she considers is admirably thorough.

That being said, it is not clear that Fóti’s framing of these works and artists in terms of Merleau-Ponty’s thought reveals aspects of the works and practices that are not already noted in the art historical and critical scholarship she cites; the discussion often amounts to Fóti noting similarities or convergences between some aspect of an artwork or an artist’s practice and something Merleau-Ponty wrote, or showing how existing interpretations of these works can be put in his terms. Similarly, it is not clear that this book will offer many new insights into Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy for readers already familiar with his work and the secondary literature on it, since his thought is not significantly complicated, questioned, supplemented, etc. in the ways one would expect from a genuine dialogue. Nevertheless, Fóti’s discussion and descriptions of works by artists who—with the exception of Cy Twombly—are under-attended to in philosophical aesthetics will interest philosophers of art, and her explication of Merleau-Ponty’s ideas will be useful for art historians and critics with an interest in phenomenology or a wish to ground their work in an amenable ontology. Fóti’s final chapter, which considers the disavowal of beauty in much 20th century art and art theory, and suggests what she calls ‘strong beauty’ as a way to reclaim the notion while avoiding its purportedly problematic aspects, is worth further consideration—and perhaps further development in a future work—, although this chapter feels somewhat disconnected from the others since it draws significantly on only one of the artists from the preceding chapters, with the significance being minor.

With these six chapters, plus introduction and conclusion, coming to 112 pages before endnotes, bibliography, and index, this book is on the short side, which makes it easy to read and to refer back to, e.g., for locating particular examples of artworks. However, the lack of any illustrations is unfortunate: this is a book that calls for high quality colour reproductions of the works discussed. (To be fair, the choice to omit illustrations may not have been Fóti’s but an editor’s. There are also a number of minor typographical errors that hopefully will be corrected in future printings, e.g., parenthetical comments with the second parenthesis misplaced or simply missing, which leaves the reader to intuit where the comment ends and the sentence into which it is inserted resumes.) As mentioned, chapter 6 sketches a theory of beauty that is meant to avoid worries about links between the idea of beauty as traditionally understood and the morally troubling practices it is sometimes thought to support. Fóti draws on Merleau-Ponty to develop this theory but goes beyond his writings which, as she notes, contain a “near-silence concerning beauty” (95); this chapter is where most of Fóti’s original ideas can be found.

Chapter-by-Chapter Synopsis

In the introduction, Fóti outlines her approach to applying Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetics and details the common threads or convergences to be found between his thought and the works of the artists she has selected for her focus. She notes twin tendencies in the scholarship on Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetics: “to focus predominantly on the very same artists or artistic movements with which he himself engaged,” such as Cézanne, Klee, Matisse, Rodin, and post-impressionism and cubism, and “to concentrate on the issues that he himself discusses in his aesthetic writings, rather than engaging directly with artworks and the practices of artmaking” to bring them “into dialogue with Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology” (1-2). She is right that a tendency to repeat the same examples that ‘big-name’ philosophers have used is limiting and can be a sign of a lack of original understanding or a lack of familiarity with the range of phenomena from which the usual examples are drawn, and that it would make for better scholarship to engage directly with a new range of artworks and examples. It would also lead to better phenomenology, since it would make the results of individual phenomenological analyses less likely to be reified as universal claims about the nature of art when these results may have been specific to those examples.

The choice to focus on artists who, except for Morandi (whose was a near-contemporary of Merleau-Ponty’s), were part of an artworld slightly after his time avoids these limitations and lets her test whether Merleau-Ponty’s views map onto works and practices from a later period in visual art’s history with new developments, directions and styles. However, as noted above, the work of these  artists is not always brought into mutual dialogue with Merleau-Ponty’s thought,  or at least the claim that her consideration of these works “did not simply confirm [his] analyses but also … deepened or complicated them or introduced critical perspectives” (3) is not reflected in what is said about each one in the subsequent chapters. Instead, the areas of convergence that she finds between these artists’ works and Merleau-Ponty’s ideas are often presented by noting similarities between what an artist does and an observation or a view of Merleau-Ponty’s, where these similarities are not always clearly explicated and where more could be done to explain how a particular work exemplifies or embodies Merleau-Ponty’s claims. These convergences are: ‘interweaving dualities’, i.e., the collapsing of binary dichotomies between figuration and abstraction, subject and object of perception, etc.; the relation between image and writing, including the nature of written texts as both visual and linguistic; the ‘thingness’ of artworks, i.e., their in-between status as more than ‘mere’ things but distinct from tools or equipment for use, and their relation to materiality; the question of the artist’s historical situatedness and the ‘timeliness’ of their work. The biological need for beauty is also listed as a convergence, but it is not clear how this counts given Merleau-Ponty’s (and some of the five artists’) relative lack of concern with beauty.

Chapter 1 focuses on Giorgio Morandi, whose work Fóti sees as converging with Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy with respect to his explorations of vision and visibility and his refusal to draw a hard-and-fast distinction between figuration and abstraction. The suggestion is that Morandi’s still lifes of ordinary objects such as bottles and vases work to subtly defamiliarize these objects while keeping them recognizable; as Fóti puts it, they “unhinge things and their configurations from customary identification without, however, treating them as mere pretexts for painterly innovation” (17). This is linked to the idea of suspending or bracketing ‘profane’ vision to leave room for ‘primordial’ vision, which idea is fundamental to Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of phenomenology and his notion of visual art’s ability to disclose and thematize this primordial vision and its workings, and thereby to “rende[r] visible what could not otherwise be so” (14). In other words, the claim is that the familiar character of the objects Morandi paints, e.g., bottles, is placed in the background (rather than being removed entirely) so that their character as visible, or things-that-appear, and the ways in which they appear to us, can be brought to the fore.

This is a fertile point of convergence between Morandi’s painting and Merleau-Ponty’s thinking, although it would be nice if how Morandi’s paintings do these things were explained rather than it being just asserted that they do. The concrete, practical details of the paintings or Morandi’s process that Fóti describes do not sufficiently explain this; instead, not all of these points are clearly relevant to the rest of the discussion, e.g., noting that Morandi often uses “a rich and subtle palette of grayed earth tones, siennas, golds and whites, or earth greens and muted violets [which] is restrained, with a somewhat melancholy echo of classical antiquity” (16). This works well as a description of Morandi’s use of colour, but it does not obviously relate to or explain how “things constellate and configure themselves in space” in his paintings, as Fóti claims (Ibid.). Seeking out and viewing Morandi’s paintings does not help to make these claims concrete in the same way that one can easily see the fittingness of what Merleau-Ponty says about, e.g., Cézanne’s paintings from looking at them. There is a nice description of Morandi’s Still Life with Yellow Cloth, but what this painting is described as doing is not significantly different from what Merleau-Ponty already describes Cézanne’s still lifes as doing, such as the absence of a fixed perspective; moreover, it is unclear how this description relates to the point about the “mutual precession” of seer and seen that follows it (18). Since what Fóti is claiming about Morandi’s paintings here is much the same as what Merleau-Ponty claimed of Cézanne’s, it would have been helpful if more attention had been paid to the ways in which Morandi’s work differs from Cézanne’s and the implications of these differences for Merleau-Ponty’s thought.

Another theme that is discussed in this chapter is the place of ‘thingness’ in Morandi’s work, given his frequent depictions of commonplace objects in ways that emphasize both their materiality and what Merleau-Ponty would call their ambiguity or ‘perceptual nonresolution’. However, most of the discussion of this theme is done in relation to Heidegger and not Merleau-Ponty; while it is true that Heidegger dwells more on the nature of ‘thingness’ (i.e., the being of things qua things), it feels somewhat disjointed for the focus to switch to Heidegger so early on in a book that is meant to be primarily about Merleau-Ponty.

Chapter 2 turns to Kiki Smith, whose work is linked to Merleau-Ponty’s thought insofar as she is concerned with the body and its vulnerability, organic nature and animality, and exploring our relations to the usually invisible insides of bodies by opening them out to view. As with the chapter on Morandi, the main convergence discussed here is the intertwining of dualities; however, where the dualities that were found to be intertwined in Morandi’s work have to do with perception and with painting as an expression of vision, those in terms of which Smith’s work is discussed have to do with the overlap or blending (‘inter-being’/Ineinander) of conceptual categories such as humanity and animality, life and elemental nature, nature and cosmos, in their “ecological coexistence” (27).  This is seen in examples discussed of works in which Smith defamiliarizes not the visual appearances of objects but the themes and symbols of traditional folklore, such as her sculpture Daughter, which presents Red Riding Hood as a wolf-girl.

The connections Fóti draws between Smith and Merleau-Ponty are more tenuous than those drawn between the philosopher and Morandi in the previous chapter. There is, for example, an extended discussion of play and imagination as the transcendence of a fixed perspective on actuality (33-34), but this is not linked to Smith and instead the discussion moves from this to some remarks on her work’s relationship to ideas of beauty. Also, just how each one handles the common theme of our corporeality is not discussed in a way that adds to or informs our understanding of either. Instead, the discussion often takes the form of noting a theme in Smith’s work, describing an example or two of particular works that explore this theme, and then noting what Merleau-Ponty says about that theme. For instance, Fóti mentions that pregnancy is a recurring theme in Smith’s work and that Merleau-Ponty used the concept of pregnancy as a metaphor (29), but nothing more is made of this and it is not shown why the fact that both explored this metaphor is important: how do the ways in which they explored or employed it compare or differ, and what can this tell us about either their work or the concept itself? Similarly, Smith may have linked her concern with the body to her background in Catholicism, and Merleau-Ponty, sharing this background, may have written about the importance of the body and the idea of incarnation to Christianity (31), but—at the risk of being blunt—so what?

Without saying more to connect these themes in their work at more than a superficial level, what is meant to be a dialogue between their work and ideas fails (ironically) to intertwine the two: their work and ideas are not put into the sort of ‘inter-being’ that is found between, say, humanity and animality in Smith’s work, and instead the discussion becomes something closer to a listing of similarities that keeps these similarities side-by-side, rather than a dialogical exchange in which they are made to commingle. At the end of the chapter there is a passage suggesting how Fóti thinks Smith’s work might inform and supplement Merleau-Ponty’s ideas, where she writes that “[a]lthough Merleau-Ponty speaks of the elementality of flesh, he does not develop or concretize his understanding of elementality beyond pointing to the ancient (Presocratic) provenance of that notion,” whereas “Smith’s art allows the elements to come to presence … in their everyday and easily overlooked modalities of presencing” (41). This is the kind of point that I would like to see explored and developed further, and even given a central place in the discussion, since it points to the kind of dialogue that was promised.

Chapter 3 considers the work of Cy Twombly, focusing especially on those of his paintings that incorporate writing to explore both the visual qualities and the historical resonances of particular words, sentences, and fragments of text, which allows Fóti to bring Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of language to bear on the discussion. Fortunately, the convergences or points of connection between Twombly’s work and Merleau-Ponty’s thought are less tenuous—or at least are better explained—than those claimed in the previous two chapters. Here Fóti links the relation between image and text to the relation of materiality to ideality or meaning in order to analyze Twombly’s use of writing (and ‘quasi-writing’) in his visual art through a Merleau-Pontian lens in a way that does more than just note how something Twombly does resembles or is an example of one of the philosopher’s ideas. This gives us a way of attending to, understanding, and appreciating the art that goes beyond what is available from looking at it without this lens. Moreover, it involves Fóti making points that Merleau-Ponty did not already make himself about a different artist, as is the case with the points about Morandi in the first chapter and Merleau-Ponty’s remarks on Cézanne.

Of particular interest here is what is said concerning the ways in which the incorporation of writing in Twombly’s work exemplifies, or rather, enacts, Merleau-Ponty’s questioning in works such as “Eye and Mind” (1960) of any ontological separation between visual and verbal artforms. By bringing the visual form of written language to our attention, whether this is in the form of actual letters and words, or in the looping lines in Twombly’s ‘blackboard’ paintings that show up for us as writing-like—while remaining illegible since they are not actual writing but what Fóti calls ‘quasi-writing’—, Twombly defamiliarizes writing and introduces a multidimensional or ‘diacritical’ field of meanings and associations that go beyond mere semantic or literal meaning. This treats words and letters as figures rather than as signs, which highlights both the gestures involved in writing certain letters or words and the materiality of the sign itself, which illustrates the embodied grounds of language and expression. Additionally, Twombly’s attention to the trace left by the act of writing and his erasures, effacements, and concealments of words in his paintings, along with the deferral of meaning this produces, are informed by reading this practice in the light of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the “invisible of the visible” (48).

Unlike the other chapters, here Fóti does explain how considering Twombly’s work in relation to Merleau-Ponty’s ideas can complicate and inform the latter’s philosophy. For example, Twombly’s questioning of the separation between the visual and the verbal lends weight to Merleau-Ponty’s suspicion of this dualism in “Eye and Mind” over his apparent endorsement of this separation, viz., his distinction between painting as (or as allowing) ‘timeless meditation’ vs. literature as tied to its historical situation in “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence” (1952). As well, Fóti considers whether Twombly’s practices of drawing in the dark and with his non-dominant hand in order to disrupt the habitual connections between hand and eye, and between painting and vision, might pose a challenge for Merleau-Ponty’s thought. She concludes that they do not, arguing that dissociating hand, eye, and mind only introduces a problem for what Merleau-Ponty calls ‘profane’ vision; however, it is not clear why drawing ‘blind’ would lead to a more genuine or ‘primordial’ kind of vision, although it does plausibly allow for an element of embodied expression, which always underlies the act of drawing or painting, to be foregrounded. While these points about the relation of Twombly’s work and Merleau-Ponty’s thought are in keeping with what was promised in the introduction, the rest of this chapter—e.g., the descriptions of Twombly’s series of paintings about the Trojan war—is far less clear as to the connections being made or their importance.

Chapters 4 and 5 consider the art of Joan Mitchell and Ellsworth Kelley, respectively. The chapter on Mitchell consists mostly of descriptions of her paintings and practices, her thoughts on her work, and biographical details. These descriptions are well-wrought and thoughtful and the details are interesting; together they work to give us a good sense of her art. Fóti explores the ways her non-figurative expressionist paintings combine disintegration and turbulence with order and balance, how her paintings explore ambiguities between figure and ground, and the tension in her practice between spontaneity and deliberation. However, not much of a link is drawn between her work and Merleau-Ponty’s ideas: Mitchell’s interest in how colours combine and interact is mentioned alongside Merleau-Ponty’s remarks in “Eye and Mind” about colour as giving us visual textures and as supporting identities and differences, but these two concerns about colour are not obviously the same and their relation is not made clear. Fóti does note that Mitchell’s relationship to colour can be compared to what Merleau-Ponty says about Cézanne’s use of colour, but just how they compare or why this is a substantial convergence between her art and his thought is again not made clear. Similarly, Fóti discusses how Mitchell seeks to capture the felt ‘essences’ of experience in abstract forms and through colour, and notes that Merleau-Ponty is critical of the traditional quest for essences in philosophy but makes room in his thought for ‘carnal’ rather than ‘pure’ essences. However, it is not clear that Mitchell and Merleau-Ponty mean the same thing by ‘essence’ here; if they do not, there is no conflict, so it is again unclear just what relation between the artworks and philosophy is being drawn.

The chapter on Kelly focuses on his plant drawings and their relation to his better-known colour field paintings, where Fóti suggests they were a step on the way from figuration to abstraction in his work. The chapter also looks at Kelly’s artistic practice in terms of the interrelation of hand, eye, and mind and the involvement of memory in perception, and discusses Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of nature and biology, although Kelly’s work ends up mainly illustrating rather than informing Merleau-Ponty’s ideas. The discussion of the plant drawings is similar to the points made about Morandi’s work, with the claim here being that these drawings disclose a ‘primordial’ vision by abstracting from the familiar appearances of ‘profane’ vision. As in the discussion of Mitchell, the notion of art’s ability to disclose the essences of things is prominent here: by concentrating on lines that capture the shapes and visual rhythms of plant life and eschewing three-dimensional representation, colour, etc., Fóti claims that Kelly’s work is able to present “the very essence of the plant” or its “genuine essentiality” (75-76). Despite the decisiveness of these claims, it is unclear why we should take Kelly’s drawings to do this rather than to foreground an aspect of the plants he draws; this seems to involve what we might call a ‘reductionist bias’, i.e., presupposing that the ‘essence’ of a phenomenon will be a pared down or simplified version of it rather than thinking that essences could be as rich—as complex, messy, and muddled—as phenomena themselves. Not only is it unclear in what sense stripping away three-dimensionality and colour, and abstracting a linear form from its background or context, presents us with “what the eye sees” (77), but this seems to be in tension with the importance Merleau-Ponty places on colour, background, and, especially, depth.

The sixth and final chapter on beauty is identified as a version of a lecture given at the 2019 meeting of the International Merleau-Ponty Circle, which makes sense of its disconnect from the first five chapters, i.e., the lack of any substantial relation to the artists discussed therein, except for a brief discussion of Kelly and passing mentions of Morandi, Smith, and Mitchell. Here Fóti’s aim is to offer a theory of beauty that rescues it from “[t]he critique and eclipse of beauty as an artistic aim and ideal” in much 20th century art and art theory (93), and she does this largely by elaborating on a remark made in one of Merleau-Ponty’s lecture courses (see Merleau-Ponty 1996), viz.: “By the disintegration of the figurative, one finds a Beauty which is sought by painting’s internal exigency, and which no longer hides pain and death, being the profound sensitivity thereto” (quoted by Fóti, 61). Her suggestion is that ‘strong beauty’ avoids the worries behind the 20th century discrediting of beauty—especially post-WWII concerns about beauty’s potential complicity with evil—because totalitarian projects are based on worldviews where everything is taken to be fully present to view and completely determinable, and because strong beauty necessarily involves acknowledging the invisible in its interrelation with the visible. In other words, the idea is that works with strong beauty cannot be (mis-)used for ideological aims because they cannot be totalized or objectified but are opaque and enigmatic, whereas an ideological appropriation and use of art cannot tolerate ambiguity.

Since strong beauty is characterized in terms of enigma and opacity is it perhaps not surprising that Fóti never quite tells us exactly what it is. We are told that strong beauty: is not merely external attractiveness but is intrinsic to a work’s meaning; is not related to pleasure but rather to feelings of intensity, is not opposed to ugliness or abjection; is a character not of objects but of events, and so is not a representation but a revelation; involves being open to the universe rather than wanting to impose one’s own vision onto it; must have an “uncompromising ethicality” (Ibid.); must refuse ‘absolutization’ by remaining enigmatic and unforeseeable, always “exceeding one’s spectrum of preformed possibilities” (99). This is all rather vague, and we might expect that examples of particular artworks that manifest strong beauty would make this clear, especially given Fóti’s concern throughout the book to illustrate her more abstract points by way of presenting detailed and concrete descriptions of works. Unfortunately, the works of art that are mentioned as examples of strong beauty—such as Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, and some of the works of Kiki Smith, Lucian Freud, Narvar Bhavsar, and Agnes Martin—are merely asserted to have this character without explaining what it is in virtue of which they have it.

There is a worry here that what Smith is describing departs from what is customarily or traditionally called ‘beauty’ to the point where by changing the definition she in effect changes the topic while continuing to use the same label. There is also a worry that building a moral component into the idea of strong beauty by requiring its ethicality is only done to make it immune from the worries about beauty’s compatibility with evil by merely asserting their incompatibility. Nevertheless, despite these worries and the vagueness of Fóti’s explication, her comments on strong beauty and the experience of our encounters with it, as well as the implications of these comments for the relation between art, morality, and politics, are worth further exploration.

Concluding Assessment

This book offers a fairly enjoyable and interesting read, but one that will be of limited use to those who are already familiar with Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetic thought and late ontology other than as a resource of examples that illustrate his ideas. Readers looking for this, however, will find the book valuable: Fóti’s close descriptions of particular artworks are eloquent and informative, and the details she provides about the lives and practices of the artists whose work she considers are intriguing and show a deep familiarity with the art-historical and critical literature. Although Fóti successfully explicates many ideas that are of central importance for Merleau-Ponty’s thought post-Phenomenology of Perception, this will mainly serve as summary for readers with their own background knowledge of Merleau-Ponty rather than adding anything new to what readers can gain by reading works such as “Eye and Mind”. (For readers seeking this, Fóti’s 2013 Tracing Expression in Merleau-Ponty is recommended.) Moreover, these ideas are explained in a way that likely will be too advanced for readers who do not already have a background in Merleau-Ponty’s thought, or in phenomenology and 20th century continental philosophy more generally, and readers who come to the book from a background in art history or art theory will need to supplement their reading in order to grasp the ideas of Merleau-Ponty’s that are presented here. Ultimately, while Fóti’s knowledge of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy and of art history are enviable, this book does not obviously make a significantly new contribution to either Merleau-Ponty scholarship or to the art-historical literature on the artists discussed, except for the first half of Chapter 3, where she analyzes Twombly’s combinations of image and writing, and Chapter 6 with its suggestions for a theory of beauty that hopefully will be clarified and developed further in future work.

References

Crippen, M. 2014. “Body Phenomenology, Somaesethetics and Nietzschean Themes in Medieval Art.” Pragmatism Today, vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 45-50.

Dufrenne, M. 1973. The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience. Translation by E. S. Casey. Northwestern University Press.

Fóti, V. M. 1992. Heidegger and the Poets: Poiesis, Sophia, Techne. Humanities Press.

Fóti, V. M. 1996. Merleau-Ponty: Difference, Materiality, Painting. Humanities Press.

Fóti, V. M. 2013. Tracing Expression in Merleau-Ponty: Aesthetics, Philosophy of Biology, and Ontology. Northwestern University Press.

Hacklin, S. 2012. Divergencies of Perception: The Possibilities of Merleau-Pontian Phenomenology in Analyses of Contemporary Art. PhD thesis. University of Helsinki. Retrieved from https://helda/helsinki.fi/bitstream/handle/10138/29433/divergen.pdf.

Mallin, S. B. 1996. Art Line Thought. Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1952. “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence.” Revised translation by B. Smith. In The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, G. A. Johnson (ed.), pp. 76-120. Northwestern University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1960. “Eye and Mind.” Revised translation by M. B. Smith. In The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, G. A. Johnson (ed.), pp. 121-149. Northwestern University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1996. Notes de cours, 1959–1961. Edited by Stéphanie Ménasé. Gallimard.

Bernhard Waldenfels: Reisetagebuch eines Phänomenologen: Aus den Jahren 1978–2019, Ergon, 2021

Reisetagebuch eines Phänomenologen: Aus den Jahren 1978–2019 Book Cover Reisetagebuch eines Phänomenologen: Aus den Jahren 1978–2019
Bernhard Waldenfels
Ergon
2021
Hardback 49,00 €
496

Hans Blumenberg: History, Metaphors, Fables

History, Metaphors, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader Book Cover History, Metaphors, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader
signale|TRANSFER: German Thought in Translation
Hans Blumenberg. Edited and translated by Hannes Bajohr, Florian Fuchs, and Joe Paul Kroll.
Cornell University Press
2020
Paperback $29.95
624

Reviewed by: Marina Marren (PhD. Department of Philosophy, University of Nevada, Reno)

The Aesthetic Dimension of Life and the Freedom of Thought: A Hans Blumenberg Reader Review

The Cornell University Press edition of the History, Metaphors, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader is a first of its kind volume, masterfully edited and translated by Hannes Bajohr, Florian Fuchs, and Joe Paul Kroll. Continuing to widen the Hans Blumenberg (1920 – 1996) readership in the English-speaking world, the wide-ranging collection includes Blumenberg’s “most important philosophical essays, many of which provide explicit discussions of what in the large tomes often remain only tacit presuppositions and often act as précis for them, as well as selections of his nonacademic writings” (5). The editors organize Blumenberg’s writings thematically, beginning in Part I with Blumenberg’s accounts of the historical significance of secularization and his assessment of the concept of the real. Part II encompasses select writings on language and rhetoric including Blumenberg’s seminal and groundbreaking conceptualization of metaphoricity (e.g., Introduction to Paradigms for a Metaphorology 1960 and Observations Drawn from Metaphors 1971). Unique in his thinking about the metaphorical process, Blumenberg is a contemporary of Ricoeur, whose own analyses of metaphor begin to appear in the mid-seventies in French (e.g., La Métaphore vive 1975). Moving from Blumenberg’s examination of new modes of poetic, rhetorical, and metaphoric thinking and writing (what Blumenberg refers to as “nonconceptuality”), Part III of the book offers several key compositions on the meaning of technology and nature. The volume closes with Part IV that contains Blumenberg’s literary varia and more whimsical pieces that reflect Blumenberg’s interest in playfulness and riddles as entryways to a revivified philosophical reflection that breaks free from canonical meaning and form.

There are “two criteria” that the editors of the Reader cite as determining their “selection: the centrality of the texts for Blumenberg’s oeuvre as such—the core canon, as contestable as this notion is—and their illustrative value for the genres, topics, or types of question he was engaged in but for which no such canon has yet crystallized” (20). The editors situate their selections in the historical background of Blumenberg’s intellectual development, which they discuss in the Introduction. There Bajohr, Fuchs, and Kroll remind us that Blumenberg’s father worked extensively on the philosophy of Edmund Husserl and that Blumenberg’s 1950 Habilitation thesis, Ontological Distance, an Inquiry into the Crisis of Edmund Husserl‘s Phenomenology, examined Husser’s ideas at length. Being half-Jewish (Blumenberg’s mother was Jewish) just as Husserl, Blumenberg suffered during the reign of the National Socialists in Germany. This background makes Blumenberg’s criticism of Carl Schmitt’s take on law, politics, and exceptional power (The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, originally published in 1966) all the more poignant.

Blumenberg’s own understanding of the task of thinking – and especially philosophical thinking – arrives early on, in one of the opening selections in Part I, entitled World Pictures and World Models (1961), where Blumenberg writes, “countless definitions that have been given for philosophy’s achievements in its history have a basic formula at their core: philosophy is the emerging consciousness of humans about themselves” (42). However, this externalizing power of philosophical reflection, which takes us out of our cultural and historical belonging in order to allow us to examine both, according to Blumenberg, results if not in utter alienation, then at least in a loosening of national and political convictions. Paradoxically, the pluralism of cultures and views, and the resultant inability “to adopt one of these worlds obviously and unquestionably as our own” (42), makes us all the more malleable when it comes to political manipulation. On Blumenberg’s view, “beneath the competing world pictures, interests stemming from rather less rarefied spheres interpose themselves imperceptibly. World pictures are becoming pretexts under which interests are advanced. This type of substitution is implied when one speaks of world pictures as ideologies” (50). Blumenberg contrasts the world picture with a more theoretical and scientific construction such as a “world model” (43), and which he defines as an “embodiment of reality through which and in which humans recognize themselves, orient their judgments and the goals of their actions” (43). The possibility of a successful substitution of a world picture for an ideology makes Blumenberg’s critique of the sort of political theory that Schmitt proposes all the more salient. For Blumenberg, “Whoever campaigns for the state as a “higher reality” and whoever identifies himself with the state thinks it as a subject of crises—and is easily inclined to think it into crises” (84), and as we know already from Plato’s Republic, which both Blumenberg and Schmitt studied at length, a tyrant, who identifies with and as the state is “always stirring up war” (567a).

However, the observation that Blumenberg fails to make is that his own take on the meaning of the Republic makes this dialogue out to be, precisely, the kind of tool of ideological manipulation against which he warns us to start, i.e., in his remarks on the world picture. Blumenberg reads the dialogue literally, which is clear from his own gloss on the supposed function of the Kallipolis. He writes, “Plato had derived his Republic from the three-tiered structure of the human soul; at the center of the work stood the theory of ideas, and the famous cave allegory illustrated the necessity of binding the state to the knowledge of absolute reality” (87). Blumenberg directly attributes to Plato those images and ideas that are a part of the city in speech that is a construct and a product of the dialogical exchanges between the interlocutors. Any product of the discussions among the dialogical characters cannot be directly identified with what Plato may have thought or believed. If Plato wanted us to think that a surface and literal reading was the correct one, he would have written in the first person, and straightforwardly recommended his ideas as being correct and true. Instead, Plato writes dialogues and there is not a single dialogue of Plato’s where we have him address us in the first person. Blumenberg’s claim about Plato’s alleged prescription of the “necessity of binding the state to the knowledge of absolute reality” (87) allows Blumenberg to set Plato up as a subject of Machiavelli’s discontent and attacks, but it makes Plato’s thought out to be much too simplistic and brings it in the vicinity of ideology. Another problematic set of connections that Blumenberg makes has to do with his swift excursus through the history of ideas – from Aristotle to Husserl. Blumenberg’s take on this tradition in The Concept of Reality and the Theory of the State chapter is set in the epistemological key. In other words, Blumenberg omits the ontological register. This omission allows him to establish a clean and clear-cut, but mistaken view of the conceptual continuities between ancient philosophy, the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and then also late 19th Century German thought. Blumenberg thinks that

Aristotle’s dictum that, in a way, the soul is everything, was the maximally reduced formula that was still prevalent in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. To this formula corresponds the expectation that experience is, in principle, finite and can be reduced to a catalog of distinct Gestalten, each of which communicates its reality in the instantaneous self-evidence of a confirmed ought-to-be. The Platonic theory of ideas and the notion of anamnesis [recollection] are merely consistent interpretations of the basic fact that such instantaneous self-evidence, such confirmation in propria persona [Leibhaftigkeit], might exist.  Even Husserl tried to rediscover this self-evidence in his phenomenology by choosing the metaphor of an experience in propria persona for the original impression. (122)

Blumenberg misses the fact that, for Aristotle, psyche ta onta pos esti panta (Peri Psyche 431b20) – the “soul somehow is all beings” – is a hard ontological claim. In Aristotle, the soul is not a totality of knowledge in terms of a faculty of the mind, but in terms of the very reality and being of things. This oversight skews Blumenberg’s interpretation in the direction of an epistemic clarity, rather than in the direction of thinking about a nascent possibility. In other words, Blumenberg thinks of the soul as something that both undergirds and grants access to the always already existing and knowable noetic reality. Given Blumenberg’s direct attribution to Plato of the “Theory of Ideas,” he then establishes a simple continuity between the reality and the world-forming status of the “Ideas”; the epistemic status of the soul in Aristotle; the hypostatization of divine and noetic reality in the human world (the Middle Ages and Renaissance); and lastly, Husserl’s philosophy. The last, being an epistemologist, misunderstands Aristotle in his own right. Husserl treats psychology as phenomenology, i.e., as a mode akin to Wesensschau. It is Heidegger, who in a sense, offers a corrective to Husserl’s program and sounds out the ontological significances of the Greek language and, in particular, of Aristotle’s thought. Blumenberg’s interest in establishing philosophical continuities that inform the history of the Western world from antiquity to the modern era is a leitmotif of The Concept of Reality and the Theory of State (1968/69), which along with the Preliminary Remarks on the Concept of Reality (1974) concludes Part I.

Part II, which is entitled Metaphors, Rhetoric, Nonconceptuality, showcases Blumenberg’s interest in rethinking the traditional notion of concept-based philosophy through the lens of poetry, rhetoric, and the power of metaphor. It opens with a chapter on Light as a Metaphor for Truth: At the Preliminary Stage of Philosophical Concept Formation (1957). In this essay, Blumenberg takes the Schellingian idea of mutually belonging, but opposing tendencies or states, i.e., light and darkness, as being at the heart and at the beginning of the all. Following Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Blumenberg claims that “despite an abundance of gods of nature, Greek religion did not have a deity of light” (129). The intimation is that this designation is saved for the monotheistic god and especially of a Christian religion. However, this is an oversight, because the ancient Greeks not only had Apollo Phanaios or Apollo of Light, but also in the Orphic cosmogonies we have an androgynous god, Phanes – a deity of light. In any case, Blumenberg’s consequent analysis of the way in which light, as a metaphor, operates in the history of Western thought is fascinating. For example, turning to modern thought, Blumenberg sees that

in the idea of “method,” which originates with Bacon and Descartes, “light” is thought of as being at man’s disposal. Phenomena no longer stand in the light; rather, they are subjected to the lights of an examination from a particular perspective. The result then depends on the angle from which light falls on the object and the angle from which it is seen. It is the conditionality of perspective and the awareness of it, even the free selection of it, that now defines the concept of “seeing.” (156)

This is Blumenberg’s conclusion, i.e., that with the onset of modern thought we experience a reversal in the dynamic of revelation. Heretofore, things revealed and presented themselves to human beings, but now we engage in the kind of experimental and scientific examination whereby human beings control the revealing potency of light and use this power at will. The next step, as Blumenberg sees it, is the pervasive and subjugating power of technology, which speeds up our work, extends our work-day well into the night, and depends – largely – on “artificial light” (156). Technology subjugates us and permeates our lives through and through. Blumenberg wonders whether we can find an opposing power to counterbalance this advance of technicization. He sees this opposing force in metaphors. According to Blumenberg, they can loosen the hold of technocracy on our thinking and on our lives. The Reader offers Blumenberg’s ideas on this theme in the chapter entitled, Introduction to Paradigms for a Metaphorology (1960).

Blumenberg seeks to uncover the “the conditions under which metaphors can claim legitimacy in philosophical language” (173). In the first place, he wants us to note that “Metaphors can first of all be leftover elements, rudiments on the path from mythos to logos; as such, they indicate the Cartesian provisionality of the historical situation in which philosophy finds itself at any given time” (173). In other words, just as Descartes’ Discourse on Method offers provisional Maxims of Morality, likewise Blumenberg wants metaphors to fulfill a similar function. Metaphors would serve as a temporary measure of thought or as a passage from the already by-gone to the not-yet established way of philosophizing and living. It is questionable whether Descartes means for us to take his Maxims of Morality – of which the thinker famous for his discoveries in geometry and algebra tells us there are “three or four” (Discourse on Method Part 3) – as provisional. An alternative reading of Descartes, which does not undermine Blumenberg’s comparison, is that morality and its maxims are always only provisional; subject to re-examination and re-valuation depending on the place and time we find ourselves in. Descartes’ insistence that we continuously seek to rejuvenate our ethical outlook and relations agrees with Blumenberg’s interest in finding a surreptitious element that would allow us to undermine, undo, and then recast outmoded ways of thought. “Metaphorology,” he writes, “would here be a critical reflection charged with unmasking and counteracting the inauthenticity of figurative speech. But metaphors can also—hypothetically, for the time being—be foundational elements of philosophical language, ‘translations’ that resist being converted back into authenticity and logicality” (173). It is this “resistance” to the structure of accepted, logically-sound language and presentation that attracts Blumenberg to the metaphorical process.

Blumenberg probes and pivots our understanding of the philosophical value of poetic, metaphoric, and rhetorical expression in the consequent selection that the Reader offers, which is entitled An Anthropological Approach to the Contemporary Significance of Rhetoric (1971).  Blumenberg’s claim about rhetoric is that its “modern difficulties with reality consist, in good part, in the fact that this reality no longer has value as something to appeal to, because it is in its turn a product of artificial processes” (202). There is a need, in other words, to get to the underlying truth-structure of reality, which moves past the artificiality of social engineering, the technocratic state, or simply the sedimentation of interpretive layers that dictate what reality is supposed to be for us. However, this need in the guise of an imperative (and here Blumenberg again recalls Husserl and his “Zur Sache und zu den Sachen!” 202) and issued as “an exhortatory cry” (202) itself becomes rhetorical. The latter is a technology in its own right, i.e., that of language, of shaping opinions, and influencing emotions. In this estimation, Blumenberg comes close to a Derridean position, which offers us both the elemental and complex nexuses of the world, including the world of nature, in terms of the techniques, expressions, and formations that can only be reached because of and by means of language. Thus, both for Derrida and for Blumenberg (at least on this presentation in An Anthropological Approach to the Contemporary Significance of Rhetoric), as central as the logos is, it must be displaced to give way to a possibility of re-interpreting our relation to our thinking and to our world. This insight, along with his thinking about metaphors, allows Blumenberg to proceed to a discussion of “nonconceptuality.” This discussion, which concludes the selections in Part II of the Reader is preceded by two other pieces: Observations Drawn from Metaphors (1971) and Prospect for a Theory of Nonconceptuality (1979).

In the very last essay in Part II, which is an excerpt from the 1975 Theory of Nonconceptuality, Blumenberg outlines his program.  Prior to giving us this outline, he entertains the meaning and pitfalls of theoretical reflection in the context of ancient Greek theoria. Blumenberg’s take on theoria, which equates it with motionless and stilling contemplation of eternal reality written in the starry sky, misses the important sense that the Greeks themselves attributed to theorein (at least prior to the arrival of Pythagorean thought). This term, theorein—to  contemplate or to spectate—includes spectatorship of various religious,  theatrical, and athletic events. As such, it is much more immersive and emotionally engaged than the purified, rarified sense of theorein, which comes into play after Pythagorean beliefs and practices take hold. The self-possessed, reserved, and calm theoretic practice (although we have allusions to it made by various characters in Plato’s dialogues, e.g., Timaeus, Republic, Symposium, Phaedrus, and Phaedo) is not a good representation of the originary meaning of theorein. Nonetheless, Blumenberg takes the meaning of theoria, which  is already purified of its sensual alloys, to be representative of the Greek understanding of this practice. He writes, “for the Greeks, contemplating the sky meant not only contemplating a special and divine object of the highest dignity, but the paradigmatic case of what theory ought to be, what is at stake for it. The ideal of theory is the contemplation of the sky as an object that cannot be handled” (260). Blumenberg then takes this sense of theory as what has been handed down through the history of Western thought and what must be counteracted by a new engagement with the non-conceptual, emotional, sensible, sensitive, and intuitive dimension of life. It is this latter recommendation that we must heed in order to follow Blumenberg’s intimations on the point of nonceptual philosophizing.

To state the key moments of his program briefly, 1) “The turn away from intuition is wholly at the service of a return to intuition. This is, of course, not the recurrence of the same, the return to the starting point, and certainly not anything at all to do with romanticism” (262). This interest in re-inscribing thinking by retracing the intuitive dimension – a retracing, which is not a simple repetition, but a deepening of our reckoning with it – is the first postulate. Then comes a key aesthetic and emotional attunement 2) “Pleasure [which] requires the return to full sensibility [Sinnlichkeit]” (262). This call to pleasure hearkens us back to the Greek beginnings of contemplation as both a mental and an emotional immersion in and an attunement to the world – the kind of activity that pleasure properly completes (e.g., Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, esp. Bk. X). And finally, a medium or passage that must go between the noetic and the aesthetic, for Blumenberg just as for Riceouer, is 3) “Metaphor [which] is also an aesthetic medium precisely because it is both native to the original sphere of concepts and because it is continually liable and has to vouch for the deficiency of concepts and the limits of what they can achieve” (262). This, then, is the basic outline of Blumenberg’s program in the excerpt from Theory of Nonconceptuality with which Part II of the Reader ends.

Part III, entitled Nature, Technology, and Aesthetics, begins with Blumenberg’s The Relationship between Nature and Technology as a Philosophical Problem  (1951), and proceeds historically to show how a distinction between nature and being insinuates itself in philosophical reflection. Blumenberg then traces out a further divide between nature and divinity in Christian thought. A short section on enjoyment in this essay is reminiscent of Hegel’s analyses in the Phenomenology of Spirit (VI. B. II. b. § 581 – Spirit, Culture, Truth of Enlightenment). In Hegel, this section on the totalizing function of “utility” leads to a situation in which “heaven is transplanted to earth below” (§ 581), which are the last words of the section that precedes Hegel’s discussion of “Absolute Freedom and Terror” – a discussion that is informed by Hegel’s reflections on the French Revolution. Blumenberg’s analyses, too, lead up to a revolution, but of a different kind, i.e., to the revolutionazing, but also totalizing, and not altogether salubrious power of technology.

In part 7. Of The Relationship between Nature and Technology as a Philosophical Problem, entitled “The ‘Second Nature’ of the Machine World as a Consequence of the Technical Will,” Blumenberg speculates about the way in which the displacing effect of technology or the “technical ‘out-of-itself’” (302) can be understood as “second nature” (302) for us. Blumenberg frames his reflections on this possibility in terms of Heidegger’s thinking and poses them in the form of a question. He asks:

does the concept of a “second nature” really carry the implications of the modern age’s understanding of nature to their conclusion, to the end of all its possible consequences? Is the claim to “unconditioned production,” as Heidegger has called the technical will, enacted in the “second nature” of a perfected machine-world? Or does such unconditionality imply that it will suffer nothing else alongside it—which is to say that not only has “second nature” provided the potency for the nullification of the first nature but that the former’s essence also pushes toward the latter’s realization? Man’s experience of this ultimate stage of possible technical fulfillment is only just beginning. (302)

This prescient formulation and the possible danger it expresses is all the more worth exploring in our world – today – permeated, navigated, run, and shaped by a heretofore unseen proliferation of virtual communication and technology. Blumenberg, having offered for us this portentous problem, then goes on to lay out its roots in the relationship between nature, divinity, and creative power – both divine and human, the latter of which is largely a power to imitate. These reflections appear in the essay that follows in the Reader next and which is entitled Imitation of Nature: Toward a Prehistory of the Idea of the Creative Being (1957).

In the immediately following essay, entitled Phenomenological Aspects on Life-World and Technization (1963), Blumenberg traces out the transformation of the intuition of life into a totalization of world-horizon and the consequent objectification of the life-world. This transformation sets the stage for the thoroughgoing displacement of nature by the “second nature.” The displacement that Blumbenberg outlined in The Relationship between Nature and Technology as a Philosophical Problem. Concretely, Blumenberg explains that “the intentionality of consciousness is fulfilled in the most comprehensive horizon of horizons—in the ‘world’ as the regulative pole-idea of all possible experience, the system that keeps all possibilities of experience in a final harmony, and in which alone what is given to experience can prove itself to be real” (356). This unification and fulfilment of intentionality as and in the world prepares the stage for the transformation of the world into an object. This happens because of the identification that takes place between the world-totality “in which alone what is given to experience can prove itself to be real” (356) and the fact that, for Husserl, according the Blumenberg, it is “in the ‘world’ as the horizon of all horizons [that] objecthood is likewise isolated and stressed” (356). Not only that, but also “’Nature,’ [which] is essential for our topic—is the result of such emphasis. It is thus not equiprimordial to world but a derivative, already constricted objective horizon. Nature, so much can already be seen, cannot be the counterconcept to technology, for already in the concept of nature itself we find a deformation—an emphasis—of the original world-structure” (356). Since the latter is object-skewed, also nature is not free from objectification and is already prepared for being worked over and substituted with or nullified through the “second nature,” i.e., through the all-encompassing technological transformation. However, Blumenberg does not assign to Husserl the blame for this transformation, instead Blumenberg’s “Husserl is only concerned with making visible in exemplary fashion how disastrous in the broadest sense human action can be where it no longer knows what it is doing, and with exposing what one might call active ignorance as the root of all those disoriented activities that have produced human helplessness in the technical world” (367). The counterpoint and a saving force to this onslaught of “active ignorance” and in the face of a thoroughgoing technicization, has to do with our reorientation toward the intuitive, sensible, and aesthetic dimension of life.

The remaining essays in Part III, as well as Blumenberg’s engagement with various literary and philosophical figures and thinkers such as Socrates, Valéry, Kafka, Freud, Faulkner, Goethe, Nietzsche, and Aesop (among others) point the way to this aesthetic reorientation. For example, in Socrates and the Object Ambigu: Paul Valéry’s Discussion of the Ontology of the Aesthetic Object and Its Tradition, Blumenberg engages with Valéry’s Eupalinos or the Architect and the accounts of noetic construction and the role of necessity in the Timaeus; Aristotle’s unmoved mover; as well as reflections on beauty and finitude from the point of view of the Phaedrus. Blumenberg concludes that “the Socrates of Valéry’s dialogue does not arrive at an aesthetic attitude toward the objet ambigu because he insists on the question, definition, and classification of the object—thereby deciding to become a philosopher. The aesthetic attitude,” Blumenberg continues as he contrasts it to the Socrates of Valéry, “lets the indeterminacy stand, it achieves the pleasure specific to it by relinquishing theoretical curiosity, which in the end demands and must demand univocity in the determination of its objects. The aesthetic attitude,” in the final analysis, “accomplishes less because it tolerates more and lets the object be strong on its own rather than letting it be absorbed by the questions posed to it in its objectivation” (434). The attitude for which Blumenberg argues, then, is a kind of intuitive, aesthetic, deeply pleasurable – and having offered a reconstruction of theoria, I can also say – an originary contemplative attitude that immerses us into the world and thereby allows the world to show itself to us anew.

The closing set of selections in Part IV of the Reader offers Blumenberg’s analyses of philosophically significant literature, which I see as a kind of propaedeutic to the aesthetic, metaphoric, nonconceptual, but originarily theoretical thinking and being in the world. Thus, in The Concept of Reality and the Possibility of the Novel (1964) essay, Blumenberg examines the relationship between truth, poetry, nature, and imitation in its literary and historical unfolding. This multi-disciplinary and cross-historical examination is characteristic of Blumenberg’s style of analysis. He moves through Plato, Aristotle, Scholasticism, the Renaissance, and on to the emergence of the concept of the absurd. In the final analysis, Blumenberg claims about the novel that it does not need to take on the guise of the absurd or be guided by it as a concept (502). The sphere of possibilities that the novel encompasses and iterates surpasses the straightforward mimetic schema where culture seeks to imitate nature. Because of this, the novel does not run aground once this schema shatters against the absurdity of life where nature has become infused with culture through and through; subtended in the conceptual delimitation of its object within a world-horizon; or displaced by means of technological dissolution of the natural being of the world. These latter eventualities call for a break-through and an overcoming by means of the absurd, but the novel circumvents this need, because the novel serves as “the extension of the sphere of the humanly [and not naturally] possible” (502). What does this mean concretely in terms of the philosophical mode of reflection and thought? Blumenberg’s answer is forthcoming in the essay entitled Pensiveness (1980), which is both a prelude to the more whimsical selections in this Reader and also offers Blumenberg’s estimation of the task and value of philosophy. Blumenberg first lets us know that “pensiveness is … a respite from the banal results that thought provides for us as soon as we ask about life and death, meaning and meaninglessness, being and nothingness” (517). In this formulation, pensiveness evokes both Descartes’ resolve to waver and to be of a wandering, instead of a weak mind (Discourse on Method Part 3) and also Heidegger’s call to authentic openness in anticipatory resoluteness or Entschlossenheit (Being and Time Sect. 54). Blumenberg goes on to offer us his “conclusion—since I must present one because of my profession—is that philosophy has something to preserve, if not revive, from its life-world origin in pensiveness” (517). This is both lyrical and evocative, as well as a methodologically rigorous a conclusion.

Although the Reader does not end here, I would like to close my review with the following quotation that expresses both a recommendation and a challenge that Blumenberg issues to us. “Philosophy must not be bound, therefore, to particular expectations about the nature of its product. The connection back to the life-world would be destroyed if philosophy’s right to question were limited through the normalization of answers, or even through the obligation of disciplining the questions by beginning with the question of their answerability” (517).

Klaus Held: Die Geburt der Philosophie bei den Griechen, Verlag Karl Alber, 2021

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Klaus Held
Alber Verlag
2021
Hardback 29,00 €
272

Danielle Cohen-Levinas, Alexander Schnell (éd.): Levinas lecteur de Heidegger, Vrin, 2021

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Problèmes & Controverses
Danielle Cohen-Levinas, Alexander Schnell (éd.)
Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin
2021
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250

Joseph Cohen, Raphael Zagury-Orly: L’Adversaire privilégié, Éditions Galilée, 2021

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Joseph Cohen, Raphael Zagury-Orly
Éditions Galilée
2021
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208

Eugenio Mazzarella: Il mondo nell’abisso. Heidegger e i Quaderni Neri

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Eugenio Mazzarella
Neri Pozza
2018
Paperback €12.50
110

Reviewed by: Francesca Brencio (University of Seville, Spain / The Phenomenology and Mental Health Network, St. Catherine College, University of Oxford, UK)

La querelle Heidegger e il nazionalsocialismo, più recentemente coniugata alla questione dell’antisemitismo, si ripropone ciclicamente nella storia della critica e più in generale degli studi heideggeriani. Ossessive – e anche noiose – ondate di antiheideggerismo si affacciano sul panorama letterario con la complicità sia di qualche pubblicazione inedita del filosofo di Meßkirch sia dei media, spesso inclini ad una forma di linciaggio intellettuale condita con i toni più accattivanti del sensazionalismo. Questo modo bizzarro di concepire la filosofia, e con essa la Bildung filosofica, finisce nei quotidiani e negli organi di diffusione pubblicitaria avallando un certo modo di pensare che fa della semplificazione la linea guida del nostro tempo. Che il prezzo da pagare per questa operazione sia la banalizzazione della filosofia in generale non lo si contabilizza nella società dello spettacolo: ciò che conta è “rinverdire il cartellone per un teatro filosofico, dove da qualche anno non entrava più nessuno” (Mazzarella 2018, p. 13).

La pubblicazione dei Quaderni Neri di Heidegger, cominciata nel 2014 ed ancora in corso per la casa editrice Klostermann di Francoforte sul Meno, si inserisce in questo cartellone in disuso. Il recente volume di Eugenio Mazzarella (del 2018 è la versione in lingua italiana, mentre del 2020 quella in lingua tedesca, pubblicata per la Ergon Verlag) ha il merito di fare ordine tra il noto, l’insostenibile e il nuovo. Il mondo nell’abisso è una sorta di fotografia nitida di tre ordini di problemi: in primo luogo, è l’istantanea disincantata della vicenda dell’uomo Heidegger di fronte agli eventi politici che abbracciano gli anni dal 1931 al 1946; in secondo luogo è un ritratto di un certo modo di concepire il dibattito filosofico su ‘Heidegger e il nazionalsocialismo’ superando ogni residuo ideologico del pro et contra; infine è un’istantanea attuale di quello che rimane il compito della filosofia oggi, cioè farsi engagement con la realtà e con il proprio tempo. Questo triplice ordine di problemi si interseca con l’intento di comprendere il nuovo, disvelare l’insostenibile ed archiviare il noto, in vista di quella che rimane, a mio avviso, la domanda più spinosa della filosofia heideggeriana: che ne è dell’essere?

Il libro consta di quattro capitoli, o se vogliamo di quattro sentieri, attraverso i quali incamminarsi verso la Seinsfrage per comprenderne la (mancata) ricaduta nella realtà e nella storia negli anni dei Quaderni Neri. Nel primo capitolo, Teatro filosofico. Un cartellone in disuso, Mazzarella ricostruisce le vicende dell’uomo Heidegger legate alla redazione degli appunti contenuti nelle Überlegungen e nelle Anmerkungen per sottolinearne “un disimpegno ontologico dalla realtà” (p. 15), quale conseguenza della delusione del rettorato e accettazione della “profezia dell’avanzare del deserto della modernità nella sua (auto)rovina” (p. 15). Delusione che si aggrava con la disillusione che il nazismo non ha nulla a che vedere con quella rivoluzione spirituale a cui egli aveva guardato come una nuova possibilità per lo “spirito tedesco”. Il disimpegno si fa apocalittico, ci dice Mazzarella, quando Heidegger è testimone degli eventi che muovono dal finire degli anni trenta sino allo scoppio del secondo conflitto mondiale: il nazionalsocialismo è un movimento barbarico fondato sulla politica del terrore che nulla ha a che vedere con “il coraggio inaudito della domanda dell’Essere” (p. 16), bensì manifesta la sua essenza attraverso quella macchinazione propria del calcolo tecnico che deriva dalla metafisica occidentale. Le baldanzose speranze del rettorato si scontrano con il terrore dei fatti; la frustrazione umana ed intellettuale dell’uomo Heidegger si manifesta nella frustrazione di pensiero che lo accompagnerà sino agli anni Cinquanta (pp. 17-18): solo allora egli potrà fare esperienza di una riconciliazione con il mondo per mezzo di Hölderlin, di Hebel, dell’arte e dei Greci. Nel teatro filosofico che offre interpretazioni pro et contra Heidegger, Mazzarella distingue con lucido distacco e sapiente perizia, tipica di chi ha trascorso una buona parte della propria vita intellettuale in dialogo con le domande di Heidegger, fra il noto, cioè quelle interpretazioni che alimentano la scolastica heideggeriana sia sul versante dell’encomio sia su quello dell’oltraggio; l’insostenibile, cioè quelle esegesi che imputano ad Heidegger una qualche colpa del regime nazista e che vogliono scorgere nella sua meditazione una forma di “antisemitismo istoriale” insostenibile, le cui basi filologiche e filosofiche sono ai limiti dell’evanescenza (p. 47); e il nuovo, cioè la possibilità di intravedere nelle note private dei Quaderni una forma di gnosticismo per la quale la dissoluzione nichilista che ha coinvolto tutta la modernità e’ il risultato di un eone del presente (p. 14).

Il secondo capitolo, Arbeit macht frei, è dedicato all’approfondimento dei diciannove passaggi contenuti nei primi quattro volumi dei Quaderni (Gesamtausgabe 94-97) in cui Heidegger si riferisce al giudaismo e agli ebrei. Senza alcuna esitazione, Mazzarella sottolinea come Heidegger accolga con estrema superficialità molti dei cliché legati agli ebrei e tale “stupidità analogica” ha poco o niente a che fare “con un accodarsi all’antisemitismo nazionalsocialista” (p. 28). Piuttosto, Mazzarella insiste sul tratto nichilista che inghiotte sia il carattere ebraico che il cristianesimo: “L’opposizione di principio dell’onto-storia heideggeriana al ‘messianesimo’ (ebraico)-cristiano e’ fondamentalmente una scelta di campo per un’altra Germania (ed Europa) spirituale: non ‘per’ Cristianità ovvero Europa, come in Novalis, ma ‘tra’ cristianità, carattere ‘cristiano’ oppure Europa” (p. 30). Appropriandosi di quel tópos filologico già presente in Nietzsche, Heidegger concepisce una Europa sulla linea Grecia-Germania. Solo in questo modo è possibile oltrepassare la metafisica, cioè rompere con l’eredità giudaico-cristiana: è il tempo del salto dell’Essere, che va da Jena alla Jonia, saltando a piè pari Roma e Gerusalemme. Mazzarella smantella la semplificazione propagandistica di una certa ricezione dei Quaderni Neri non a suon di colpi di martello (per usare ancora un lessico nietzscheano), piuttosto con un fine scalpello filosofico: riscostruendo in pochi sapienti passaggi i nodi tematici della filosofia della storia, in dialogo con il retaggio hegeliano e diltheyano l’autore mostra come dietro alla dicotomia elemento ebraico-cristiano vs grecità’-germanicita’ ci sia un fine intreccio metafisico per il quale il cogito cartesiano diviene principio-io della posizione della coscienza cristiana come gia’ moderna. È l’epoca dell’immagine del mondo in cui il soggettivismo filosofico la fa da padrone. L’autoannientamento – parola chiave nell’ontologia heideggeriana – riguarda la ragione strumentale e tecnica dell’Occidente, che genera quella macchinazione mostruosa per la quale tutto il mondo si piega al dominio dell’impianto della tecnica. L’autoannientamento, la conseguenza più visibile della dimenticanza dell’essere da parte della metafisica occidentale, coinvolge la Germania e l’Europa tutta, e non consiste in quella guerra in cui perdono la vita milioni di persone, bensì “nel pólemos dell’Essere”. Il capitolo si chiude con delle parole che vale la pena riportare per intero: le considerazioni appuntate nelle Überlegungen e nelle Anmerkungen non aggiungono “niente alla comprensione che potevamo avere del suo (scilicet: di Heidegger) pensiero, e del corto circuito con la comprensione del suo tempo”; piuttosto, esse danno “il tocco finale alla pochezza dell’uomo comune, del piccolo borghese nazionalista (frustrato anche dal nazismo) che era” (p. 39).

Il terzo capitolo è dedicato alla presa di posizione di von Herrmann rispetto alla diffusione ad hoc dei passaggi in cui il giudaismo e gli ebrei sono nominati e mostra un Mazzarella incline ad accogliere la riflessione dell’ultimo assistente di Heidegger rispetto ad altri interpreti che hanno imbastito un processo mediatico e ideologico al filosofo di Meßkirch. Estremamente ricco è invece l’ultimo capitolo del libro, La crisi della domanda dell’Essere nei Quaderni Neri. Ancora una volta, l’autore si confronta con la Seinsfrage non più sul terreno dell’esistente, piuttosto su quello dell’“anatema gnostico del presente” (p. 56) e di una nuova ripresa, il nuovo inizio del pensiero che si fa Besinnung. Mazzarella entra nella crisi della domanda dell’essere individuando quattro direzioni attraverso le quali essa si tra-duce: la prima è quella della crisi dell’autenticità dell’esistente, del singolo contro il mondo, della chiacchiera contro il se stesso; dell’individuo contro la massa. La seconda è quella dei poeti, i necessari e gli ultimi. La figura del poeta – custode, vate e traghettatore della storia – è l’elemento chiave per comprendere un’architettonica della domanda fondamentale che si traduce nella necessità dei poeti in tempo di povertà, tema questo a cui Mazzarella ha più di recente dedicato un lavoro a sé, una piccola gemma del dialogo fra Heidegger e Hölderlin, ma anche di quello fra il filosofo napoletano e Giacomo Leopardi[1]. La terza direzione è quella dei pensatori greci, dei presocratici, i primi, coloro che sono “oltre l’uomo filosofico” (p. 67) e prima dello slittamento ontologico dell’essere sul terreno dell’onticita’. Attraverso i pensatori iniziali Heidegger puo’ mostrare quella “fraternità del mondo nella sua radice” (p. 71) che permette all’abitare di essere non mera misura ma postura aperta e donante dell’esserci nel suo trovarsi “sotto la volta dell’edificio del mondo” (Hebel). Infine, la quarta direzione è quella della meditazione sulla tecnica e sulla macchinazione, sul dominio planetario del Gestell. Nelle ultimissime pagine della sua riflessione sui Quaderni Neri Mazzarella ritorna sul tema che in filigrana compare nel primo capitolo: la dimensione gnostica del pensiero heideggeriano, una gnosi “della malaessenza dello stare al mondo”, che si traduce “nella catastrofe purificatrice dei tempi, mentre si attende una nuova specie umana ontologica, capace dell’Essere” (p. 78). Una sorta di “parodia paolina” che genera un “abbuiamento della domanda sull’Essere” (p. 79), una gnosi che negli anni dei Quaderni “passa dal mito del mondo nuovo […] a un radicale anticosmismo” (p. 79-80), in cui il mondo non è piu’ il kósmos venerabile della gnosi antica. Sarà solo alla fine di questo abbuiamento, dice l’autore, che si potrà cogliere nel pensiero di Heidegger un tentativo di riannodare il piano dell’ontologia con quello dell’esistenza e veder ripristinato il dialogo fra uomo ed essere.

Sul fine degli anni ottanta Jean Baudrillard aveva affidato alle pagine de “L’espresso” delle riflessioni significative dello stato di salute della filosofia: “L’inutile zuffa intorno ad Heidegger non ha alcun senso filosofico: è solo sintomatica del pensiero di quest’epoca che, non riuscendo a trovare in sé energie nuove, torna ossessivamente sulle sue origini, e rivive dolorosamente, in questo ultimo scorcio del Novecento, le scene primarie dell’inizio del secolo”[2]. Le riflessioni di Eugenio Mazzarella sembrano riprendere ed espandere quelle di Baudrillard. Anch’egli prende atto di come l’ennesima zuffa intorno ad Heidegger non abbia alcun senso filosofico (o, ammesso che ce l’abbia, vada rubricato al lemma di ciò che è noto) ma si spinge un passo più innanzi rispetto alla diagnosi del filosofo francese, indicando al pensiero un compito ed una direzione: prendere seriamente la realtà e la storia, evitando ogni tentazione di scendere a patti con la banalizzazione o la semplificazione della filosofia. La filosofia è una pratica di resistenza, cioè una pratica in cui occorre imparare a stare nel pensiero, come esseri umani e nel nostro tempo. Questo Mazzarella ce lo aveva gia’ detto[3] e con il più recente lavoro sui Quaderni Neri ce lo ricorda, a partire dalla vicenda dell’uomo Heidegger. Nel cortocircuito fra la vita e il pensiero negli anni delle Überlegungen e delle Anmerkungen, Mazzarella ci offre il ritratto di un uomo incapace di esercitare questa pratica, mostrando come anche un gigante del Novecento possa aver abdicato a tale compito.

La lettura del Il mondo nell’abisso fa tornare alla mente le parole della Arendt:  niente è più problematico nella nostra epoca del nostro atteggiamento verso il mondo[4]. Il mondo sta tra le persone e proprio questo zwischen rende necessaria la filosofia. Quando il pensiero si smarrisce nel buio, quando sul mondo scende una qualche forma di oscurità, quando le relazioni interpersonali diventano incerte quel tra è pratica incarnata “di vita che si prende addosso la vita”  (Mazzarella 2017, p. 7). Solo in questo modo possiamo attingere a quella fraternità del mondo nella sua radice che permette di riscattare il mondo dal dolore e forse anche dal suo abisso.


[1] E. Mazzarella. 2020. Perché i poeti. La parola necessaria. Neri Pozza: Vicenza.

[2] J. Baudrillard. 1988. Forza, aboliamo il novecento. La truffa dei processi postumi. In “L’Espresso”, 24 aprile 1988.

[3] E. Mazzarella. 2017. L’uomo che deve rimanere. La smoralizzazione del mondo. Quodlibet: Macerata.

[4] H. Arendt. 2006. L’umanità in tempi bui. Riflessioni su Lessing. In Antologia, Feltrinelli, Milano, p. 211.

Stefano Marino, Pietro Terzi (Eds.): Kant’s ›Critique of Aesthetic Judgment‹ in the 20th Century, De Gruyter, 2021

Kant’s ›Critique of Aesthetic Judgment‹ in the 20th Century: A Companion to Its Main Interpretations Book Cover Kant’s ›Critique of Aesthetic Judgment‹ in the 20th Century: A Companion to Its Main Interpretations
Stefano Marino, Pietro Terzi (Eds.)
De Gruyter
2021
Hardback 112,95 €
381

Reviewed by: Adam Bainbridge (University of Warwick)

Immanuel Kant’s Third Critique has been extraordinarily influential.  Some see it as a foundational text for aesthetics and the philosophy of art.  For others, it is the cap stone to Kant’s critical project.  It makes aesthetics revelatory of the conditions of human cognition, and so is central to Kant’s reception generally.  Stefano Marino and Pietro Terzi’s collection of essays is an enjoyable and rewarding testament to the diversity of twentieth-century thinkers in the West for whom the first half of the Third Critique has been an inspiration.  Arranged over eighteen chapters, this book provides readers with a history of the influence of the Critique of the Aesthetic Power of Judgement (“CAPJ”).  It describes how key thinkers have turned to the CAPJ and the complex relationships between key twentieth-century ideas and Kant’s text.   The volume does not aim to address the reception of the Critique of the Teleological Power of Judgement.

It is not practical to summarise the contents of eighteen chapters.  Even so, in this review I want to give a sense of the topics covered.  I will discuss the aims of Marino and Terzi’s edited collection, how it sets about this task and what contribution it makes.  I should clarify that the aim of the book is not to provide an explanatory approach to the interpretation of the CAPJ within the terms of Kant’s own project. As the book’s subtitle indicates, it is not so much a companion to the text itself as a companion for those interested in tracing its legacy.  The book is motivated by two thoughts.  First, the CAPJ’s far-reaching influence has nourished many debates, broadly spread across different philosophical traditions and disciplines.  Secondly, in comparison to the history of nineteenth-century romanticism and German idealism, scholars have overlooked the far-reaching influence of the CAPJ on twentieth-century philosophy.  Marino and Terzi explain that their aim is to address this blind spot with contributions from experts in various fields.  They have produced a book that describes a history of reception ‘capable of cutting in a unique way across different traditions, movements and geographical areas’ (30).  They are at pains to explain their intention is to bridge any gap between the so-called analytic and continental traditions.

Marino and Terzi gather a collection of essays by sixteen different academic philosophers, in addition to themselves, from Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, United Kingdom and United States.  Each chapter, generally, takes up one or two Western twentieth-century philosophers and explores how they have turned to the CAPJ in order to advance their own philosophical projects.  The editors’ multi-author approach ensures ‘a plurality of perspectives and competences’ (28).  Fifteen chapters tend to prioritise describing how twentieth-century thinkers turned to Kant.  That said, many chapters also draw attention to how these interpretations have aften been tendentious and strained readings of Kant.  The body of book is organised broadly chronologically and according to the geographies of Germany, France, Italy and USA.  This seems to be a pragmatic choice and it makes the structure of the book easy to navigate.  These chapters are positioned between an introduction and, at the end of the book, two contributions that explore the influence of the CAPJ on two contemporary issues.  The helpful introduction offers a brief history of the Third Critique’s reception, first in the nineteenth century and then in the twentieth century.  It discusses the methodology underlying the collection of essays.  In what follows, I want to give an overview of the topics covered in subsequent chapters.

Arno Schubbach opens the first group of chapters on German philosophers with a contribution on how the Third Critique is taken up by Hermann Cohen and Ernst Cassirer.  Schubbach explores different interpretations of the position of the Third Critique within Kant’s overall philosophical system, and how these interpretations inform Cohen’s and Cassirer’s own philosophies of culture.  It makes an interesting contrast between two adaptations of the CAPJ by philosophers developing their own systematic theories.  According to Schubbach, Cohen performed ‘interpretive violence’ (42) on Kant’s text to construe aesthetics narrowly as a philosophy of the experience art.  Cassirer, by contrast, argued for a systematic connection between the aesthetic and teleological sections within the Third Critique.  Schubbach explains how Cassirer’s interpretation of the structure of Kant’s critical project is ‘a question of systematic importance for Cassirer’s philosophy of culture’ (50).

In the next chapter, Gunter Figal explores how Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer criticised Kant for failing to account for an essential truth-character of art.  Heidegger took philosophical aesthetics to be fundamentally concerned with emotional responses and a hedonistic consumption of art.  Yet for Heidegger, the significance of art did not lie in emotional responses.  Figal observes that Heidegger seemingly entirely ignored Kant’s Third Critique, and interpreted the CAPJ as offering an account of art as nothing but an object of emotional experience.  Figal points out that Kant’s conception of aesthetic experience is far more sophisticated than the simplistic picture Heidegger maintained.  Gadamer also shared the view that art had an essential truth-character.  Nonetheless, he did engage with the Third Critique.  Gadamer’s criticism of Kant, according to Figal, was that aesthetic experience for Kant is an autonomous and purely subjective sphere that fails to grasp the cognitive value of art.  Figal turns from Heidegger and Gadamer to advance his own argument: that ‘the Third Critique offers the most elaborate version of an aesthetical conception of art’ (69).  Even so, Kant’s aesthetics is too narrow to accommodate any cognitive value of art.  Figal’s objection is that artworks are ‘a kind of blank spot’ in Kant’s conceptual framework.  That said, Figal does not address Kant’s notion of dependent beauty or how Kant conceives of fine art as expressions of aesthetic ideas.

Dennis Schmidt’s chapter describes in more detail Gadamer’s critique of notions of aesthetic experience that separate it from the possibility of claims to truth.  According to Schmidt, Gadamer exposed once dominant guiding assumptions about how art is thought and experienced as autonomous.  He did this through tracing the historical development of this idea back to Kant’s Third Critique.  Gadamer’s criticism of Kant’s aesthetics was that it closed-down questions about art.  Schmidt explains, ‘from the vantage of pure aesthetic judgement, the work of art contributes nothing to what is disclosed’ (80).  Gadamer argued that this was even the case in Kant’s treatment of fine art and genius.  With Kant, the aesthetic object disappears.  Although it is recuperated by his successors, it is as an autonomous phenomenon.  Tracing a close association of aesthetic experience with subjectivity led Gadamer to develop the idea of ‘aesthetic differentiation’ (88) to explain how the artwork lost its place in the world to which it belonged.  As Schmidt points out, Gadamer’s intention towards Kant was not to get the Third Critique right.  Instead, Gadamer’s reading played a pivotal role in his argument about the contingent historical disengaging of art from questions of truth during parts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Hans-Peter Krüger’s chapter concerns Helmuth Plessner’s philosophical reflections on the conditions for empirical law formation.   Krüger states that Plessner ‘functionalizes Kant’s reflective judgement for modern research into a procedure’ (95).  Plessner’s thought was that reflective, rather than determining, judgements are central to scientific research that is directed towards discovering something new.  Krüger gives an overview of Kant’s teleological judgement and its regulative a priori principle.  He also summarises the demand for universal agreement in judgements of taste, even though they cannot be proven.  Plessner argued that these characteristics of reflective judgement inform modern research procedures.

Tom Huhn develops an account of how Theodor Adorno took up themes in Kantian aesthetics, read in part through Hegel.  According to Huhn, Adorno criticised Kant for leaving no room for the historically conditioned nature of the relationship between artwork and subject.  Kant mistook a historically specific feature – a sentiment described as aesthetic pleasure – and made it universal and timeless.  Whereas for Adorno, pleasure is a ‘historically specific feature of aesthetic experience’ (117).   According to Huhn, Adorno took from Hegel the idea that the history of consciousness involves a ‘resistance’ between sensuousness and rational consciousness within aesthetic experience.  In Adorno’s view, Kant ‘misses the objectivity of resistance within subjective consciousness’ (120).  Rather than aesthetic experience merely registering as purely subjective affect, the experience some artworks afford includes a ‘resistance’ in the relation between sensuousness and rational consciousness.  For Adorno, such artworks are at odds with the world they are in, eliciting a correlate sensuous otherness of subjective experience.  Huhn’s overall approach is not to assess the fairness of Adorno’s criticism of Kant.  He describes how Adorno picked-up on ideas like taste, disinterestedness and beauty, to argue that Kant’s account of taste was inadequate to ‘measure the meaning and truth of the artwork’ (123).  This helped Adorno to develop his own aesthetic theory.

According to Nicola Emery, there is a Kantian notion taken from the Third Critique that oriented Max Horkheimer’s thoughts throughout his life.  Horkheimer had an early interest in the potential of modernist art.  By referring to Kant’s sensus communis, ‘albeit very concisely’ (137), Horkheimer related modernist art’s emancipatory potential (from dominating social conditions) to an otherwise hidden shared ‘communitarian sense’ of free people.  However, for historical and methodological reasons, Horkheimer could not endorse the empirical possibility in modernity of a communitarian sense of aesthetic experience.  Even so, Emery argues for Horkheimer’s ‘covert recovery of the sublime’ (149).  He links Horkheimer’s ideas about ‘inhospitable’ modernist art with the counter-purposiveness of the sublime.  Emery suggests that Horkheimer’s later rejection of modern art was because of its failure in practice to go beyond art for art’s sake.  In the end, it was modern art’s failure to revive the experience of the sublime that led Horkheimer to declare modern art a failure.  Even so, Emery claims, Horkheimer retained a somewhat Kantian notion of communitarian sense, which underpinned the possibility of critical analysis of modern society.

Serena Feloj explains that Hannah Arendt’s interpretation of the Third Critique departed fundamentally from Kant’s own position.  Feloj claims that Arendt was unusual in taking seriously Kant’s claims, in the two introductions to the Third Critique, that his fundamental concern was with judgement in general, rather than only with the specific forms of aesthetic and teleological judgement.  Feloj suggest that sensus communis displays in Kant ‘a very peculiar transcendental character’ (164).  For Kant ‘shared humanity is what lays the ground for the public dimension of judgment, not the human need for communicating with one’s peers’ (164).  According to Feloj, Arendt’s distinctive suggestion was that the significance of the Third Critique resided in political philosophy.  Arendt claimed that Kant’s theory of judgement ‘is based on men’s needs to communicate with the others and that sociability is the prerequisite for the functioning of the capacity for judging’ (166).  Sociability and communicability make judgements by people possible.  As Feloj points out, Kant himself denies that such an explanation is adequate.  Yet Arendt reinterpreted Kant’s transcendental principle as an empirical foundation for the possibility of judgements that we share with others.

Opening a group of chapters on France, Patrice Canivez explains German exile Eric Weil’s interpretation.  On Weil’s view, the major discovery of the Third Critique was a way of understanding nature which left room for the possibility of answering ‘how can meaningful (moral) ends be pursued in a world of meaningless (natural) facts’ (178).  The natural facts in question were the beautiful, the sublime, artistic genius and the purposiveness of living organisms.  In their presence we experience the world as meaningful and ‘we affirm that all human beings have the same cognitive structure’ (180).  According to Canivez, Weil argued that Kant’s discovery was a great turning point in the history of philosophy, although ‘this result is obscured by the way Kant presents it’ (184).  The conceptual language Kant had to use to reach his contemporary audiences meant that Kant was compelled to view the existence of meaningful natural facts as fortuitous.  In contrast, Weil argued that experiencing the world as meaningful was foundational: ‘the experience of such reality is prior to any distinction between the possible and the necessary’ (187).  Canivez uses the idea of Kant being committed to a particular conceptual language to introduce Weil’s own ideas about how distinct philosophical categories develop distinct discourses around particular concepts.

Anne Sauvagnargues argues that Giles Deleuze developed his philosophy of art through a ‘critical and renewed mediation’ (195) on Kant’s work.  She chooses ‘meditation’ carefully.  Her argument is that Deleuze created something personal and original through his reading of Kant.  Sauvagnargues describes how Deleuze took from Kant questions about the relationship of the faculties of imagination, understanding and reason to one another.  Deleuze at first regarded Kant’s three critiques as all on the same level, unified in their analysis of the faculties, and each focussing on internal relationships where one faculty takes the regulatory lead over the others.  But Sauvagnargues tells us that Deleuze subsequently elevated the Third Critique, discovering in it something innovative and important about art.  Deleuze reworked the ‘Analytic of the Sublime’.  Sauvagnargues notes: ‘but this is where Kant is forced by Deleuze to undergo a radical distortion’ (198).  What he found there was a productive ‘discordant accord’ of the faculties, which ‘carries the faculties to their point of maximum tension’ (202).  For Deleuze, this discordant accord of the faculties was involuntary and played a crucial role for the possibility of creative thought.  Through his reflections on Proust, Deleuze argued that the discordant accord, where cognition is pushed to its limits, reveals the importance of art for philosophy.

Pietro Terzi tells us how Jacques Derrida used the CAPJ to illustrate a claim about how philosophy, as an academic discipline, deals with a subject area (in this case art) through imposing its own legislative function on that subject.  Philosophy does so by reserving for itself the right define the subject area as a distinct area of practice and experience.  This presupposes some kind of unity of meaning for the subject area and its concepts.  But in the end these definitions are the result of well-established discursive “protocols” of conceptualisation.  Derrida illustrated this claim through an analysis of the CAPJ.  According to Terzi, Derrida emphasised that Kant’s aesthetic pleasure turned the discourse of beauty into its purely formal elements, stripping from artworks any social or historical significance.  Derrida questioned what called for this formal pureness that separates art from contextual concerns and from sensuous “charms” and “emotions”.  He argued that it follows from epistemological presuppositions drawn from the First Critique, namely the four categories of the logical form of judging.  In this way, questions about art were inscribed within a theory of logical judgements.  Derrida argued this inscription was arbitrary: ‘the frame fits badly’ (220).  Art is subordinated to a particular purpose through the imposition of a theory of judgement.

Dario Cecchi explains Jean-François Lyotard’s interest in Kant’s notions of the faculty of judgement and of the sublime.  For Lyotard, no unified system or theory can subsume all human experience.  There are ‘islands of cognition’ that make up ‘archipelagos of experience’, each with its own theory and language.  A central concern for Lyotard was the question of how to transition from one field of experience to another.  His interest in Kant’s theory of reflective judgement related to the question of what theory and language is most appropriate.  The sublime was the focus of Lyotard’s use of the Third Critique, even though for Kant it was a ‘mere appendage.  In the sublime, the relationship between aesthetic judgement and ideas of reason is characterised as a struggle between reason and imagination.  Reason diverts imagination’s attention from its usual task of the synthesis of sensible experience.  Instead, imagination presents ideas of reason to the subject.  These are not direct representation, because ideas of reason exceed the bounds of sensible experience.  The significance of the sublime, for Lyotard, lay in the faculty of reason forcing the imagination to ‘present the unpresentability’ (239) of ideas like freedom, justice and moral law.  In the sublime, these ideas are experienced as signs which open the subject’s experience on to an ethical realm.  Cecchi ends his chapter by explaining the political significance of the sublime for Lyotard.  It resided in the possibility of art offering audiences an array of sublime feelings, including respect and commitment.

For a stopover in Italy, Claudio Paolucci describes how Umberto Eco connected the Third Critique to more recent work in cognitive sciences on Predictive Processing, and to an earlier idea of abduction offered by Charles Sanders Pierce.  The issue in common is explaining how perceptions are partly conceptualised.  According to Paolucci, in Predictive Processing the brain is active in providing ‘top down’ predictions of sensory inputs and comparing those predictions with actual sensory evidence in forming world-revealing perceptions.  Paolucci explains how this topic has an antecedent in Pierce.  Eco picked up certain key Kantian ideas, developed in the Third Critique, but was not primarily concerned with a close analysis of Kant’s claims themselves.  Eco claimed that the relationship between perception and prior knowledge that the brain stores about the world is a reformulation of the Kantian notion of schematization.  Reflective judgement produces or finds concepts through which experience is made possible.  According to Paolucci, Eco developed this with the help of further Kantian notions of regulative principles and ideas of reason.  For Eco, we interpret the world as if it were a narrative.  Yet nothing in the world guarantees our conjectures.  We pursue the semblance of order we need to find in the world in order to make experience possible.  But the principles that underpin the kind of order or narrative with which we structure the world are not constitutive.

Turning to America, Scott Stroud describes how Kant’s aesthetics motivated John Dewey’s own pragmatist theory of aesthetics and art.  According to Stroud, ‘Kant becomes the foil for the pragmatist’s novel theorizing, a respected, but wrong, thinker who set so many on the wrong path’ (274).  Whilst Dewey had broader objections to Kant’s transcendental idealism, he specifically rejected Kant’s conception of aesthetic experience as essentially disinterested contemplation. Dewey objected to Kant’s separation of distinct domains of human experience and distinct faculties of the mind.  Kant’s domain aesthetic experience is markedly separated from the fields of knowledge and practical action.  In contrast, Dewey sees aesthetic experience on a continuum with the practical nature of human activity, always located in some context or environment.  Stroud is careful not to become involved in analysing whether Dewey’s reading is right or not.  His aim is to explain how resistance to Kant’s ideas, together with Dewey’s commitment to humans belonging to a Darwinian natural world, helps explain why Dewey’s ideas on the experience of art took the shape they did.  Despite Dewey’s outward antagonism towards Kant, Stroud tries to find some common ground.  Although continuous with other forms of experience, Stroud explains some characteristics of aesthetic experience for Dewey.  These include the sense that aesthetic experience has a kind of intensity and absorption.  Stroud finds parallels between this and what he sees as Kant’s internalising of ends to the means of aesthetic experience, and with Kant’s claim that the experience of the beautiful is a symbol of the morally good.

A central figure in Diarmuid Costello’s contribution is the American art critic Clement Greenberg.  Greenberg was the leading modernist art critic and theorist.  In the 1970s, when his ideas were facing serious challenges, Greenberg co-opted a kind of Kantian aesthetics to bolster his argument.  Greenberg’s theories were nevertheless discredited.  Costello argues that aesthetics in general, and Kantian aesthetics in particular, became marginalised as Greenberg hegemony was overthrown.  This was because postmodernist art theorists continued to operate with a Greenbergian view of aesthetics.  Costello explains how Greenberg’s aesthetics were a misreading of Kant, and claims that subsequent theorists continued to operate with a distorted view of the Third Critique.  He argues that both Thierry de Duve, in his attempt to revive Kantian aesthetics for contemporary art theory, and Arthur Danto, in his rejection of aesthetics as an adequate basis for explaining contemporary art, both perpetuated aspects of Greenberg’s misreading.  The reproaches levelled at both by Costello are, first, their failure to recognise Kant’s distinction between free and dependent beauty (which is centrally important to aesthetic evaluations of works of art), and, secondly, their failure to engage adequately with Kant’s theory of artworks as expressions of aesthetic ideas.  Costello goes on to argue for a rehabilitation of Kantian aesthetics within the discourse of contemporary art, an interpretation that Costello sees as more faithful to the original text.  Costello identifies resources within the CAPJ that have been overlooked in contemporary theory.

Thomas Teufel aims to articulate a more systematic interpretation of the Third Critique than that offered in the writings of his chosen author, Stanley Cavell.  Teufel turns his attention to Kant largely in defence of the methodological commitments that Cavell employed.  Teufel describes Cavell’s ‘kindredness of spirit’ (301) with Kant generally.  He explains Cavell’s position in relation ordinary language philosophy and the foundations of language, and some ‘scathing’ criticism Cavell received.  Cavell investigated self-descriptions by ordinary language philosophers, as native speakers, of their linguistic communities’ practices and conventions.  Cavell defended a position which claimed that such statements could reveal truths about what we mean when we say what we say.  In response to his critics, Cavell found parallels with pure judgements of taste and argued that meta-linguistic statements had a normative force analogous with the legitimacy of judgements of taste.  Teufel shows some weaknesses in how analogous Cavell’s position is to that of Kant.  But he goes on to offer a deeper analysis of reflective judgements and suggest a closer affinity between Cavell and Kant than Cavell himself made explicit.  In doing so, Teufel touches one of the central debates in contemporary scholarship of the Third Critique.  This is the question of whether Kant made a convincing case in support of his aim to demonstrate a unifying theme that links aesthetic judgements, teleological judgements and reflective judgements in general.

The final two chapters mark a change of tack.  They do not offer a commentary or explanation of leading twentieth century interpretations.  They introduce two areas of contemporary philosophy and discuss their relation with the CAPJ.  Alessandro Bertinetto and Stefano Marino’s chapter discusses the CAPJ in the context of improvisation, especially in jazz music performances.  The central claim is that Kant’s aesthetic reflective judgement helps illuminate the creative process of artistic improvisation.  The authors find parallels in self-regulating and non-ruled driven characteristics.  As the chapter acknowledges, indeed relishes, this is ‘surely a free interpretation’ of the Third Critique; although, as the authors say, it is not arbitrary.  This stands in contrast to the more systematic interpretations of Kant offered in the previous two chapters by Costello and Teufel.   Whilst this is illuminating of the kind of service for which the CAPJ is conscripted, it is not immediately clear why the topic of musical improvisation was chosen.  The chapter certainly does help ‘testify to the plurality’ of readings and philosophical practices.  And perhaps illustrating how Kant can be called upon, in a very loose way, to illuminate a present-day area of interest explains why this topic was chosen.

In the final chapter, Thomas Leddy argues that the CAPJ offers resources for understanding everyday aesthetics.  Like the previous chapter, the aim here is not to offer an account of another leading thinker’s reading of Kant.  Leddy explores to what extent the concerns of the Third Critique illuminate an area of contemporary aesthetics.  In everyday aesthetics such an appeal might appear at first sight a stretch.  ‘Everyday aesthetics takes its origins … not from a transcendental philosophy but from one that is naturalistic and pragmatist’ (339).  This being so, a priori transcendental principles for reflective judgement have little appeal.  Moreover, making rigid distinctions between pleasures of mere sensation, delight in the morally good and reflective aesthetic pleasure in the beautiful lacks plausibility for many involved in contemporary everyday aesthetics.  Leddy nevertheless argues for series of areas of overlap.  These include free and dependent beauty, the ideal of beauty, the rejection of geometric regularity and the expression of aesthetic ideas.  During his analysis, Leddy addresses what, on the face of it, seems a large obstacle to appeals to Kant to explain everyday experiences and objects: the notion of disinterested pleasure.  Leddy’s response is to argue that disinterestedness helps to illustrate the differences in attitudes we adopt towards objects of aesthetic attention.  This is to say that aesthetics is not solely a matter of classification of objects, whether every day, fine art or natural.  Leddy’s claim is that, with some modification, an interpretation that resists the radical separation between aesthetic categories (as Kant may have insisted on), ‘we end up instead with a multifarious usage of Kant for everyday aesthetics’ (356).

What major contribution does this book make?  The editors explain that they aim to offer a comprehensive and coherent contribution to the investigation of the legacy of the Third Critique.  ‘We hope other scholars will dare to follow this promising lead’ (33).  I imagine that the book will primarily appeal to readers already familiar with the CAPJ, especially those concentrating on a particular aspect of the text or its reception.  This absorbing book helps to widen, dramatically, readers’ grasp of the kind influences the text has provoked.  It gives readers a way, via Kant, into the work of thinkers outside their own areas of familiarity.

As to the editors’ selection of contributions, the aim seems to be eclectic, reflecting a wide range of philosophical topics and disciplines covering analytic and continental traditions (31).  The editors themselves raise a worry about such a volume, which aims to ‘provide a selective and synoptic view’: it risks appearing ‘scattered or extremely partial’ (32).  Whilst I am not sure that this concern is properly answered, the volume certainly succeeds in tracing enough of the history of the CAPJ’s reception to capture a strong sense of variegated and pluralist interpretations.  Overall, this makes the book lively and engaging.  The contributions evidence the breadth of influence, and how that influence is performed through very different kinds of interpretations, or uses, of Kant.  Some take aspects of the CAPJ as points of resistance, others employ highly selective readings, still others represent more systematic engagements.   The book gives a wide-ranging account of ‘the various appropriations of a complex but crucial text’ (32).

Understanding the key ideas in the reception of Kant’s Third Critique can at times be as forbidding as reading the text itself.  The complexity seems amplified when subsequent twentieth thinkers have used Kant as a provocation for their own complex claims.  Indeed, many of the contributors note how their authors “do violence” to the spirit of Kant’s claims.  However, the reader is offered, in a relatively compact volume, an introduction to how philosophers have attempted to relate their own work to Kant’s.  As such, it offers a fascinating overview of how the Third Critique has taken on a life of its own.  A volume like this, dedicated to tracing Kant’s legacy across different philosophical traditions, seems to face an inescapable trade-off.  Were such a volume to be written by a single author, it might offer an organising style and thread (beyond chronology and geography).  A reader might be able to follow a more thematic exposition of the issues a stake, and more easily make comparative reflections about the ways in which Kant’s ideas have been taken up.  As they explain in the introduction, Marino and Terzi instead chose an edited volume in order to capture ‘a polarity of perspectives and competences’ (28).  The undoubted richness that this variety offers to readers comes together with problems of wrestling with differences in authors’ styles, and challenges of communicating across philosophical traditions and geographies.

Marino and Terzi make an underlying assumption that texts like the Third Critique have their ‘own performativity’, ‘endowed with a sort of intentionality of their own’ (5).  Their volume certainly succeeds in demonstrating that the CAPJ has enjoyed variegated uses.  This account of its reception might seem like, in the words of Otfried Höffe, ‘the history of productive misunderstandings’ (318).    But it prompts an obvious question: is there something about the particular nature of the Third Critique that underwrites the productivity evidenced in this collection?  The book gestures towards, but does not fully address, the source of the CAPJ’s provocative and far-reaching influence.  It describes its character as ‘complex, multi-layered, heterogeneous, discontinuous and, so to speak, “patchy” work’ (4).  Bertinetto and Marino seem to suggest the source of its productivity resides in the ‘ambiguities and obscurities’ of the work (317).  This all may be true, but seems unsatisfactory as an explanation of the extraordinarily productive status of the Third Critique and the richness of thought it helped to spawn.  This volume does not aim to provide an answer.  But it is certainly is an engaging and ‘promising lead’ in motivating questions like this.

Franz Brentano: The Teaching of Jesus and its Enduring Significance, Springer, 2021

The Teaching of Jesus and its Enduring Significance: With an Appendix: 'A Brief Description of the Christian Doctrine' Book Cover The Teaching of Jesus and its Enduring Significance: With an Appendix: 'A Brief Description of the Christian Doctrine'
Franz Brentano Studies
Franz Brentano. Translated by R, Schaefer
Springer
2021
Hardback 103,99 €
X, 265

Theodor W. Adorno: Notes to Literature: Combined Edition

Notes to Literature (Combined Edition) Book Cover Notes to Literature (Combined Edition)
Theodor W. Adorno. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann. Translated by Shierry Weber Nicholson. With a new introduction by Paul Kottman
Columbia University Press
2019
Hardback $120.00 £100.00
544

Reviewed by: Richard J. Elliott (Birkbeck College, University of London)

 Adorno’s Critique of Aesthetic Intentionalism & its Limits

 

A prominent yet understudied feature that permeates Adorno’s aesthetics is a critique of intentionalism. In this review essay, I will look at this critique and one manifestation of it, as it appears in his Notes to Literature.

Previously published in two volumes, Columbia University Press have for the first time combined Adorno’s Notes to Literature in a single work, translated into English.  The scope of topics Adorno treats is broad, and reading is often difficult but frequently rewarding. Topics span from epic poetry, to Dickens, the free use of punctuation and its ramifications, reviews of individual texts, to more general methodologically loaded tracts on the status of art or particular aesthetic traditions. This is not exhaustive by any measure. As such, a sufficient characterization of this wealth of topics treated by Adorno in the short space available to review would be exceedingly challenging, likely impossible. Instead, I will restrict the focus of this review to a common feature across many of Adorno’s treatments of these topics: his rejection of intentionalism in aesthetics, in this instance, authorial intentionalism in literary works. This rejection appears to some degree in many if not all of the essays within the two volumes. It also looms large in Adorno’s aesthetic theory more broadly. However, it is usefully illustrated by means of a particular formally derived critique Adorno offers, about subject-driven exposition of narrative as an authentic and autonomous force in literary works. I will also argue that Notes to Literature aides in demonstrating an internal limit to Adorno’s anti-intentionalism, as it appears in such works. This internal limit offers a qualified role for the creator of autonomous works, and some insight into the machinations of this role – these will be discussed below.

Intentionalism is the presupposition many would-be aestheticians bring to artworks. The presupposition is that the pure intention of the creator (the composer, artist, or author) is what bestows aesthetic value to such works. Notes to Literature features many instances of a prominent critique of this position, as applied to literary works. Adorno views subject-derived expositions of narratives, particularly streams of consciousness as a narrative device, as one example of formal expressions of authorial intentionalism in literature. Its widespread employment demonstrates the primacy of this intentionalism. Viewing it as an authentically expository force involves a kind of presupposition to aesthetic methodology, and to any discernment of the value to be gleaned from works. This presupposition, Adorno claims, places the individual author in a position of epistemic priority. This position is an erroneous one, as it encourages the proffering and evaluating of works without exploring the social totalities which constitute the conditions for any such individual’s presentation of aesthetic knowledge. The role of the creator for Adorno is inherently mediated within the context of such totalities. Intentionalism and its formal manifestation in subjective narrative shirks this exploration, to the detriment of the autonomous potential that literary works might possess.

One particular target of Adorno’s is a manifestation of intentionalism in a particular conception of the genius. This conception gained predominance as a particular oppositional reaction to Kantian aesthetics. Kant describes the genius as “nature giving the rule to art”, contrasting it with the notion of the single creator doing so, from some epistemically authoritative vantage point. The conception that opposes Kant broadly states that as the wellspring from which aesthetic value flows, the intention of the genius offers a model of salvation, relayed through their work. The figure of the genius, so it broadly goes, is the one who oversees the total expression of their authorial or creative intention in the work, and this successful expression of that intention is the vehicle of aesthetic value for works of art, music and literature equally. On this model, appreciation of works then occurs with reference to this value. Adorno rails against this model.  While Adorno ultimately agrees with Valéry’s claim that great art “demands the employment of all of a man’s faculties” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 115), this is not the claim that this employment manifests the expression of the conscious intentions of the creator of that art.

Underpinning this presupposition is the wrong-headedness as Adorno sees it of aesthetic intention operating as if immediate value of a work can be transmitted, its message there to be received by an audience who can grasp it if they accept it. Here Adorno opposes an assumption shared by both Kant and those reacting to him, since they converge on the notion that this transmission can take place between agents – in Kant’s case certainly, rational ones. But operating with this kind of presupposition, Adorno thinks, is to be oblivious to the inherent alienation as “a fact that irrevocably governs an exchange society”. To illustrate this, in an approach characteristic of Adorno, he employs Hegelian motifs as a means of undermining of Hegelianism itself – Adorno targets ‘objective Spirit’ as represented in art. For Hegel, the truths purveyed through art (as well as religion and most importantly philosophy) claim to offer representational knowledge into the development of Geist, eventually culminating in the ironing out of all contradictions of reality. Built into this understanding, Adorno claims, of the Hegelian motive for art is that it “wants […] to speak to human beings directly, as though the immediate could be realized in a world of universal mediation” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 116). But this claim in itself about the representational power of art, says Adorno, is a kind of utilitarian degradation of the aesthetic. In literature specifically, this degradation makes ‘word and form’ into a “mere means” – a manner of utilizing the formal presentation of the work for expressing what the creator takes to be a truth or value relayed through art.

Structurally, Adorno here shares with Hegel the basic claim that art can illustrate certain kinds of truths. But he diverts from Hegel in a qualified way, in how he sees the promise for the role of autonomous art. Hegel conceived of putting art to use in the task of Geist’s reconciliation by means of what the work represents. By contrast, Adorno conceived of autonomous art’s power to at best be able to illustrate the current impossibility of reconciliation, due to the inability of the work to coherently represent reality, in the manner Hegel claims it can. It should be noted that it appears Adorno sees it possible for certain kinds of non-representational knowledge to be gained from successful works of art. Autonomous art can bestow negative knowledge of reality (‘Extorted Reconciliation: On Georg Lukács’ Realism in our Time’, 223). This would initially seem to clash with the claim that this is itself a form of knowledge. But rather than this constituting representational knowledge, Adorno is in some way offering the potential for a kind of aesthetic exposure to an intuition that demonstrates the impossibility of representational knowledge. This is arguably one route to the ‘loss’ that Adorno counts as the second-order objectivity facilitated by autonomous artworks. More on this below. But in the context of the Hegelian assumption, Adorno thinks that this has ramifications for critical engagement. The Hegelian optimism for the revolutionary potential of art in fact pulls the rug out from underneath the work, by undermining its formal and practical autonomy, and its applications.

In this vein, Adorno critiques subjective exposition of narrative, as a manifestation of the intentionalist’s presumption about aesthetic value. This critique tracks formal characteristics intrinsic to presentations of works themselves. It is a claim about the inherent formal critical power or lack thereof that motivates his critique of literary subject-centrism, and the idea of subjectivist narrative as having expository primacy in its formal mode of presentation. It is not just that this is open to criticism as a bourgeois mode of attempted presentation, of the kind indicated above about the power of the author’s intentions. Rather, this more formal critique is aimed at narrative of this kind also for its reduction of the reader or spectator to being merely receptive to such a subjective flow of consciousness. Adorno claims that the proponent of formal narrative subject-centrism identifies “nodal points of conditioned reflexes” of the would-be passive human being, qua “mere receptive apparatuses” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 119). The work’s recipient responds to intake from their sensibility by the truth-bestowing flow of an intentional consciousness in the work. The presupposition here is that exposition is granted authentic force as a mode of formal description by the author. As such it is employed as a way of receiving and interpreting a work by an audience. This is problematized due to its assumption that the audience has been given the necessary sensibility for the narrative, on a kind of presuppositionless set menu of aesthetic evaluation. The presumption here is that the audience receives a formal presentation of the sensory scheme or stream of consciousness of the ‘genius at work’, to which they should passively engage.  The audience is a conduit to be filled up with aesthetic truths.

But this presumption exposes another facet to Adorno’s critique, centered around the assumption that any subject creating aesthetic works can provide such a coherent formal exposition, by virtue of their professed narrative. The work of Proust, perhaps ironically, is valorized by Adorno for upsetting a presumption in the “prevailing consciousness” about the notion of the unity and pre-given wholeness of the person. This presumption is characterized as a false idol by Adorno (‘Short Commentaries on Proust’, 181), which Proust’s works act as an ‘antidote’ to. A philosophical presupposition of this view concerns the power of subjective narrative. The audience doesn’t receive this subject and its narrative in some necessary and uniform fashion. Nor is the self-representation of either one of the subjects involved, author or reader, of an immediate cognitively accessible character. Rather, Adorno claims that such narrative is the product and cause of further alienation. Only in genuinely autonomous works can there be an intimation of this alienation by a display of the “social relationships [that] reveal themselves to be a blind second nature” (‘Short Commentaries’, 183). Again utilizing while subverting a familiar Hegelian motif, this of second nature, social relationships limit the remit of pure thought, not in a manner that adapts pure thought to nature, but shows its perversion at the hands of the productive forces at work in it.

In this respect, something Adorno claims favorably about Paul Valéry is his capacity to buck the trend of centralizing “the triumph of subjective over objective reason” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 161). Though Adorno takes this to be a product of the enlightenment, it is evident from his discussions of many post-enlightenment figures that he views them as capitulating to this trend, too. For example, Adorno writes that for Sartre, “the work of art becomes an appeal to the subject because the work is nothing but the subject’s decision or non-decision” (‘Commitment’, 349). This centrality has ramifications both theoretical and practical. As a result of it, “Sartre’s approach prevents him from recognizing the hell he is rebelling against”, namely the objective self-alienation that latently motivates him to make the proclamation that hell is, in fact, other people (‘Commitment’, 353). Indeed, Adorno’s infamous statement about the barbarism of writing poetry after Auschwitz is reaffirmed, in the context of this continued primacy of the subjective. He claims it “expresses, negatively, the impulse that animates committed literature” (‘Commitment’, 358). This criticism applies also to Heidegger. A ‘decision’ is demanded by Hölderlin, for Heidegger, in Adorno’s devastating excursus of Heidegger (‘Parataxis: On Hölderlin’s Late Poetry’, 380). Claiming this, not only does Heidegger rob and ‘deaestheticize’ Hölderlin of his “poetic substance”, it also eliminates Hölderlin’s “genuine relationship to reality, critical and utopian” (‘Parataxis’, 381). This is done on the grounds of the notion of subjective decision being prioritized by Heidegger, erroneously recapitulating to “the idealism which is taboo for Heidegger [but] to which he secretly belongs” (‘Parataxis’, 385).

Motivating this critique in all of these forms is Adorno’s broader claim that “the social totality is objectively prior to the individual” (‘Extorted Reconciliation’, 224). The presupposition that successful, genuinely autonomous works still somehow belong to the author misses this point. Rather, a work’s success consists “in its becoming detached from [the author], in something objective being realized in and through him, in his disappearing into it”. (‘Toward a Portrait of Thomas Mann’, 295, my emphasis). Autonomy is not bestowed upon a work due to any relation with some condition of genius possessed by the author.

 Yet in pursuit of this thought, Adorno makes an intimation about what positive role the artist qua producer of works of art can have, should a work be successful in the possession and conveyance of truth content. In an ironic twist, he inverts the idea that the work is the instrument of communication for the intentions of the creator. Instead, this possession and conveyance involves the artist becoming an instrument, through which aesthetic form assumes a life of its own. It is this mode of production which ensures the artist does not “succumb to the curse of anachronism in a reified world” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 117). Adorno assumes his own idiosyncratic kind of interpretivist stance towards the possibility of aesthetic autonomy. Discussing the ways in which artistic creation is subject to reification, and on the point of to whom the truth-qualities of an art work ‘belongs’, Adorno endorses Valéry’s attack on “the widespread conception of the work of art that ascribes it, on the model of private property, to the one who produces it” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 118).

So Adorno postulates a kind of aesthetic virtue gained by means of a degree of liberation from the folly of intentionalism, including its formal presuppositions about subjective exposition. This liberation, Adorno notes, is a kind of recognition, namely a recognition on the part of the artist, such as Valéry’s bourgeois art as bourgeois, and that this recognition precludes it from conscious or intentional escape from that framework. In this sense, Adorno sees in Valéry (and also, for example, Thomas Mann) a critical platform through formal literary presentation in this “self-consciousness of [its] own bourgeois nature”. The premium is placed on a certain kind of self-knowledge, attained by a capacity for critical distance. This self-consciousness doesn’t determine the truth content of an artwork itself. Rather it constitutes a recognition by the artist that self-consciousness precisely doesn’t determine such truth content. Indeed, in an example of Adorno’s often ironic and flirtatiously paradoxical prose, this self-consciousness comes by the aesthetic judgement

“tak[ing] itself seriously as the reality that it is not. The closed character of the work of art, the necessity of its giving itself its own stamp, is to heal it of the contingency which renders it unequal to the force and weight of what is real” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 118).

With some nuance, Adorno criticizes the aims of recent art, at a “retreat of productive forces [as] a surrender to sensory receptivity” – in other words, it recapitulates to viewing subjective and specifically sensorially derived authorial creativity as the primary means of producing truth. This in fact diminishes the capacity for abstraction, or for the construction of artworks as possessing a genuinely autonomous character.

This makes Adorno’s claims about Valéry and Proust somewhat ironic, but arguably productively or virtuously so. Despite Valéry’s own processual and solipsistic mode of presentation, it is so by virtue of his “advocacy of the dialectic” qua the recognition that the only freedom possible is freedom in relation to the object (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 150). This in a roundabout fashion actually serves to undermine the idea that the subjective stream of consciousness is an authentic expository force for narrative truth.

Adorno writes that Valéry’s philosophical affinity to this advocacy “erodes from below […] the illusion of immediacy as an assured first principle” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 150). Indeed, intentionalists presuppose some primary or immediate access to the author or creator’s epistemic faculties via the formal presentation of the subjective narrative. But attempts at cleanly cutting through the social conditions which engendered the work are inhibitions to aesthetic truth, for Adorno. There is a broadly ethical dimension to Adorno’s rejection of this presupposition, too: “[t]he objectification of works of art, as immanently structured monads, becomes possible only through subjectification” (‘Presuppositions: On the Occasion of a Reading by Hans G. Helms’, 368).

Adorno offers the potential for a positive way out. He describes an emancipation made possible through aesthetic endeavour, when works are forced to try and re-establish a kind of objectivity which is lost

“when it stops at a subjective reaction to something pregiven, whatever form it takes. The more the work of art divests itself critically of all the determinants not immanent in its own form, the more it approaches a second-order objectivity” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 152, my italics).

Developing dialectically out of its own deficiencies, this particular route to disillusionment constitutes a second-order objectivity – a kind of knowledge of one’s disillusionment, through aesthetic form. This is an objectivity which, depending on how one interprets Adorno, facilitates the possibility for reconciliation, or at least the knowledge that reconciliation is presently beyond our ken or grasp (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 154). This has already been discussed by Adorno in the context of a certain kind of self-consciousness. But Adorno also discusses a kind of forbidden mode of consciousness, which, if we had access to it, would allow us access through art and literature to a genuinely different and non-reified mode of approaching our genuine needs (‘The Handle, the Pot, and Early Experience: Ui, haww’ ich gesacht’, 473). One might interpret this forbidden mode of consciousness as something necessarily inaccessible, like Kant’s intellectual intuition. Or one might interpret it as something contingently improbable, an obfuscated mode of consciousness which might come to be available to us under certain productive conditions. Regarding this difference of interpretation, I remain non-committal about, for the purposes here. But this second-order objectivity partly constitutes an acknowledgment of some kind, of this mode.

What might this second-order objectivity amount to, in the context of the work? Herein I argue lies an important internal limit to Adorno’s anti-intentionalism. The loss of the subject as an authentic expository force can lead to a realization that objectivity by this means constitutes a “loss”, Adorno claims (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 152). Adorno then claims that the subject’s pursuit of this “critical path is truly the only one open. It can hope for no other objectivity” (Ibid.). The ramifications for this in aesthetics is that the construction of works “no longer conceives itself as an achievement of spontaneous subjectivity, without which, of course, it would scarcely be conceivable, but rather wants to be derived from a material that is in every case already mediated by the subject” (‘Presuppositions’, 371). This is not mediation by the purely spontaneous, causa sui subject, a la the presupposition of the intentionalist. Rather, the creator of the genuinely autonomous and truth-contentful work of art must be in some respect a “representative of the total social subject” (‘The Artist as Deputy’,  120, my italics).

It is only by virtue of recognizing this representative nature of works as something interpreted by the social and cultural conditions it is subject to, that art can “fulfill [itself] in the true life of human beings” (Ibid.). Adorno’s conception of the artist involves acting as a “midwife” to the objectivity inherent in the autonomous artwork – which is delineated “in advance by the form of the problem and not by the author’s intention (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 168)”. Indeed, in line with Adorno’s authorial anti-intentionalism, the problem of delineating a work’s autonomous value is framed by its historical contingency, determined by the conditions of possibility that the forces of social production allow for the work to rupture through. It is autonomous works which can attain this expository status in relation to these forces. Put succinctly in his essay critical of Sartre and the idea of committed literature, “art, which is a moment in society even in opposing it, must close its eyes and ears to society”, while holding out the presence of “an ‘it shall be different’”, which Adorno claims “is hidden in even the most sublimated works of art” (‘Commitment’,  362).

Important to note here is that the success of the work in its autonomy is to some extent accidental, if viewed from a purely intentionalist perspective. Formal technique can only contribute to the intention of “what is presented”, as opposed to what the author purely intended. Its conditions of success are determined by the ability to recognize its autonomy within the context of objective social reality (‘Extorted Reconciliation’, 224). This includes a rupturous expression of what is concealed from reality by reifying processes, or as Adorno describes these processes, the purely “empirical form reality takes” (‘Extorted Reconciliation’, 225).

A paradox arises at the heart of Adorno’s position about this criterion for success. It is chance that “proclaims the impotence of a subject that has become too negligible to be authorized to speak directly about itself in a work of art” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 156, my italics). Yet at the same time as this claim about the possibility created by chance, it is this subjectivity, as

“alienated from itself, against the ascendancy in the objective work of art, whose objectivity can never be an objectivity in itself but must be mediated through the subject despite the fact that it can no longer tolerate any immediate intervention by the subject”. (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 156)

This is a convoluted qualification by Adorno, merciless in its demands on the reader. In a reductive sense, the brute intentionalist model of subjective creativity is rejected. But the importance of the subject in some mediated sense remains of critical importance, for Adorno. Creators of autonomous works acknowledge “the paradoxical relationship of the autonomous work to its commodity character” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 158).

Adorno makes the allowance that this mediation via the subject is not an enterprise which the subject remains wholly unaware of, within narrative structures. But at the same time, he frames this as an eventual culmination, in a particular mode of formal consciousness towards an “estrangement of meaning” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 156). Adorno claims that its projection of this estrangement within an autonomous work “imitates the estrangement of the age”. Artists capable of producing autonomous works come to possess some conscious disposition towards an awareness of this imitation, by virtue of their being estranged. But how to understand this disposition toward an estrangement of meaning? Adorno thinks that it comes from a particular intuitive awareness of reification. Using Valéry as an exemplar, “[f]or Valéry’s aesthetic experience, the subject’s strength and spontaneity prove themselves not in the subject’s self-revelation, but, in Hegelian fashion, in its self-alienation. The more fundamentally the work detaches itself from the subject, the more the subject has accomplished in it” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 167). What Valéry and Adorno see interrelatedly, quoting Valéry, is that “[a] work endures insofar as it is capable of looking quite different from the work the author thought he was bequething to the future” (Ibid.).

Mere intention isn’t what makes a work autonomous: a presupposition of its primacy amounts to a recapitulation to the alienating forces as Adorno seems them as regnant in society. Rather, the author or creator is instrumental – “with the first movement of conception, the author is bound to that conception and to his material. He becomes an organ for the accomplishment of the work’s desires” (Ibid.). The most plausible manner of making sense of the idea that a work itself possesses desires is within the context of the claim about the artist or author as a midwife. The work embodies the hidden intuitions of a collective, expressed without ascribing any one individual’s intentions to the production of a work. Difficult as this may seem, I take it that Adorno’s point here is that autonomous works implicitly channel the hidden but genuine desires of the collective of human individuals, within their socio-historical context. Rather than representing the individuated subject, it represents the reification of the “latent social subject, for whom the individual artist acts as an agent” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 168). Once again, the representation of the social subject is of an instrumental rather than intentional kind through the aesthetic creator. Since Adorno thinks that all those under the same socio-historical conditions are bound to a mode of reification, there will be broad similarity underwriting the mode of self-alienation the representative artistic agent embodies and formally expresses, as themselves a conduit through which the work comes to be. The self-alienating autonomous work is described by Adorno as itself possessing ‘wants’, but intuitions of these are framed by the demands of the human condition to recognize the ill, perhaps impossible fit of the forces of social production upon that condition – the blind second nature which all are forced to adopt.

The use of the term ‘latent’ in this context is important, since Adorno frames the capacity of the contingency of the subject in psychoanalytic terminology. The ego has heretofore been assumed as the origin of pure aesthetic intentions and the harbinger of aesthetic truth, by means of its transparent route to creativity. Contrary to this assumption, Adorno claims that the ego “cannot be healed of its cardinal sin, the blind, self-devouring domination of nature that recapitulates the state of nature forever, by subjecting internal nature, the id, to itself as well” (‘Presuppositions’, 373). Rather, the ego can only be healed “by becoming reconciled with the unconscious, knowingly and freely following it where it leads” (‘Presuppositions’, 373–4). In some sense for Adorno, the regulating ego is to some extent aware of obedience or concession to the unconscious id in the creative process. The ego wants to find out what it wants, or at least wants to become aware of what it is about empirical reality that it doesn’t want.

Once this awareness takes place, the experience of autonomous artworks gives “the sense that their substance could not possibly not be true, that their success and their authenticity themselves point to the reality of what they vouch for” (‘Short Commentaries’, 187). Or, as Adorno puts it punchily elsewhere, autonomous art “represents negative knowledge of reality” (‘Extorted Reconciliation’, 222-3) – not positive representational knowledge in Hegel’s fashion, but the poverty of representational knowledge to track the real. Adorno offers an explanatory metaphor for this in a powerful discussion of Ernst Bloch’s musings on ‘An Old Pot’ at the beginning of Bloch’s Spirit of Utopia. Emulating the conscious disposition which can be intuited through autonomous works, Adorno self-referentially writes, “I am Bloch’s pot, literally and directly, a dull, inarticulate model of what I could be but am not permitted to be” (‘The Handle, The Pot, and Early Experience’, 472).

There might be no right living in a world gone wrong. But through autonomous works, formal glimmers exude, that give us intuitions of its wrongness. Whether these intuitions could develop more concretely, or be instantiated practically, is of course another story, one that cuts to the heart of Adorno’s immanent critique.