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

The Question of Painting: Rethinking Thought with Merleau-Ponty Book Cover The Question of Painting: Rethinking Thought with Merleau-Ponty
Jorella Andrews
Bloomsbury
2018
Hardback £76.50
352

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

Ernst Mach – Life, Work, Influence Book Cover Ernst Mach – Life, Work, Influence
Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook, Volume 22
Friedrich Stadler (Ed.)
Springer
2019
Hardback 124,79 €
XIII, 805

Jean Wahl: Philosophies of Existence, Routledge, 2019

Philosophies of Existence: An Introduction to the Basic Thought of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers, Marcel, Sartre Book Cover Philosophies of Existence: An Introduction to the Basic Thought of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers, Marcel, Sartre
Routledge Library Editions: Existentialism
Jean Wahl
Routledge
2019
Hardback £80.00
132

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

Phenomenology and Japanese Philosophy Book Cover Phenomenology and Japanese Philosophy
Tetsugaku Companions to Japanese Philosophy, Volume 3
Shigeru Taguchi, Andrea Altobrando (Eds.)
Springer
2019
Hardback 103,99 €

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

Correspondence (1882-1910) Book Cover Correspondence (1882-1910)
William James, Carl Stumpf. Edited by Riccardo Martinelli
De Gruyter
2019
Hardback 109,95 € / $126.99 / £100.00
364

Adam Y. Wells: The Manifest and the Revealed: A Phenomenology of Kenōsis

The Manifest and the Revealed: A Phenomenology of Kenosis Book Cover The Manifest and the Revealed: A Phenomenology of Kenosis
SUNY series in Theology and Continental Thought
Adam Y. Wells. Foreword by Kevin Hart
SUNY Press
2018
Hardback $80.00
206

Reviewed by: Nikolaas Deketelaere (Balliol College,  University of Oxford)

Radicalisation as Entmenschlichung

Notes on the credibility of a phenomenology of Scripture

Since the exegete exists historically and must hear the word of Scripture as spoken in his special historical situation, he will always understand the old word anew. Always anew it will tell him who he, man, is and who God is, and he will always have to express this word in a new conceptuality. Thus it is true also of Scripture that it only is what it is with its history and its future.

Rudolf Bultmann, ‘Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?’, 296.[1]

Adam Wells’ new book, The Manifest and the Revealed: A Phenomenology of Kenōsis, is a provocative one. With Husserl, it takes up once more the dream of phenomenology as an absolute science, that is to say, a presuppositionless science that as such is able to ground all positive sciences. In doing so, Wells sees an analogy between the phenomenological gesture of reduction and Paul’s so-called kenosis hymn (Philippians 2:5-11). Exploring this analogy by operating a kenotic reduction, he sets up a phenomenology of Scripture in which the phenomenological method and Scripture mutually clarify one another (97-117). It is in this phenomenology of Scripture that contemporary Biblical criticism ought to be grounded, according to Wells, because it alone does not let itself be restricted by dogmatic presuppositions that arbitrarily impose limits on how and to what extent the experience of Scripture enters the field of inquiry. Only this phenomenology would be presuppositionless, thus forming an absolute science of Scripture, that is able to ground the scientificity of positive Biblical criticism. The thrust of the book is then made up of an intriguing critique of contemporary Biblical criticism, the problem with which, Wells suggest, “is not that it is overly scientific, but that it is not scientific enough” (150).[2]

To those of us shaped by his most significant critics, Heidegger and Derrida, Husserl’s dream of an absolute science sounds more like the stuff of nightmares. Wells is all too aware of this and admits from the outset that there are very good reasons to be suspicious of the very idea of absolute science “as a modernist, metaphysical ideal” (1), pointing to the calamities of the twentieth century as an example. Yet, he says, entirely abandoning the dream of absolute science would amount to giving up “any ability to ground the sciences, to determine the boundaries of scientific inquiry, and to provide answers to meta-theoretical questions about the ethical status of the sciences. (…) For that, one needs absolute science; one needs a way to ground the sciences in the broader context of the life-world” (2). Returning us to the foundational need that was felt so urgently in the first decades of the last century—embodied philosophically by Husserl and theologically by Barth—, the “‘dream’ of absolute science is not a metaphysical ideal,” for Wells, “but a practical necessity” (2). Of course, this simply ignores the fact that said dream could very well be both a metaphysical ideal and a practical necessity at the same time: as it was for Kant, for whom the moral God is needed to make the scientific endeavour meaningful whilst remaining himself outside the scope of that endeavour, which secures the very nature of ethical reasoning as distinct from science and thus able to ask such questions about science.[3] Kant’s insight is precisely that even though something may be practically necessary, that does not make it theoretically possible; it is a question of making this impossibility into an asset rather than an obstacle (as Derrida knew all too well). Nevertheless, Wells intends “to dream Husserl’s dream again, to reopen the question of absolute science, navigating between the practical necessity of such a science and the temptation to universalize it” (2).

Aware of how this sounds, however, he is quick to note that both absolute and science will “lose their mundane imperial connotations when transformed phenomenologically” (7). The first half of the book executes that phenomenological transformation by spelling out what Wells means by absolute science. Throughout its three chapters, Wells tracks the radicalisation of phenomenology and its reduction from Husserl’s early static phenomenology, through his later genetic phenomenology, and up to the constructive phenomenology developed by Eugen Fink and Anthony Steinbock. This exposition perhaps contains little that would be new to anyone familiar with the basics of phenomenological philosophy and its transcendental method, but it is remarkably clear and—unlike much Husserl scholarship and to Wells’ great credit—avoids any self-indulgent revelling in the immense technical complexity of Husserl’s philosophy: like all good phenomenology, this is a constructive work.

The phenomenologically transformed conception of absolute science Wells ends up with is then the following. Starting with science, he says that whilst “mundane sciences are concerned with that which is given in the world; phenomenology is concerned with how the given becomes given” (60). In other words, unlike the positive sciences, phenomenology is not a science of innerwordly objects; as an absolute science, it considers the constitutive source of these objects as unities of meaning and is operative within the new ontological field that Husserl calls transcendental subjectivity, which is opened up by the reduction: “Absolute science must, therefore, be a science of transcendental subjectivity” (20), for “as the source of all objectivity,” it is “the proper subject matter of absolute science” (21). So far, so Husserlian. For his understanding of the absolute, then, Wells turns to Fink, who defines the absolute as the synthetic unity of the whole of transcendental life, not merely the constitution of objects, but also the transcendental act of phenomenologising itself. That is to say, phenomenology is absolute because it maintains itself in a circular self-referentiality: the transcendental reflection on the constitution of objects itself leads to a transcendental reflection on the phenomenological method, which then in turn renews the transcendental reflection on constitution. “In the phenomenological reduction,” as Wells puts it, “transcendental subjectivity investigates its own constituting activity. Consequently, if phenomenology is going to be complete, if it is going to investigate all aspects of transcendental subjectivity, then it must investigate its own investigation, in the form of a transcendental theory of method. (…) The ultimate ‘object’ of phenomenology is the transcendental subject” (57-58).

As such, Wells believes to have seen off the modernist imperialist connotations of the notion of absolute science: “Consequently, phenomenology is not a universal science even if it is an absolute science. As a scientific practice on the part of transcendental subjectivity, phenomenology is within the process of genesis even as it evaluates the generation of givenness. (…) Phenomenology has no right to the phrase ‘once and for all’” (46). Indeed, precisely because, as caught up in its own circular self-referentiality, phenomenology exists in an infinite hermeneutic circle that it cannot escape to define the absolute ‘once and for all’: since it is itself absolute, “phenomenology cannot transcend the Absolute in order to offer a final objective account of the absolute” (71). This is an impressive and sound argument. However, at the same time, if “phenomenology guarantees its absoluteness only to the extent that it is self-referential” (51), the conception of the absolute offered is merely a formal one that lacks any material content. Wells, as it were, gives us no entry into the hermeneutic circle.

Yet, this is entirely the point, for it is here that absolute science becomes an absolute science of Scripture, that phenomenology becomes a phenomenology of Scripture, which follows from the radicalisation of phenomenology as such. For, Wells remarks, “while Fink’s ‘theory of method’ goes a long way toward radicalizing Husserl’s concept of absolute science, it remains incomplete inasmuch as Fink never connects the theory of method to any particular phenomenal element. Fink never performs absolute science” (150). In virtue of phenomenology or absolute science’s circular structure, the absolute cannot be defined in advance, but only takes shape within the practice (the performance) of phenomenology, within the phenomenological analysis of phenomena: “absolute science only becomes absolute in concrete application. That is to say, the method of absolute science cannot be specified in advance; it must be derived from concrete engagement with phenomena” (2). The material element chosen by Wells to make the formal notion of absolute science substantive is Scripture: “the phenomenological idea of absolute science,” he says, “gains real content inasmuch as theoretical phenomenological reflection exists in a ‘synthetic unity’ with scripture itself” (156). That is to say, following Fink, Scripture is a positive phenomenal element, transcendental reflection on which leads inevitably to transcendental reflection on the phenomenological method itself and thus fleshes out that method (makes it leibhaftig). As such, it is indeed the case that “Scripture and phenomenology elucidate one another within the circular hermeneutic of absolute science” (3).  However, insofar as Wells seems to imply more generally that “if scripture requires phenomenological clarification,” it would be the case that “phenomenology requires scriptural clarification” (2), he seems to be taking this a bit too far: Scripture is but one possible material element amongst many capable of clarifying the formal method, even if phenomenological reduction and the kenosis hymn are analogous in structure.

Having made the bridge between phenomenology and Scripture—namely that, to be a properly absolute science, phenomenology must be performed or applied to particular phenomenal elements, in this case Scripture—, we can now consider how Wells performs phenomenology, how he develops his phenomenology of Scripture as an absolute science of Scripture in the second half of the book. He proceeds by reading the kenosis hymn phenomenologically in order to argue that it “operates as a type of phenomenological reduction—a kenotic reduction that is, in the end, far more radical than Husserl’s reduction” (97), which means, given the circular structure of phenomenology, that phenomenology is itself in the end kenotic. This kenotic reduction is a bold but perhaps flawed idea. Its original sin is perhaps that it is based on an extremely uncritical reprisal of Fink’s understanding of the reduction that links it to divine cognition, the formulation of which Wells repeatedly cites throughout the book: “already in German idealism,” Fink says, “there was the recognition that the traditional antithesis between ‘intellectus archetypus’ and ‘intellectus ectypus’, which constituted metaphysical difference between human and divine knowledge, in truth signified the antithesis between human and un-humanized (entmenscht) philosophical cognition,”[4] which would mean that “phenomenologizing is not a human possibility at all, but signifies precisely the un-humanizing of man, the passing of human existence (…) into the transcendental subject. (…) Before phenomenologizing is actually realized in carrying out the reduction there is no human possibility of cognizing phenomenologically (…). Just as man is the transcendental subject closed off to its own living depths, so too all human possibilities are closed off to the inner transcendentality of the subject. Man cannot as man phenomenologize, that is, the human mode of being cannot perdure through the actualization of phenomenological cognition. Performing the reduction means for man to rise beyond (to transcend) himself, it means to rise beyond himself in all his human possibilities.”[5] It is here, Wells says, that “the analogy between reduction and the kenosis hymn becomes clear. By bracketing the world, and all being in the world, the human ‘I’ of the natural attitude calls into question that which it fundamentally is. The human ‘I’ relinquishes its ties to the world, emptying itself of its own humanity” (104). Kenosis, for Wells, is thus not the divine emptying itself of its divinity and in doing so becoming human; but, somewhat bizarrely, the human being emptying itself of its own humanity (being-in-the-world) and in doing so achieving transcendental (un-worldly) consciousness, which is then identified with the divine: “what is ‘emptied’ is not Christ’s divinity, nor his status vis-à-vis God, but the status of the cosmos as the primary source of truth and value. The kenotic reduction opens up the possibility that worldly authority and value are not primary but derivative,” namely of transcendental, un-humanised, un-worldly, even divine (!) processes of constitution; indeed, “in the kenotic epochē, the cosmos is bracketed as the ground of truth and value, and the world is revealed as a new creation, which is renewed and sustained by God’s infinite love and power. Kenōsis, in this reduced sense, is not an ‘emptying out’ but an ‘overflowing’ of God’s love unto creation” (3).  The kenotic reduction, then, is a “reduction from cosmos to ‘new creation’” (107). The rest of the book is then spent outlining the structure of this ‘new creation’ through a critique of Husserl’s phenomenology of time-consciousness, which, by the standards of the kenotic reduction, Wells considers not yet fully reduced (131). By way of an eloquent discussion of Lacoste and Fink, he shows how “the kenotic reduction brackets the cosmos, and discloses a new creation, in which space-time is a horizon whose essential horizontality is [divine] represencing” (147).

However, Wells’ conceptualisation of both kenosis and reduction strikes me as problematic, precisely because of the uncritical way in which it assumes Fink’s conception of the reduction and the related primacy of transcendental subjectivity understood as a transcending of finite being-in-the-world. First of all, Husserl’s notion of transcendental subjectivity has received its fair share of criticism, even Wells himself calls it “problematic” (9). It is therefore odd that this further radicalisation of transcendental subjectivity as explicitly un-humanised is taken over by Wells without reflecting on it critically at all (even though, as I said, the quotation returns multiple times, giving him ample opportunity). What does it mean to say that in doing phenomenology we would somehow transcend our humanity as such? What could possibly be left of me, or of any consciousness, once I have transcended my humanity?[6] What comes to mind here is Kierkegaard’s constant mocking of the thinker who—in his attempt to be sub specie aeterni, in forgetting to think everything he thinks along with the fact that he exists—simply ends up thinking something unreal, illusionary and irrelevant. Not even reduction can lift us out of our humanity, for even the reduction must first surely be initiated by finite human beings existing in the world: even the phenomenologist as phenomenologist is finite; Husserl is dead. “When one has abstracted from everything, is it not the case then that, etc.,” Kierkegaard sighs, “Yes, when one has abstracted from everything. Let us be human beings.”[7] Perhaps Fink and Wells have a counter-argument that refutes this exasperation at such overzealous use of the reduction; however, if they do, it is never offered and the critique—which nevertheless seems somewhat obvious—is not pre-empted. In the absence of a persuasive reason for why I should un-humanise myself in order to do phenomenology, it seems more worthwhile to remember Kierkegaard’s warning that “one who exists is prohibited from wanting to forget that he exists.”[8]

This Entmenschlichung can also be questioned theologically, this time not in terms of the reduction, but in terms of what functions here as its analogue, namely kenosis and its incarnational character. As we know, for Wells, “what is ultimately emptied in the kenotic epochē is not Christ’s divinity (…), but the status of the cosmos as the ultimate ground of truth and value; Christ’s kenotic act—whether one emphasizes the incarnation or the cross—turns worldly hierarchies upside down. The very idea that one who is equal to God (…) would choose to become human and become crucified is completely at odds with worldly notions of divine power and authority. From the worldly standpoint, it makes little sense to forgo divine power in favour of human existence and slavish death. One would never choose to die like a slave when given the option to be Caesar; to do so would be inhuman” (105, see also 114). This, in my view, gets it precisely the wrong way around: that it is a human being doing something inhuman is precisely the point. If it were simply God who chose to die as a slave, would we really be all that bothered? After all, for God, all things are possible­. It is a human being, in which God has emptied himself of his divinity and taken on the full existential reality of the human being,[9] who chooses to do something in-human—precisely that is what makes up the scandal of the Christian story and its power: worldly hierarchies are turned upside down from within the world itself by an event that transforms the structure of the world, opening it up from within unto the kingdom that is coming. That God’s power is completely at odds with ‘worldly notions of divine power and authority’ is likewise precisely the point of his power, namely that it is, as John Caputo puts it, “madness from the point of view of the ‘world’.”[10] Indeed, Caputo’s weak theology, which thinks God’s power precisely as his weakness, forms a much needed nuance to the disconcertingly strong theology of power that seems to be underlying Wells’ phenomenology: the divine is not reached by way of the impossible, by transcending the human (what on earth would this even mean?); rather, it is a question of being able to entertain the im-possible humanity of the un-human, the im-possible possibility of the impossible (Derrida).[11]

If uncritically relying on an un-humanised transcendental subjectivity is problematic, it surely is even more so when this transcendental subjectivity is identified with God. Yet, this seems to be the final move in Wells’ formulation of the kenotic reduction: “In reduction, the transcendental subject achieves that which is impossible for human subjectivity, namely, un-humanized or ‘divine’ philosophical cognition of the world (…). In reduction, man rises above the world as the pre-given ground of truth and value, and therefore exceeds worldly possibilities. The world, the cosmos, is revealed as the end product of the constituting acts of transcendental subjectivity; or to put it theologically, the cosmos is created” (107). This extraordinary claim, which amounts to a theologisation of the reduction in which transcendental cognition is identified with divine cognition and the transcendental field itself with divine creative activity, strikes me as unprepared by the argument and therefore unwarranted phenomenologically (in spite of the language Fink uses). In other words, a theological leap is performed here that must be resisted by phenomenology precisely as phenomenology until its legitimacy can be established phenomenologically. Without this, I see again no reason to follow Wells in his expansion of Husserlian notions of transcendence and subjectivity “by integrating the transcendental subject into the divine life” (117).

The problem becomes particularly acute, I feel, when this kenotic phenomenology is applied to Scripture in Wells’ absolute science of Scripture: for reading Scripture “in a kenotically reduced way,” would mean heeding the kenotic reduction’s instruction “to bracket the cosmos as the source of truth, validity, and meaning. No language or mode of reason derived from the cosmos should predetermine our reading of scripture” (108). We have now thus achieved Wells’ absolute science (or phenomenology) of Scripture, in the sense of an inquiry that “places no dogmatic restrictions on the experiences and contexts of scripture; every mode of scriptural givenness is, in principle, open for phenomenological investigation” (25). Though Wells stresses that this absolute science does not negate but instead underlies empirical Biblical criticism (23), it is worth noting that this does nevertheless appear to lay waste to immense parts of the tradition of said criticism: “So, for instance, Heidegger’s Dasein, restricted as it is to a worldly conception of finitude, cannot determine our phenomenological hermeneutic in the way that it determined Rudolf Bultmann’s strategy of ‘demythologisation.’ More importantly, in bracketing worldly modes of reason and language, huge swaths of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy (…) are ruled out” (108). When reflected back, in virtue of its circular or absolute character, on the phenomenological method itself, we find that there too a conceptual purification (reduction) should be performed: Husserl’s idea of monadicity, for example, is simply declared “not relevant here,” for “divine life is the source of infinitely overflowing power and love, while ‘monadicity’ is a concept derived from worldly finitude” (117).

Yet, after so much reduction, after such a thorough cleaning out of our conceptual apparatus, what remains when the dust has settled? Not much of interest to anyone actually living their life, Kierkegaard might answer, which should worry us. Indeed, according to Wells, we would be left with the unadulterated “experience of scripture” (24). Yet, at no point does he provide a description of what this experience might be. Though again, as I discussed, this is of course entirely the point: he does not provide us with an a priori entry into the hermeneutic circle in which this experience takes shape, precisely because it only takes shape within or as that circle. However, one wonders if Wells has not closed that circle in on itself to the point of the experience having no worldly subject, and thus being inaccessible to us as human beings (hence, perhaps, Nancy and Derrida’s emphasis on the ellipsis, rather than the circle, that all writing and thinking completes).[12] For in reducing, if we reduce too far, it is very possible to reduce away the very structures that make appearance possible (say, human finitude), thus causing appearance to disappear in its own impossibility. Here again, Wells’ account fails to address or at least to pre-empt a powerful objection that is easily raised by someone like Caputo: “the truth is gained not by approaching things without presuppositions—can you even imagine such a thing?—but by getting rid of inappropriate presuppositions (frame) and finding the appropriate ones, the very ones that give us access to the things in question. (…) ‘Absolute’ knowledge absolves itself of the very conditions under which knowledge is possible in the first place. Presupposing nothing results in knowing nothing.”[13] Note that this critique is directed against absolute, rather than universal knowledge: it is not a question of the scope of the epistemic domain, but of the conditions under which the judgement is valid. As Kant might have said, absolute anything is simply nothing. Wells is often quick, like Husserl, to dismiss “dogmatic restrictions” placed on the field of inquiry by presuppositions; however, like Fink, he never considers whether it is perhaps these presuppositions that might be what opens up that field of inquiry (as opposed to reduction), what provides an entry into the circle absolute science completes (and which reduction closes off), for us as human beings in the first place: precisely because we are finite human beings living in the world, we are limited; “but that limit also gives us an angle of entry, an approach, a perspective, an interpretation. God doesn’t need an angle, but we do. Having an angle is the way truths open up for us mortals.”[14] To pretend that we are anything but mortals, that we could somehow transcend our finitude and humanity, is to disregard the problems that confront us as such. If we continue radicalising phenomenology (be it with Husserl, Heidegger, Fink, Marion, or Henry), instead of practicing phenomenology, we risk losing sight of what show itself as such.[15]

This is not merely, it should be said—and this is particularly evident in the work of Lacoste—, an atheist humanism speaking the language of phenomenology; but equally entails a theological imperative: indeed, “it is necessary to read Lacoste,” Emmanuel Falque argues, “probably above anyone else, in order to see and to understand the degree to which theology itself actually insists upon and does not contradict finitude as such (understood as the limiting horizon of our existence).”[16] The seriousness of this problem should not be underestimated, for it essentially concerns the question of who the Bible is for, who it speaks to, who can access the experience of Scripture. A distinction, borrowed from Nancy, that Falque makes in relation to the Eucharist, might be helpful here as well: the Bible “is not only ‘believable’ (by giving faith), it is also ‘credible’ (with a universalisable rationality)—in which the present work maintains the pretention of addressing itself to all,” for the Christian message “is not simply one of conviction, but also one of ‘culture’, or of pure and simple humanity.”[17] Instead of being absolute but not universal, perhaps the phenomenology of Scripture should be universal but not absolute: addressing itself to all (opening itself up as universally credible)—and thus doing so in the language of the human and worldly finitude we all share (whether the message is believed or not)—, without the violent insistence of being true for everyone (absolutely). Indeed, if no language derived from the world can be used to read or make meaningful the Christian message as it is found in Scripture (108), that message shrivels up in itself and dies, for there is no other language available. Essentially, the distinction between the transcendental or absolute (phenomenological) and the empirical or positive (historical) science of Scripture is simply not tenable: “the science of history goes to work on all historical documents,” as Rudolf Bultmann argues, “there cannot be any exceptions in the case of biblical texts if the latter are at all to be understood historically. Nor can one object that the biblical writings do not intend to be historical documents, but rather affirmations of faith and proclamation. For however certain this may be, if they are ever to be understood as such, they must first of all be interpreted historically, inasmuch as they speak in a strange language in concepts of a faraway time, of a world-picture that is alien to us. Put quite simply, they must be translated, and translation is the task of historical science.”[18] Readings of Scripture are always predetermined by some presuppositions shared by a particular community, otherwise there simply could not be any reading (or experiencing). Falque summarises this nicely by saying that it is above all a question of culture: “It is incumbent on each of us to decide on this, and it is also a matter for all of humanity, at least in the doctrine and tradition of Western culture that we inherit. (…) My basic argument (…) is not put forward so as to convert or transform others. It comes down to an acceptance or recognition that Christianity has the cultural means, as well as the conceptual means, to touch the depths of our humanity.”[19] In other words, it is a matter of securing for Christianity its credibility, the means by which it can continue to be meaningful to us and today, universally yet not absolutely, to all but not therefore believable in just whatever situation: “the issue at stake in philosophy, but also in the theology of today, is to envisage the meaning, including the cultural one,” of Christianity, for it forms “the condition for God himself to continue to address himself to man.”[20]

Wells’ absolute though not universal science of Scripture, because it is a closed circular system (the absolute), cannot account for how God could still address himself (credibly) to man as man, how Scripture could speak across traditions, engage humanity as such in its community of being (universally): “This brand of radical phenomenology may well apply outside of the Christian context,” he says, “but only to the extent that there are concepts analogous to kenōsis operating in other traditions (as there surely are)” (157). What these analogous concepts would be, we are left to guess. Ironically, if this were indeed to be true—and hopefully it is—, it would detract from Wells’ argument: if different religious traditions all have analogous concepts, that means that those concepts themselves are not theological, but precisely concepts belonging to the world and originating in human finitude. Having rejected monadicity, different traditions (or phenomenological ‘homeworlds’) seem to function very much like Leibniz’s ‘monads without windows’ for Wells. Simultaneously, whilst Christianity, or at least its Scriptures, would lack the means to speak meaningfully to non-Christians (because the science of Scripture is not universally credible); it risks—and I say risks, because Wells is unclear about whether intra-Christian differentiation counts as different phenomenological homeworlds—suppressing all interpretative difference within the Christian tradition itself (because the science of Scripture is absolutely to-be-believed). However, precisely because, as Bultmann puts it, “historical knowledge is never a closed (…) knowledge,” to the degree that it maintains a reference to the knower’s ‘life-relation’—unlike Wells’ transcendental or absolute science which is circular and thus only self-referential—, it is better at avoiding the modernist pitfall: “For if the phenomena of history are not facts that can be neutrally observed, but rather open themselves in their meaning only to one who approaches them alive with questions, then they are always only understandable now in that they actually speak in the present situation. (…) It can definitively disclose itself only when history has come to an end.”[21] I am therefore not sure whether Wells is justified in concluding that “kenotically radicalised phenomenology brooks none of the modernist hope for universal science” (157), for his absolute but not universal science still has the distinct flavour of a localised modernity: believable, within a particular tradition, and perhaps even to-be-believed (absolutely valid or grounded within a particular homeworld); even if it is not universally credible, outside of that tradition, in the human community of being where it has lost all meaning because it has transcended what that community has in common—human finitude.

There is no virtue in radicalisation when it amounts to Entmenschlichung—perhaps only within the dry vocabulary of transcendental philosophy could these words somehow appear innocent. Simply observing that securing an absolute ground for the sciences is a practical necessity does not make it theoretically possible, which is a lesson we should finally learn after having witnessed one attempt after the other fail over the course of what is now more than a century since Husserl first articulated this ambition (though, of course, it predates him). Instead, we need a discourse that “learns to appreciate the groundlessness of what is happening”[22] (Caputo), making the best of it in a “practical conversion of the theoretically ‘impossible’” that has “the objective reality of the task (Aufgabe)”[23] (Nancy), to be performed in the world itself as world. We must avoid that this ever-continuing radicalisation of phenomenology turns Husserl’s dream into a nightmare, whilst the coextensive desire for a scientific (be it a phenomenological or theological) grounding of Biblical criticism obfuscates the outrageous and life-transforming message of Scripture, or at least its worldly direction and medium: the result of a phenomenology of Scripture cannot be that the message found therein loses its credibility.[24] 


[1] Rudolf Bultmann, ‘Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?’ in Existence and Faith: Shorter Writings of Rudolf Bultmann, trans. by Schubert M. Ogden (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1960), 289-296 (296).

[2] Wells also formulates this critique theologically, though less prominently, by saying that “modern biblical criticism (…) lacks a theological grounding” (81). In that sense, Wells’ phenomenological account of an absolute science of Scripture is similar to Darren Sarisky’s recent theological account of a theological reading of the Bible (published just two months after Wells’ volume) in that they both reject naturalistic readings of Scripture in an attempt to ground Biblical criticism. For Sarisky’s account, see his Reading the Bible Theologically (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

[3] This is also the experience taking shape in those critics of Husserl that are dismissed by some as ‘nihilists’ because they would somehow have done away with very notion of an absolute. However, in reality, the exact opposite is true. Derrida, for example, expresses this well when he says that “there is a want for truth (il faut la vérité)” (see Jacques Derrida, Positions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 58n32 (trans. modified)): there is a need or a want for truth, precisely because truth is lacking; deconstruction is indeed motivated by the absolute, namely by its presence as absence in its constant displacement, which forms the very movement of différance.

[4] Eugen Fink, Sixth Cartesian Meditation: The Idea of a Transcendental Theory of Method, trans. by Ronald Bruzina (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 77.

[5] Fink, Sixth Cartesian Meditation, 120.

[6] It should be pointed out that the human being for Fink (and Husserl) is probably not the same as what Heidegger calls Dasein, but rather refers to worldly or empirical consciousness whilst transcendental consciousness is constitutive of the world. On this, see: James McGuirk, ‘Phenomenological Reduction in Heidegger and Fink: On the Problem of the Way Back from the Transcendental to the Mundane Sphere’ in Philosophy Today, 53.3 (September 2009), 248-264.

[7] Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. by Alastair Hannay (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 97.

[8] Kierkegaard, Postscript, 256.

[9] In kenosis understood along incarnational lines, God does not simply empty himself of his divinity in order to come into the flesh (Verleiblichung); but, by coming into the flesh, he also takes on the whole existential reality of man, namely his finitude and facticity (Menschwerdung). On this, see: Emmanuel Falque, ‘A Phenomenology of the Underground’ in The Loving Struggle: Phenomenological and Theological Debates, trans. by Bradley D. Onishi and Lucas McCracken (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2018), 45-75; Emmanuel Falque, The Guide to Gethsemane: Anxiety, Suffering, Death (New York: Fordham University Press, 2018).

[10] John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 103.

[11] More generally, what one would not know from reading the book is that the theme of kenosis has gained remarkable currency within contemporary philosophy: not just in Caputo and Derrida, but also in Catherine Malabou, Gianni Vattimo, Jean-Luc Nancy and Emmanuel Falque. Though Wells has a chapter situating the kenosis hymn within contemporary Biblical criticism and theology, a philosophical consideration of the issue of kenosis is entirely absent. It seems wrong to me to identify the phenomenon of kenosis with Paul’s kenosis hymn. This is a missed opportunity and might lead one to wonder whether what this book provides is actually kenotic phenomenology of Scripture, rather than a phenomenology of kenosis.

[12] For more on this, see: Jacques Derrida, ‘Ellipsis’ in Writing and Difference, trans. by Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 294-300; Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘Elliptical Sense’, trans. by Jonathan Derbyshire in A Finite Thinking (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 92-111.

[13] John D. Caputo, Truth: The Search for Wisdom in the Postmodern Age (London: Penguin, 2013), 182.

[14] Caputo, Truth, 13.

[15] On this, see also Frédéric Seyler’s ‘Is Radical Phenomenology Too Radical? Paradoxes of Michel Henry’s Phenomenology of Life’ in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 27.3 (2013), 277-286.

[16] Emmanuel Falque, ‘The Visitation of Facticity’ in The Loving Struggle: Phenomenological and Theological Debates, trans. by Bradley D. Onishi and Lucas McCracken (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2018), 195-219 (196). See also Jean-Yves Lacoste, Experience and the Absolute: Disputed Questions on the Humanity of Man, trans. by Mark Raftery-Skehan (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), 194: “Man takes hold of what is most proper to him when he chooses to encounter God. This argument can now be made more specific: we can now assert that man says who he is most precisely when he accepts an existence in the image of a God who has taken humiliation upon himself—when he accepts a kenotic existence.”

[17] Emmanuel Falque, The Wedding Feast of the Lamb: Eros, the Body, and the Eucharist, trans. by George Hughes (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016), 43 (trans. modified).

[18] Bultmann, ‘Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?’, 292.

[19] Falque, The Wedding Feast of the Lamb, 10.

[20] Emmanuel Falque, ‘Spread Body and Exposed Body: Dialogue with Jean-Luc Nancy’, trans. by Nikolaas Deketelaere and Marie Chabbert in Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 26.4 (August 2021) (forthcoming).

[21] Bultmann, ‘Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?’, 294-295.

[22] John D. Caputo, The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 66.

[23] Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘Dies irae’ in La faculté de juger (Paris: Minuit, 1985), 9-54 (34).

[24] It is precisely this idea that forms the essential and lasting legacy of Bultmann’s work. David Congdon expresses it well in his ‘Is Bultmann a Heideggerian Theologian?’ in Scottish Journal of Theology, 70.1 (2017), 19-38 (38): “Translation is not the imperialistic removal of ideas from their native context; it is rather an act of intercultural communication. Translation is a dialogue between past and present that respects the cultural distinctiveness of both text and reader. It is actually the rejection of translation that is imperialistic, because that inevitably means denying the significance and value of some cultural context, whether ancient or modern.” Thus, even in asking valid and important questions like Wells does, “one must be careful not to criticise the act of translation as such, and thereby inadvertently undermine the capacity to facilitate genuine understanding across cultural barriers—thus undermining the possibility of theology itself.”

Ernst Cassirer: The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Routledge, 2019

The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Three Volume Set, 1st Edition Book Cover The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Three Volume Set, 1st Edition
Ernst Cassirer. Translated by S. G. Lofts. Foreword by Peter Gordon
Routledge
2019
Hardback £150.00
1,184

Emmanuel Levinas: Husserls Theorie der Anschauung, Turia + Kant, 2019

Husserls Theorie der Anschauung Book Cover Husserls Theorie der Anschauung
Neue Subjektile
Emmanuel Levinas. Aus dem Französischen von Philippe P. Haensler und Sebastien Fanzun
Turia + Kant
2019
Paperback € 28.00
230

Martin Heidegger: Heraclitus

Heraclitus: The Inception of Occidental Thinking and Logic: Heraclitus’s Doctrine of the Logos Book Cover Heraclitus: The Inception of Occidental Thinking and Logic: Heraclitus’s Doctrine of the Logos
Martin Heidegger. Translators: Julia Goesser Assaiante, S. Montgomery Ewegen
Bloomsbury Academic
2018
Paperback $39.59
328

Reviewed by: Zühtücan Soysal (METU Philosophy)

The English translation of Martin Heidegger’s 1943-44 Freiburg lectures on Heraclitus makes this important text available to a much broader audience than before. Appearing as the 55th volume of Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe, the lectures exemplify his finest analytical vigor and philosophical insight. The work is particularly important for Heidegger research, as his understanding of the ancient Greek world and interpretation of pre-Platonic thinkers constitute the backbone of his oeuvre. Specifically, the book represents the concluding piece of Heidegger’s Freiburg lectures (1928-44), and thus presents a unique stylistic maturity. In addition, the range of covered issues and concepts is so vast that the lectures may shed light on both his earlier and later work. In terms of his prior work, the Heraclitus lectures might be seen as a fruit of endeavors that began with Beiträge zur Philosophie (GA 65) and the intensive Nietzsche readings of 1936-40, thereby in contrast to his thought preceding Beiträge. In relation to his later work, especially the second part of the book may be read as the foundation of his output for the late 1940s through the 1950s, and also as a springboard for his even later engagement with pre-Platonic thinking (cf. GA 15). What is even more noteworthy than the richness provided by the possibility of establishing such connections is the lectures’ ability to teach the way of thinking and reading by which Heidegger brings the word of Heraclitus into immediate relevance with the historical situation of modern humanity. The task remains, however, that we interpret that way ever anew.

The book consists of two parts, corresponding to two lecture courses. The first part, entitled “The Inception of Occidental Thinking” (1943 summer semester), is mostly concerned with getting a grasp of the ancient Greek experience of the terms φύσις (nature),[1] ζωή (life), δύνειν (submerging), and πῦρ (fire) through an attentive reading of ten of Heraclitus’s fragments, thereby demonstrating the proper mode of approach to his sayings. The second part of the book, titled “Logic: Heraclitus’ Doctrine of the Logos” (1944 summer semester), proceeds from that background and is centered around an elaborate elucidation of what it means for the human to be essentially characterized as ζῷον λόγον ἔχον (the living being having a logos) and an attendant justification of such characterization. No command of the Greek language is necessary to follow the courses, and the laudable translation of Julia Assaiante and Montgomery Ewegen captures the essence of the textual flow. I would also like to maintain that no prior knowledge of Heidegger’s thought is required either. However, Heidegger assumes that his audience has sufficient understanding of Hegel and Nietzsche, which makes it possible to put the confrontations with those thinkers into context.

At the very beginning, Heidegger makes it clear that when he says ‘philosophy’, he means something which is essentially Occidental. The word translated as “Occidental” is abendländischen (3),[2] which beckons a land of evening, that is, a region characterized by the sun’s having submerged. These expressions acquire sense as the book proceeds, but one does not find a definition for ‘Occident’ in its relation to a supposed opposite, ‘Orient’.[3] Instead, Heidegger wishes to direct the reader’s attention to what he considers to be more originary and essential. Unexpectedly, though, he begins with recounting two seemingly irrelevant stories about Heraclitus. In one of them, a group of people visit someone whom they think to be an “exceptional” and “tantalizing” philosopher, and surprised by seeing Heraclitus warm himself at an oven, upon which he says: “Here, too, the gods are present” (6). In the other story, the thinker plays a dice game with children inside the temple of Artemis, and shouts at the crowd perplexed before the “inappropriate” behavior of the thinker: “What are you gaping at, you scoundrels? Or is it not better to do this than to work with you on behalf of the πόλις [city-state]?” (10). Far from being insignificant ornaments, the two stories define and constitute the inconspicuous central axis of the narrative, around which the rest of the lectures unfold. It would for now be enough to note that in both stories, Heraclitus baffles the crowd by challenging their presumptions about the relationship between the ordinary and the godly, for he seems to think that Artemis is closer to his everyday abode than she is to the temple bearing her own name. Moreover, just as he rejects conspicuous piety, he rejects conspicuous politics (“working with you on behalf of the πόλις”). Heidegger remarks, at this point, that Heraclitus’s avoidance of ‘politics’ cannot be interpreted as a kind of disinterested neutrality, and thus does not make him ‘apolitical’. To the contrary, Heraclitus is political in the true sense of the word (11-12). This is the only place in the book where a direct mention of ‘politics’ is made, and Heidegger points to fragment 121 as well as to his lecture course of the previous year, Parmenides (GA 54). It would here suffice to say that without a proper understanding of these references in regard to how πόλις is conceived and how its care is envisaged, any political inference would at best be incomplete. Returning to the stories, they also ground the book-long response to a widespread misunderstanding by which one is tempted to think that the issues taken up by Heidegger lie beyond the place where the urgencies of immediate reality reside. Despite the significance of the two stories, on the other hand, their nature is preparatory.

There is a particular difficulty in translating Heraclitus and getting a grasp of his word. That difficulty, which is experienced to its fullest extent through the course of Heidegger’s elucidations, stems from the millenia-old tradition of thinking which Heidegger simply calls ‘metaphysics’. To explain by way of a rough outline of Heidegger’s account of the history of Occidental thinking, it should first be noted that it begins with the self-opening of the essence of truth, which precedes ancient Greek thought but which nevertheless finds its first decisive expression in the words of the “inceptual thinkers,” namely, Anaximander, Parmenides, and Heraclitus. Metaphysics, although grounded in “inceptual thinking,” is characterized as the “self-rigidifying essence” which drives Occidental thinking away from its inception (31). Beginning with Plato until its consummation in Nietzsche’s thought, metaphysics not only transformed the word of Heraclitus through a series of interpretative translations but also determined, established, and secured the proper manner of approach to the fragments.

As a result, if one simply wishes to be “true to the word” (cf. 37) of Heraclitus without the disturbances of the long-standing tradition of metaphysics, their path must harbor or at least be open to and ready for a transformation of the path itself. Such transformation is called “learning” (cf. 190), which does not occur on a straight course of development. Rather, while approaching the sayings of Heraclitus through different angles, as if from afar to their essential core, Heidegger’s discourse also employs a stream of thought which turns toward the opposite direction, i.e., from core to afar. The spiraling of the two streams unfolds as a lasting encounter with the metaphysical tradition as every attempt at getting closer to the simplicity of the fragments is met with the voice of metaphysics, bending the discourse into its spiral course. What is learned as a result of this learning cannot be confined into any doctrinal content that replaces ‘false’ translations of φύσις, ζωή, etc. with ‘correct’ ones. Still, the manner and attitude of what Heidegger calls “essential thinking” remains distinguishable from conventional attempts at the thinker’s word.

First of all, Heidegger distances his way of thinking from historiography, which is defined as “the calculating and fundamentally technical relation to history,” whereby history is rendered as a sequence of bygone occurrences (69). As an example, the disciplines of anthropology and philology, on which an array of conventional interpretations of the world and the word of Heraclitus is based, are grounded in the historiographical manner of approach. Contrarily, Heidegger does not aim at lexicographical accuracy or etymological precision; he tries to reach a region of thought where the ‘decision’ for such accuracy and precision has not yet been made. Accordingly, for instance, the two stories recounted in the first lecture, even if they never actually happened, are considered to be worth more than a stockpile of correct biographical findings.

The emphasis on the aspect of ‘decision’ in translation might evoke the idea that words can take any meaning according to the ‘decisions’ of the interpreter, which constitutes the second manner of approach that Heidegger rejects. This idea may result in what might today be called ‘post-truth translation’, by which authority over meaning is surrendered to the arbitrariness of willing ‘decisions’ and individual perspectives. To be sure, ‘decision’ as understood by Heidegger in no way implies such a relativistic indifference to what the thinker’s word says. In fact, such a ‘post-truth translation’ is possible only on the basis of a prior, determinative decision regarding the essence of words in general. In this case, the decision pertains to the contemporary reality in which “[t]he machinegun, the camera, the ‘word’, and the billboard all have this same fundamental function of seizing and arresting the object” (71). In Heidegger’s reading, this state of affairs corresponds to the consummation of Occidental metaphysics, and is marked by the thought of Nietzsche.

The third manner of approach that Heidegger distances himself from involves interpreting the thinker’s word metaphorically. Heidegger explains in various places that Heraclitus’s sayings do not point to anything except what they simply say. To illustrate, the word ζωή is customarily translated as ‘life’, so ζῷον is taken to designate living beings in distinction to non-living beings. Therefore, if ζωή is somehow attributed to φύσις, it must be in a metaphorical way extrapolating the characteristics of living beings to the whole of beings. On this reading, Heraclitus may too easily be classified as a ‘primitive thinker’ in whose thought the lack of formal clarity and conceptual rigor is patched with metaphors (292). Nevertheless, Heidegger demonstrates through the text that if we “think-after the inceptual word,” there is a way to experience those words in their ‘inceptual sense’, although from a distance (85). Thinking-after the inceptual senses of ζωή and φύσις makes it possible even for the modern human to experience both of the words, in their respective ways, as the emerging-forth by which every being—e.g., gods, wars, algorithms—comes to presence, and not as a group of beings in distinction to others. Henceforth, the relationship between the two terms acquires a new character on the face of which hasty classifications of conventional thinking, together with the mindless application of the concept of metaphor, fall short. Of course, with this commentary, only a little insight into what is achieved by Heidegger’s phenomenological odyssey through the word of the inceptual thinker can be hinted at. It is essential to think-after Heidegger’s thinking-after, so that what it means to experience a word above all becomes clear.

If the proper manner of approach to the fragments can depend neither on historiography nor on the unrestricted will of the beholder, and furthermore if we cannot either accept that the thinker says one thing and means another by way of metaphors, then conventional thinking resorts to the suspicion that “an empty sorcery with words is being practiced here” (59). On that matter, Heidegger seems to be very well aware of the danger of falling into empty chatter, so he differentiates between “an empty play on words” and “the concealed play of the word” (138). How is this concealedness to be understood? Does the thinker’s word enclose a meaning in the same way a seed contains genetic information? These questions bring us to the fourth difference, which is also one of the central issues of the book, and which can be read as an encounter with “dialectical thinking.” Dialectics is defined as “the thinking of opposites together in a higher unity,” and is said to begin with Plato (34). Since being itself is determined as ἰδέα (appearance/look) by Plato, ‘truth’ gained its metaphysical characterization as the actuation of appearing (φαίνεσθαι) in assertion (κατηγορία) in accordance with the thing. In other words, the true in the metaphysical sense consists in re-presenting that which presents itself manifestly (cf. 40, 255, 385). Taken in its dialectical history from Plato to Hegel, the re-presentation of what there is in its totality, i.e., of beings as a whole, moves from a murky self-externalization of Spirit into its deciphered union with itself from out of its will to appearance. Accordingly, understanding Heraclitus would consist in resolving the lack of clarity by comprehending his word with respect to this manifest history. This point of view, however complete its mastery over concepts is, comes to a “stand-still” when it is confronted with what Heidegger calls the “irreconcilable” (117), which consists in the idea that Heraclitus’s thought is “not incomprehensible because it is too complicated, but rather because it is too simple” (149). ‘Simple obscurity’, which not only describes Heraclitus’s fragments but also is itself a cardinal part of the original experience of many ancient Greek words, is irreconcilable with dialectics, because absolute cognition can cognize ‘obscurity’ in its unity with ‘clarity’ only after the two are essentially separated. In other words, dialectics is not capable of attributing obscurity to the “essence of things” rather than to the “eyes of the human” (140). Therefore, “the concealed play of the word” is not in the sense that the word envelops a meaning to be unlocked, but instead it refers to the simple obscurity of the word concealed by the tradition of dialectics in general.

The fifth and last differentiation may be thought of as a continuation of the previous point. As the thinker’s word resists being viewed in terms of the metaphysical ideal of manifest explicitness, it becomes relevant to ask whether Heidegger’s way is akin to a kind of mysticism. However, that is not true either. It is clearly maintained that the truth in inceptual saying is “decisively divorced . . . from the hollow dizziness of a mystical profundity” (176). For Heidegger, it seems, the ‘mystical’ is associated with the experiential reckoning of a futile darkness that can never be brought into word. Summing up,

[t]he true in the inceptual sense of the unconcealed does not have the nature of mere clarity of explication and explicability. To the same degree, the true is not the unclear in the sense of an inexplicable and ciphered profundity. The true is neither the one-dimensionality of mere arithmetic nor the ‘profound’ dimensions hidden behind a theatre’s curtain. (180)

Right after these renunciations, Heidegger gives his own account with a very compendious expression whose succinctness I will not adulterate by attempting to unravel: “The true is the unsaid that remains the unsaid only in what is strictly and properly said” (Ibid.).

The above five points outline Heidegger’s manner of approach in a negative way, that is, by pointing at the inapparent, whereas indeed the progression of the lectures is principally driven by a positive exploration into the thinker’s sayings. In particular, it is the “foundational words” (Grundwortes) which are thought-after, the words that define the domain of inceptual thinking. What is named by each of those words (‘emerging,’ ‘submerging,’ ‘life,’ ‘fire,’ etc.) is also that which is named by “the foundational word of all thinking—namely, the word ‘being’” (90-1). It must be noted, though, that in none of the elucidated fragments does Heraclitus explicitly ask “τί τὸ ὄν” – “what is being?”  This shows, before everything, that Heidegger’s persistent prioritization of the question of being is not about making the name ‘being’ explicit in inquiry, even less about research into linguistic copula. More importantly, this also shows that those words name the be-ing of beings in the ways that the words themselves open. As such, they cannot be thought of in terms of anything that comes before them, and it is in this way that they are inceptual.

What is more, this inception itself is brought into word by Heraclitus as πῦρ, which is delineated as the enflaming fire whose light makes possible all appearing, and also as the origin-creating, sudden strike of lightning which separates the light and the dark in the first place by flashing into the unlit (cf. 161-2). Such a lightning must have separated the Occident from its other and placed forth the two toward one another at the moment of inception in the original saying. It is here crucial to note that whatever comes thereafter, i.e., history, is not seen as a dialogue between two poles, but rather as an enduring conversation with the inception, ensuring that the decision regarding the inception remains both in having-been and in future. The proper characterization of the human’s standing within all these relations depends on how the human itself stands out among beings, which in turn depends on the inceptual sense of another foundational word, λόγος. The central achievement of the second part of the book comprises the elucidation of this term and its history from logos to ratio, reason, and finally, to will to power.

Like other foundational words, logos has undergone severe transformations throughout the history of Occidental thinking. In pre-Platonic thought, logos had not yet acquired its status as an object of inquiry. To be sure, this is not a lack whatsoever on logos’s part, for it was rather seen as the proper ground and region of every inquiry. Even then, logos meant ‘speaking’ and ‘saying’ along with ‘gathering’ and ‘harvesting.’ The most decisive determination of the term occurred with the beginning of metaphysics, where λόγος, φύσις, and ἦθος were taken as the three directions of inquiry into beings as a whole. Accordingly, logic, physics, and ethics, which correspond to those directions respectively, became the disciplines comprising philosophy. At that moment, philosophy was given its distinctive position in relation to other forms of knowledge—that of astronomy, mathematics, etc. To be more specific, by establishing itself as the highest science, philosophy has rendered itself a science among others, a science whose program of research is designated by the tripartite departmentalization of knowledge. In fact, an image of this three-fold division is visible even in today’s commonly accepted classification of scientific branches as formal, natural, and social sciences. Returning to logic, it defines logos as ‘assertion’ or ‘judgment’, and is by the same token defined as the doctrine of valid inference, which results in what Heidegger calls the “dominance of discipline over the matter” (233) in the sense that the original richness of the inceptual word is first trimmed for the sake of researchability, and then the resulting research is given the authority over the meaning of the word in its entirety. In this way, “what is more originary than every kind of science,” i.e., logos, is gauged by “what has first arisen from out of this origin” (227), i.e., logic.

The history of logos after this decisive turning point gets more intricate with the development of Koine Greek, the emergence of Hellenistic Judaism, and the ecclesiastical determination of the term as ‘the Word’ (Verbum), the second personage of the Christian deity. The resulting worldview, which was further modified by the Arabic influence, culminates in its conclusive form with the advent of modern metaphysics from Descartes to Nietzsche. Heidegger claims that in none of these transformations was Occidental thought able to return to its essential ground within the original unity of ἐπιστήμη. On the contrary, it continuously rigidified the metaphysical conception by generalizing its methodological apparatus according to an ideal of universality in order to gain technical mastery over its subject matter (cf. 74, 192, 209, 228, 331). In consideration of all these, it is ultimately critical to avoid accounting this history solely in terms of its intellectual component, as if the determination of logos was merely an issue that we happen to see in the books of logicians. What is at stake here is by no means confined to how ‘logos’ as a technical term is defined. Rather, the conversation over logos is the one between the historical human and its history, however inconspicuously it takes place. In this conversation, ‘subjectivity’ is the final response of Christian theology to the question of the essence of the human, which paves the way for the modern restatement of this response as ratio and reason. When Heidegger implies—in 1944 in Freiburg—that it is the inability of Christian church to justify these responses which caused the two world wars (209), his discursive play reminds one of the dice game at the temple. It seems that both thinkers have a tendency to do “inappropriate things” (11) when it comes to temples and churches.

In the end, what can be said about the pre-Platonic logos, and how do these lectures respond to its call? To begin with, according to fragment 50, one cannot attain “rigorous knowledge” (σοφόν) by merely attending to the word of Heraclitus; rather, it is necessary that we turn toward that which already addresses us (259-60). ‘That which already addresses us’ is called the Logos, and the human essence is characterized by having a logos responding to the Logos. Logos, as a foundational word, can be approached in as many ways as being itself. But the most straightforward way to think of it would be through its sense of ‘gathering’. Accordingly, it is the gathering of beings, which shelters every doing and every saying along with every seeing and every listening. On the one hand, metaphysics interprets this gathering as the most universal of all beings, thereby at the same time retaining the godly as the “universal world-ground” (cf. 13). The persistence of this interpretation harbors the danger of interpreting these lectures themselves from the Christian or anti-Christian perspective. The common denominator of all such perspectives is to ab-cise the godly from the earthly abode of this very thinking, and by the same stroke, to separate the discipline from the matter. On the other hand, in this very thinking, we are thinking after Heidegger, who says after Heraclitus’s sayings: Do not merely listen to these words, but rather attend to the originary Logos (325). In the thinkers’ pointing out our relation to the Logos, there appears to be a resistance against the “dominance of discipline over the matter,” which compels us to ponder our decision between turning toward the script (i.e., merely toward the words) and turning toward the Logos itself.

In the former case, the script is considered strictly with regard to what is said in it. So, for instance, Heidegger’s warning against conceiving the Logos—“the One that unifies all beings” (292)—in terms of “any notions of Spirit, personhood, godhood, or providence” (396) might get particularly important, because in this way the Logos is posited as yet another such concept in distinction to the others, making possible an entire area of research on the conceptual-structural relationships between the ‘One’ of Heraclitus and those warned-against concepts. It may even be possible as a result to upgrade those concepts and have an even superior providence. Consequently, we might have multiple truths instead of the sole truth of the all-uniting One. However undeniable the significance of these possible attainments is, the danger persists as long as the human’s standing among those truths is left unexamined. Be that as it may, in the latter case, that is, when one turns toward the Logos itself, the issue is precisely the human’s standing among those truths. Because, as the gathering, the Logos is that which “for-gathers” (cf. 364) all scripts and scriptures so that they greet the human with their claim, and it is also that which must have already addressed the human—the ‘you’—before any of those multiple truths and before any commandment. “The Λόγος is not the word: it is, as the foreword to any language, more originary than the word” (383). In view of this, if one really has to employ the idea of commandment, one should not expect anything further than the command ‘be’, as there is no doubt on Heidegger’s part that it is the address of being which precedes all (323).

Being, however, is not ‘something’ that lies hidden in some supersensory place and in the heights of some vast soaring speculation. As the little word ‘is’ makes clear to us each time it appears, being ‘is’ the nearest of the near. Yet, because the human being troubles himself first and foremost only with what comes next, he constantly avoids the nearest, particularly since he appears to know very little about the near and its essence. (103-4)

All in all, one will find in this book a rigorous restatement of the question of being on the basis of Heraclitus’s doctrine of the Logos, and Heidegger’s response to many possible ‘post-Heideggerian’ approaches at ontotheology. To me, what is most valuable in the book lies in the fact that it somehow teaches, or at least attempts to teach, what one could expect from a lecture course on logic to teach—how to think. The discipline of logic, while setting out rules and methods of making correct use of reason, can hardly say a word on how to think. Here, on the other hand, how to approach a thinker’s word is demonstrated with authentic care toward what is cared by the thinker. Only by way of such care can we learn from the thinker, and only through authentic turning-towards can we remain in thinking.


[1] The parenthetical translations are provided only as labels and should not be assumed to convey the meaning of the Greek words.

[2] All page references are to GA 55. Pagination of the German text is used.

[3] Lin Ma’s Heidegger on East-West Dialogue: Anticipating the Event (Routledge, 2009) remains to be a scholarly gem in the field.

Ian Alexander Moore: Eckhart, Heidegger, and the Imperative of Releasement, SUNY Press, 2019

Eckhart, Heidegger, and the Imperative of Releasement Book Cover Eckhart, Heidegger, and the Imperative of Releasement
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Ian Alexander Moore
SUNY Press
2019
Hardback $95.00
352