Susi Ferrarello, Christos Hadjioannou (Eds.): The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Mindfulness, Routledge, 2024

The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Mindfulness Book Cover The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Mindfulness
Susi Ferrarello, Christos Hadjioannou (Eds.)

A. Dufourcq, K. Novotný (Dir.): Surpuissance et finitude. Renaud Barbaras aux limites de la phénoménologie, Vrin, 2023

Surpuissance et finitude. Renaud Barbaras aux limites de la phénoménologie Book Cover Surpuissance et finitude. Renaud Barbaras aux limites de la phénoménologie
A. Dufourcq, K. Novotný
Paperback : 23,00 €

Hannah Lyn Venable: Madness in Experience and History

Madness in Experience and History: Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology and Foucault’s Archaeology Book Cover Madness in Experience and History: Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology and Foucault’s Archaeology
Hannah Lyn Venable
Paperback GBP £34.99
258 Pages 4 B/W Illustrations

Reviewed by:  Giorgi Vachnadze (University of Louvain)

It would be fitting, perhaps to start speaking of Madness in Experience and History by refusing to begin at the beginning and stepping right into the centre oscillating towards the periphery through a long and patient outwards spiral. The battleground of reason and unreason, the site of power and resistance; a space where the inside of the embodied subject meets the outside of institutional constraints; the structures offered up by history to consciousness – is the concept of the Flesh. Flesh, for Foucault, unifies the discursive practices of society and the techniques of the self, bringing together the practices which act on the self with those which are acted by the self” (Venable, 2021). The notion of the flesh is the space of reconciliation, the fundamental schematism that could harmonize the embodied ontology of Merleau-Ponty and the historical ontology of Michel Foucault. Seeking the unified approach, Hannah Lyn Venable offers the reader a comparative analysis between the two prominent representatives of 20th century French thought and a complementary, integrated methodology for interrogating modern psychiatric discourse.

For Merleau-Ponty, Flesh is the body in motion, the human subject embedded in the world through her interactive capacities; the “I can” as opposed to the Cartesian “I think” is what sustains the order of things through the human perspective. Underneath the apparent stability of our empirical observations, the propositions of science and mathematics – facts, objects and states of affairs – the domain of the non-rational both sustains and threatens to undermine our sense of self and others; our relationship to the world. Flesh is where the subject and object come together. The primordial experience of the world is neither thought, speech nor observation, but action. In truth, it is not therefore “the subject” that sustains the world; it is the body. Flesh is already meaningful. This is the meaning of perception.

For Foucault, on the other hand, Flesh is the contested object, it is the apparatus that sustains one’s way of life. The body as an object to be governed, managed and disciplined can offer resistance to the series of objectifications imposed on it through power, which operates vicariously through the institutions of modern science and psychology. The “enfleshed” subject can constitute herself through alternative techniques of the self as a way to refuse the technologies of the self that attempt to render her docile. Flesh is the political battleground sustained by history.

Phenomenological analysis and archaeological historization come together in order to shed light on the history and experience of madness: The non-rational – divided into the pre-rational of Merleau-Ponty and the irrational of Michel Foucault – is juxtaposed against the rational as it is given to us in perceptual (i.e., corporeal) experience and throughout history. An archaeology and phenomenology of madness, according Venable, can shed a new and interesting light on our contemporary understanding of “mental illness” (a recent invention). With this aim in mind, Venable takes us on an uneasy yet beautiful and hopeful journey beyond the rational-nonrational divide into tragedy, the sense of loss and the wisdom of madness.

Madness in Experience and History, quite unlike the object of its investigation, exhibits a beautiful, structured architectonic. The book is neatly laid out and easy to navigate. This makes its otherwise difficult subject matter incredibly accessible to the reader. The book is organized into five parts and eight chapters. The first part offers a helpful diagram of the larger textual cartography laying out the outline, a series of definitions and key terms, the general aims of the text and the underlying methodology of the work. The second part of the book analyzes Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological approach to madness and the pre-rational as a stand-alone intervention in contrast to the third part, which similarly engages with the Foucauldian archaeology of madness and the irrational. The fourth part is where the process of theoretical integration begins. It starts out by tracing the real historical encounters between Merleau-Ponty and Foucault and their mutual influence (mostly the influence of Ponty’s lectures on Foucault), through a biographical study of their lives and the development of their thought. The section further advances into a detailed analysis of the seemingly divergent, irreconcilable differences between some of the important concepts employed by the philosophers. Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological subject is posed against Foucault’s bracketed subject and the perceptually situated subject is contrasted with the historically situated subject. The section concludes through the summary of their differences, bearing in view their potential complementarity and the possibility of reconciliation.

Chapter seven begins the strategic synthesis. Venable starts out by reviewing the existing, yet incredibly scarce, literature that attempts to bridge a sustainable dialogue between Merleau-Ponty and Foucault. According to Venable (2021), “…there are only two scholars, Nick Crossley (British sociologist) and Judith Revel (French philosopher) who have produced full books which attempt a complementary approach to the philosophies of Merleau-Ponty and Foucault…”. With the added difficulty, that Crossley remains nonetheless the only scholar (aside from Venable) to have written a book-length study of the matter in English. Venable continues to reconcile the differences concerning the respective theories of the (implied) subject, the alleged conflict between perception and history, the respective influences each writer had on psychology (mostly Merleau-Ponty) and Medical Sociology together with Disability Studies (Foucault), concluding the section through a summary discussion of the potential contributions that the integrated approach could offer to contemporary approaches in psychology.

The final section, part five of the book, extrapolates on the benefits of the aforementioned contributions through three particular case studies of Schizophrenia, Major Depressive Disorder and Bipolar I Disorder to develop an extensive critique of the bio-medical and reductive models of mental illness. The latter, often unbeknownst to medical practitioners, tend to draw on outdated techniques of governmentality to repress, isolate and subdue the underlying non-rational of mental illness (i.e., madness), through one-sided pharmaceutical interventions. Instead, a phenomeno-archaeological strategy could help identify the social and existential causes of mental suffering and provide an alternative method to the diagnostic model, which tends to compartmentalize the problem and add unnecessary stigma to the patient.

Venable advocates for a return to the seemingly outdated notion of “madness” to expose the deficiencies of the medicalized term “mental illness”. “… “madness” contains certain colloquial meanings which remind us of the broadness and ambiguity of human experience, unlike other more technical terms such as “mental disorder,” “mental illness” or “psychopathology.” (Venable, 2021). Both Foucault and Merleau-Ponty use the term “madness” in their discussions on psychopathology. Venable further introduces the term non-rational. The non-rational is divided into two subsets: the pre-rational and the irrational. The two different modalities of the non-rational aim to capture the distinct ways that our experience of madness tends elude strict systems of classification and sharp conceptual boundaries.

The pre-rational can be understood as the condition of possibility for the rational. It refers to the multiplicity of embodied processes, activities and ways of going-about-in-the-world that have to take place, before the clear and distinct ideas, facts and observations can be given to consciousness. The pre-rational can refer to the simplest non-reflective experience of our day to day lives. Playing sports, driving a car, dancing etc. Anything that involves putting conscious reflection out of play can be safely placed in the domain of the pre-rational. All instrumental and technical know-how belongs to this category as well. To the contrary, the irrational represents everything that stands in the way of reason. The irrational is opposed to reason, it creates ambiguity, problems, misunderstandings, errors in judgment as well as more intense experiences of anxiety, sense of loss, existential dread and melancholia. The irrational, unlike the pre-rational, tends to subvert reason in one way or another. The irrational could also manifest in transgressive behavior and the violation of social norms, bearing a complex relationship to crime and deviance. Finally, the non-rational cannot be understood without reference to the rational. In reconciling the differences between Foucault and Merlau-Ponty, Venable, in her holistic approach to mental illness, seeks to eliminate the sharp boundary separating the rational from the non-rational.

As we mentioned previously, the concept of the pre-rational is attributed to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of madness. In order to develop this idea, Venable draws parallels with Aristotle. According to Aristotle, every single thing bears a form (eidos) which pertains to the essence of the thing. “For Aristotle, the form is what brings the elements together to make it a whole, such as bringing two letters into one sound of a syllable or the forces of nature into one flesh of a living creature” (Venable, 2021). The mentioning of the word “flesh” in the sentence is of course no mere coincidence and as we spiral outwards from that central term, we are soon going to see how it forms a conceptual network with the notions of experience, history, madness, reason, the non-rational and the idea of restlessness employed by St. Augustine. The ancient idea of the whole being more than the sum of its parts plays a crucial role in Venables’s account of the essence of human experience – madness. “…madness arises out of this shared way of experiencing the world instead of being something separate from it…,” explains Venable (2021). The Phenomenology of the pre-rational aims precisely at this; to uncover our common experience of an embodied “being-in-the-world” (Heidegger, 2010) and the integral role of the non-rational in constituting that experience.

The unity of human experience is decisive for Venable and Merleau-Ponty in understanding the importance of the pre-rational and vice versa. An anti-Cartesian sentiment of rejecting mind-body dualism as well as the anti-Kantian sentiment of rejecting the subject-object division, both very important endeavors in the work of Foucault and Merleau-Ponty, are found throughout Venable’s Madness in Experience and History. According to Merleau-Ponty, consciousness is indivisible and “indecomposable” (Indécomposable). Venable successfully monopolizes on the French variation of the term to reveal the richness of the meaning underneath. She explains that the term refers to “something that cannot be divided into parts, broken down, taken apart or separated; it refers to the French concepts of inseparability (inséparable) and nonfragmentation (non fragmentable)” (Venable, 2021). The indivisibility of the human consciousness and the pre-rational manifest themselves in the body as they pertain to the fluidity of the total (reflective and non-reflective) experience, an immersed embeddedness in the world.

In this way, the pre-rational or the pre-logical, vis-à-vis the reflective and the logical, bears the same dialectic relationship to reason, which the non-rational bears to the rational; they are the same. One of the key take-aways in the discussion of the pre-rational as well as the irrational, is to reveal the complexity of the relationship between the rational/nonrational distinction on the one hand and the normal/abnormal distinction on the other. A very important insight offered by Venable, is that we cannot simply group the rational with the normal and the non-rational with the abnormal, as was often done. And we will see further through our journey, it is neither the pre-rational nor even the irrational that cause human suffering, it is in fact the aforementioned relationship; the connecting line between the rational and the non-rational for each individual, or even entire communities. Psychological suffering, according to Venable, is the result of a deformation of that relation, their “falling out of tune” with each other. This discrepancy manifests in the body, within the flesh of our performed selves.

It is true, that perceiving and the awareness of perception can be separated, some perceptions are clearly more “cerebral” or “cognitive”, while others are enacted “unreflectively” and “without conscious awareness”, but the distinction is arbitrary, or methodological, to be more precise. It is a technique of speaking about human experience, much less than a representational model. The division admits of degrees. In other words, we have a scaled understanding of those distinctions, which Descartes and Kant wanted to separate categorically. In this sense, when Venable (2021) and Merleau-Ponty address “the primordial” relation humans have with the world, they are not advocating for a clear division between the pre-logical and the reflective; Venable’s goal specifically is to build on Foucault’s project of an “expanded reason” in order to take into account both the irreducible mystery of the irrational as well as the spontaneous activity of the pre-rational.

The empirical world of a trained and socialized subject and the discourse of science (which today more than ever, plays an important political function in how we constitute ourselves as subjects) is a derived language, it is posterior to the primordial experience of the world. Where the first can be conceptualized as a series of spatial relationships between objects, the latter operates as a field of interactive capacities and actualities. “…the point”, writes Venable (2021), “is that through reflection on the primordial field, we can see the human in the fullest sense, beyond the subject and object divide, and this demonstrates how the human relies on an area of a field, known as the unreflected.” The affective perceptual field is therefore primary and anterior to what we would normally call a world. It is a field of affects. This primordial world can be accessed through various techniques, including of course, phenomenological philosophy, but also the arts, sport activities and limit-experiences.

The center of the primordial field of habitual behavior is the body. The body, once again, is not an empirical object for study, the body objectified through i.e., the disciplines of biology, anatomy, neuroscience etc. The latter is a derived body that bears close to no resemblance to the affective body. This is not a body made up of atoms, genes, cells and molecules. Merleau-Ponty’s body is that which administers affects and re-arranges habits. It is not the metabolic body, rather it is a body of actions, a multiplicity comprised of a dynamic series of affecting-and-being-affected. Without the dynamic body, the empirical body cannot come to being. “The body, as the first, most basic habit, is the platform of nonrational behavior upon which other habits can be built. The process of growing habits is continuous because habits are always in a state of renewal” (Venable, 2021). According to the description, the body bears a direct resemblance to the previous Aristotelian characterization of form. Hence, the body is not a thing among things, but rather the general form of human behavior.

In contrast to Foucault’s “implied” understanding of the body, which does not possess an inside, Merleau-Ponty’s account portrays the body as a center of activity; the pre-rational nucleus of human experience wherefrom habits, actions, capacities and in short: perceptions emerge. Unlike the body of passivity described by Foucault, which always is and can only be inscribed from the outside, even by the subject herself in her negotiations with power, the active body of Merleau-Ponty is a creative actor of the flesh, structuring and re-structuring its own habitual patterns. Venable’s central argument is that the two bodies are perfectly reconcilable, more so, each can account and compensate for the deficiencies in the other.

Entering the Foucauldian realm of the archaeology of madness and the irrational, the opening lines of the third section of the book introduce St. Augustine’s writings on human restlessness. “Augustine’s portrayal of the restlessness of humanity sets an excellent framework for considering Foucault’s account of unreason: both see unspoken pain at the heart of the human experience and both call us to acknowledge the depth of the pain rather than ignore it” (Venable, 2021). Needless to say, unlike Augustine, Foucault does not identify the source of human restlessness in either sin or eternal damnation, nor still would Foucault find the solution to human suffering in seeking refuge with God. Instead, Foucault calls for a historical analysis of unreason to uncover the various forms taken by men’s and women’s anxious relationship to themselves and analyze the different constructions of madness employed by the ages in their attempts to manage and domesticate the irrational.

Venable (2021) argues for an essential unity, which brings together the multiple manifestations of the irrational throughout European history labelling it the “overarching non-rational”. Foucault’s unreason or “(déraison)”, writes Venable, can be understood as something that is opposed or contrary to reason. The Foucauldian unreason is specifically opposed to the Christian and Latin (late Roman) conception of reason: ratio. The latter should not be conflated with the Greek logos. Unlike the former, the latter is not pitted against déraison, such valorization of reason as separate and superior to unreason, Venable states, would bear a closer relationship to Greek hubris i.e., arrogance. Instead, the logos, unlike ratio, offers an expanded understanding of reason having no trouble entering into a dialectical relationship with unreason.

Venable continues to trace the multiple forms of madness describing the ways in which societies chose to govern the mad by following Foucault’s work; the History of Madness, throughout three distinct epistemic formations: The Renaissance, the Classical Age and Modernity. At this point Venable begins to combine Foucauldian and Pontyesque terminology to speak of the “perception of the rational” and the “perception of the irrational” as different manifestations of the same rational/non-rational divide which (unlike Foucault), Venable tends to take as the universal constant in the history of reason and madness. And once again, unlike Foucault’s work, Venable’s seemingly innocent attunement of phenomenology to archaeology begins to sound increasingly Hegelian[1].

Aside from the three distinct historical epochs, Venable introduces what Foucault terms the four consciousness of madness: the critical, the practical, the enunciatory and the analytical. As we will see, none of these techniques of managing the irrational can be found as stand-alone and entirely separate from the other three. However, with the introduction of each epistemic break separating one discursive formation from the other, we find some of these techniques becoming predominant, while others recede to the background.

Beginning with the 16th century: The play of light and dark is the main motif behind the Renaissance understanding of the rational and the non-rational. The Renaissance was the most tolerant of the three ages. During this period, madness, despite its terrifying manifestations, was seen as something necessary. As an essential counterweight to the light of reason, unreason was perceived as the frightful, tragic path one had to take to achieve light and clarity. Finding multiple expressions in the works of notorious Renaissance artists such as Hieronymus Bosch, Matthias Grünewald and Pieter Brueghel, the age of Renaissance would embody a metaphysics of the tragic, which takes contradiction seriously, but not as a problem to resolve or a sickness to be cured, but rather an irreducible mystery; a cosmic antagonism that needs to be confronted by coming to terms with it. “To try and tear away the illusory and the chimerical would also be to tear away the real and the true. The illusory aspect of the irrational is woven together with the reality of the rational” (Venable, 2021).

The Ship of Fools would come to express the social pragmatics of madness in the age of the Renaissance. The mad were “entrusted” to sailors as useless cargo occupying the decks of traveling merchants and fisherman. As the general undesirables, banished from the cities, they were trapped within the wet liminal spaces of turbulent waters, roaming endlessly from harbor to harbor. Water became the master-signifier for madness. The Renaissance would embody the critical consciousness of unreason, where the opposition between reason and unreason would not preclude and even further; would necessitate the dialectical relationship between them.

The human monster was the caricature for the Renaissance conception of madness. The monster, despite being an aberration, an exception to the taxonomic system, a deviation from a classifiable species-being[2], served as a reflection of the very human struggle against tragedy, unnaturalness, illusion and the decentered relationship between the subject and the world. “The mad person on the boat and the peasant in the town share the same world: the presence of the wandering boat reminds the peasants on shore of the difficulty in seeking after truth and the reality of the tragic all around them” (Venable, 2021). Both the madman and the man of reason would share a common experience of the unnatural and the monstrous as an essential possibility for mankind.

The Classical age, like the Renaissance, recognized the darkness of the irrational, but unlike the latter, it broke off the dialogue between reason and unreason and modified the critical attitude by exorcising the dialectical relationship. The Classical age, marked by The Great Confinement, is the defining historical period, which according to Foucault, has played the most important role in constituting the modern (our) attitude towards what eventually became known as mental illness. With this in mind, Venable brings our attention to the purpose of Foucault’s project by reminding us of the full title of what is arguably Foucault’s magnum opus:[3] Madness and Unreason: History of Madness in the Classical Age.

The classical irrational, in stark contrast to the Renaissance, far from a natural predisposition of man, was now identified with moral failure. The Classical age therefore activates a new attitude towards madness, which sees the non-rational as a serious problem that requires correction. Unreason was now perceived as the regression of man to a primordial level of development. The madman was labeled as primitive and beastly. The animality of madness was used as a pretext to create distance between reason and unreason, to isolate, confine and place madness out of sight. The radical expulsion of madness was followed by an excess of reason. Every immoral, irrational act was reduced to a series of causes, effects and reasons to the point where madness itself became overdetermined by reason without thereby being assimilated to it. An extreme repression of madness by reason led to an ontological metamorphosis of unreason, where the irrational transformed into a persistent presence of nothingness. “…these three qualities show the steps that the irrational takes toward nothingness: first, the irrational is opposed to the rational, and then it is driven into the void between madness and the rational; here, madness becomes the place-marker for the irrational and is judged by the rational according to some unknown forces. The rational, in the end, appears to dominate, but its foundation remains insecure” (Venable, 2021). This tripartite transfiguration of unreason into nothingness offered by Venable shows how the Classical age, in its desperate attempt to annihilate madness, flies in the face of a paradox and ends up subverting its own foundations of reason. Another, somewhat extensive but very insightful quote will illustrate this point more clearly: “At its root, the content of madness signifies an absence, a nothing, because experiences of madness can be explained only by something positive in the categories of the rational. Paradoxically, this positive display of something real in madness is actually a display of nothingness. This means that the experience of the irrational, which is summed up in the experience of madness, must mask itself as its opposite to be understood” (Venable, 2021).

The Classical age is representative of the critical and the practical consciousness of madness. The separation between reason and unreason is no longer accompanied by a dialectical understanding of their reciprocity. Instead, the practical consciousness is used to divide and conquer madness entirely, until nothing remains but the pure visibility of a totalizing and undisputed rationality. The enunciatory and the analytic consciousness of madness are also present in the classical age. Where the first serves to label anyone and everyone, especially those considered idle and “purposeless,” as insane leading to their immediate or eventual confinement, the latter was used give support and lend weight to the initial superficial “diagnosis” by drawing on “objective scientific claims” about “the nature of madness.” Very different from the Renaissance, where the mad were “let loose” to roam the seas and sometimes the streets, the Classical age sought to confine, cure and correct the incorrigible individual.

Where the rationality of the Classical age can be described as the privileging of order, morality and positive truth, the Modern age would deal with madness through the notions of objectivity (carried over from the Classical age), science and the norm. But most importantly, the Modern age has set itself up as the first discursive formation that attempts to ignore the non-rational altogether. In this way, the irrational becomes alienated, exiled and silenced (Venable, 2021). The analytic consciousness of madness dominates our age. The break in the dialogue with madness is no longer deployed as an active turning toward and excommunication of madness, but rather its alienation and thereby its own self-alienation, the latter being pragmatically implied in the former. Madness is no longer forced into nothingness; it has gone mute.

The Modern age, building on the exclusionary practices of the Classical age becomes the age of humane treatments, cures and rehabilitation programs. “…the modern approach builds on the reality of the already confined mad and takes this preexisting condition as an opportunity for new medical studies and experiments” (Venable, 2021). The transition from the Classical to the Modern age results in the transformation of the incorrigible individual (the human monster of the 16th century Renaissance) into the sexual pervert. The abnormal individual is now portrayed as a threat to the nuclear family, which in turn serves as the foundation for civil society. No longer held morally accountable for his deviance, the pathologized person is pronounced sick; in need of help and treatment.

It goes without saying that the irrational isn’t going anywhere just because we decided to ignore and medicalize it. But it has become easier to fail to acknowledge it for what it is due to the incessant covering-over of madness by modern discourse. “Anxiety”, “Panic Attack”, “Depression,” “Perversion”; the labels used to channel the violent flows of the non-rational act as chimeras that foster substitute experiences in place of the confrontation with the tragic. “Like a teenager rebelling against the strict rules of his or her parents, the irrational revolts against the modern reduction of madness to mental illness; the more it is oppressed and pushed aside, the louder it bursts onto the scene” (Venable, 2021). Perhaps the work on the self in our age, implies a new confrontation with unreason beyond prescription pills and therapeutic interventions and maybe the courage for truth implies a courage for madness. What is the price that needs to be paid to refuse the biomedical model? Alternatively, what is the price paid for acceding to it? Or is this a false dilemma?

An expanded understanding of reason drives Venable’s work on Merleau-Ponty and Foucault. And according to Venable, it is also what motivates both Foucault and Merleau-Ponty to engage with the history and phenomenology of madness. Whether this is indeed the case, especially for Foucault, is a question that needs to be further addressed. Venable seeks to bypass several difficulties in her aim to reconcile Merleau-Ponty and Foucault, especially given Foucault’s explicit rejection of phenomenology, his refusal to formulate any clear theory of the subject, the methodological approach of archaeology and finally, his skeptical attitude towards psychology.

Among phenomenological philosophers Foucault is known as the author of the bracketed subject, while to the comparatively larger circle of scholars he is also known as the author of the implied subject. The bracketed subject can be viewed as a strategic anti-phenomenological deployment. The Husserlian notion of “bracketing” refers to the mental act of suspending or putting the natural attitude out of play. Its purpose is to prepare the philosopher for performing phenomenological analysis. The phenomenological reduction or the epoche is central to the phenomenological method. The act of bracketing is performed by the transcendental subject and the subject is thereby the founding element for the method. By bracketing the subject, Foucault thereby annihilates phenomenology itself, claiming that the subject, far from an undeniable given, as is the case with Descartes, is in fact a complex product of power-relations. The unity of the subject is one of the contested grounds between phenomenologists and Foucauldians. Granted, Merleau-Ponty’s theory of the subject is significantly different from the Husserlian subject due to the emphasis on the role of the body, Venable’s take on the matter is that the Pontyesque body nonetheless exhibits an indivisible (non decomposable), albeit experiential, unity. This unity, either implicitly or explicitly, I argue, is not found with Foucault.

The subject in Merleau-Ponty is the starting point and the ultimate foundation of reality. Ponty takes care to show that the essence of the phenomenon is not simply observation, but an embodied and interactive relationship with the world. As we mentioned before, perception is action, or the capacity to act within a milieu – the ‘I can’. “Everything must begin with my own perspective as a subject for I cannot ever entirely escape myself,” writes Venable (2021). This is clearly not the case for Foucault. Foucault privileges discourse over the subject, claiming that the subject is in fact a product of multiple discourses. One produces oneself through discourse, an on-going narrative of the self about the self; the self is constantly sustained through institutional mediation. In this sense, contra Venable, it seems that the Foucauldian account of experience is one of fragmentation, rather than unity. The subject is dispersed via discourse and all unity is merely an a/effect.

Venable is not the only phenomenologist who levels the accusation against Foucault for him having neglected the role of the body. It is thought that Foucault has somehow “forgotten” or otherwise ignored the body, the lived body as it is experienced from within, in order to address the “more urgent” matters concerning the body of power inscribed from the outside. Another accusation involves labeling Foucault a determinist due to his “one-sided” approach to the body. If the body is exclusively the product of inscriptions and power-effects, how does one negotiate for freedom? Both of these questions will be addressed shortly towards the end.

By speaking of the unity of experience or the unity of the body, Venable does not thereby concede to the existence of a determined or determining human nature; neither do Foucault and Merleau-Ponty. And yet, Venable (2021) argues, “that the body has a certain “universal arrangement” which operates according to common patterns and allows us to discover through perception and through exploration the order of the world.” Why does this universality have to pertain either to the lived body or the inscribed body remains unfortunately quite unclear and in need of further support. In her attempt to link phenomenology with archaeology, Venable seems to do little justice either to Merleau-Ponty, who in his later work abandons phenomenology altogether, or to Foucault, by discarding several of the central theses orchestrating his entire oeuvre[4].

Venable attempts to respond to these questions in chapter seven and begins the process of reconciliation between the Foucauldian and the Pontyesque views on subjectivity, the role of history and their relationship to psychology. Using a “complementary” approach, Venable offers the reader a strategic synthesis, whereby the dialogue is supposed to result in the mutual enhancement of the two philosophers and their methods. We must ask, once again, how much of the actual content of their work is sacrificed for the presumed effectiveness of the integrated approach? Venable makes a profound point, one rarely encountered in contemporary Foucauldian scholarship; Foucault was indeed interested in the question of experience. And it is without a doubt, that human experience is a problem that gripped Merleau-Ponty as well. But unfortunately, Venable takes a rather unsubstantiated leap, by attempting to link this mutual fascination with experience to a shared understanding of subjectivity. To reiterate, the Foucauldian conception of experience, to my mind, does not by any means imply unity. Quite the opposite. The experience of madness, maybe even by definition, is the experience of dispersed fragmentation. There is, I argue, no implied subject behind this idea of experience. It is fundamentally different from the actual experience of the phenomenological subject. The phenomenological and Pontyesque body may or may not necessarily support the idea of unity, but the Foucauldian conception of flesh at its most “fundamental” level is necessarily disjointed.

The final section of Madness in Experience and History offers novel approaches to mental illness by suggesting several routes for the application of the integrated method. After claiming to have reconciled the differences between phenomenology and archaeology, Venable attempts to introduce her method to contemporary problems in psychology. Starting with the case of Schizophrenia, a modern disorder broadly defined as discord between emotion, thought and behavior and the presence of hallucinatory symptoms, Venable first points out that the element of fantasy never achieves its full expression. The subject’s relationship with reality is never entirely broken down. Perception remains as an invariant structure between the “normal” and the “pathological” experiences of reality. “Both experiences, hallucinatory and perceptual, come from the same structure of human experience… … the primordial relation to the world” (Venable, 2021). The patient therefore, is not cut off from reality, but simply bears a different relationship to it. The pre-reflective non-rational is equally present in the perceptions of the normal as well as the abnormal individual, the difference is, as mentioned before, the relationship between the rational and the non-rational. It is almost as if there was a failure of executing a technique or exercising a capacity, rather than the absence of a faculty.

Melancholia, better known today as Major Depressive Disorder leads to the second diagnosis discussed in the book. Similar to cases of Schizophrenia, Venable via Merleau-Ponty, shows that the melancholic subject engages with the same structures of the common, rational order to “distort” and recreate a world of desperation and hopelessness. Once again, the connection is not severed, the patient “takes what she needs” in order to maintain an anesthetized morbid reality of her own. Paradoxically, the patient uses the world to push it away, maintaining a radical relationship of heterogeneity and exteriority with the social. The “abnormal” individual flees subjectivity. “Even when we feel trapped by grief and sorrow, our senses are still taking in the world around us, such as seeing a brightly colored object across the room” (Venable, 2021). By pointing out, once again, the shared structure of the embodied pre-rational, Venable’s approach helps us see what is left of our shared experience; the non-rational between us and those who suffer from mental distress. And this is more than enough to bridge the gap and overcome the stigma that often accompanies a diagnosis. Where Merleau-Ponty should help us see the common phenomenological experience that allows us to relate with those affiliated with mental illness, Foucault helps us see the bigger picture and the historical horizon that links all cultures and epochs in their attempts to deal with madness, unveiling the larger social determinants of psychological suffering. Both approaches either “reach beneath” or see beyond the compartmentalized logic of the bio-medical model.

Bipolar I Disorder characterized by violent mood swings and alterations between mania and depression is characterized by a movement from the general sense of being lost or “decentered” (Venable, 2021) vis-à-vis “normal” experience, to an intense state of concentration and lucidity. Venable identifies a pattern similar to the one found with the other two cases: “As we have consistently seen in other disorders, there is not a total loss of the rational in the distortion of space, for even during a manic episode a person can often still distinguish between objective space and the “me-centered” reality” (Venable, 2021). Once again, we should refuse to give in to our outdated modes of relating with the other by othering them further and reducing them to their diagnosis. The phenomenology of bipolar disorder repeatedly demonstrates that those who suffer under the label have more in common with those who don’t than may be noticed at first glance. Similarly, Foucault’s historical approach shows that the diagnosis of bipolar disorder leaves much to be desired in terms of rigor and accuracy, revealing, as before, the need for a more inclusive and broader understanding of its socio-historical origins.

Hannah Lyn Venable’s Madness in Experience and History: Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology and Foucault’s Archaeology is a beautifully written, clear and concise work of exemplary academic scholarship. It’s ambitious aims of reconciling two hostile schools of philosophy has not gone unnoticed and will remain relevant for years to come. The original integrated approach holds much promise in improving psychological care and providing a better understanding of the history and sociology of mental illness. But despite the lucidity, usefulness and relevance of the work, it does little justice to the archaeological method. Foucault’s work repeatedly emphasizes the importance of dispersions. The Foucauldian subject is a non-subject scattered throughout discourse and the only unity offered to the self is that which is artificially imposed or self-imposed through power. The flesh cannot exhibit unity, since the self is itself an event, a site of power and resistance where freedom is fought for. There is no inside, because the distinction between inside and outside is itself a structure maintained through discourse. Arguing for an implied theory of the unified subject tends to ignore the real theoretical breakthroughs achieved in Foucault’s work. The reduction of Foucault’s notion of experience to the unity of the phenomenological, albeit embodied, subject of actual experience is too high of a price to pay for the sake of a well-rounded theory of the self.


Crossley, N. (1994). The Politics of Subjectivity: Between Foucault and Merleau-Ponty. Avebury Series in Philosophy

Foucault, M., Murphy, J., & Khalfa, J. (2013). History of Madness. Routledge.

Foucault, M. (2013). Archaeology of Knowledge. Routledge.

Heidegger, M. (2010). Being and Time. Suny Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M., Landes, D., Carman, T., & Lefort, C. (2013). Phenomenology of Perception. Routledge.

Venable, H. L. (2021). Madness in Experience and History: Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology and Foucault’s Archaeology. Routledge.

[1] In fact, on page 146, Venable almost explicitly labels Foucault a Hegelian, which in my reading of Foucault, especially his interviews, is simply wrong.

[2] For present purposes a slightly modified, but strictly speaking an incorrect use of the Marxist-Hegelian term.

[3] Perhaps only second or even third in importance to the voluminous work on the history of sexuality and The Order of Things, which was first to bring wide critical acclaim and attention to Foucault.

[4] I.e., Foucault’s rejection of all universals, as well as his portrayal of the human subject, including the embodied subject, as a historico-political construct.

Nicola Ramazzotto (Ed.): L’estetica pragmatista in dialogo. Tradizioni, confronti, prospettive

L’estetica pragmatista in dialogo. Tradizioni, confronti, prospettive Book Cover L’estetica pragmatista in dialogo. Tradizioni, confronti, prospettive
philosophica (284)
Nicola Ramazzotto (Ed.)
Edizioni ETS
Paperback € 15,20

Reviewed by: Filomena Trotta

Il volume curato da Nicola Ramazzotto raccoglie alcune relazioni presentate per la prima volta alla conferenza internazionale Pragmatist Aesthetics in Dialogue presso l’Università di Pisa, con l’esplicito intento di dare un rinnovato slancio alla complessità dell’estetica pragmatista. Gli otto contributi che compongono tale dialogo danno vita a un intreccio teorico per nulla estraneo all’essenza stessa del pragmatismo, proponendo un percorso capace di indagare in senso retrospettivo, parallelo e prospettivo la continuità tra diversi metodi e stili filosofici.

Attraverso un’indagine di tipo sinechista, atta a lavorare sulle analogie nelle differenze piuttosto che su rigide contrapposizioni, il primo contributo della raccolta, scritto da Rosa Calcaterra, approfondisce la questione della continuità epistemica e ontologica nell’estetica di John Dewey in relazione al trascendentalismo di Kant e all’empirismo di William James, fino a considerare la proposta di Linguistic Turn di Richard Rorty. Fin da subito viene messo in evidenza come Dewey, nelle pagine del suo celebre testo Art as Experience, tenti di evincere le funzioni antropologiche e storiche dell’esperienza artistica, un criterio metodologico che ricorda molto il punto di vista pragmatico dell’antropologia nel pensiero kantiano, soprattutto nell’utilizzo della locuzione Kunst. Foucault sottolinea come questa parola, frequentemente impiegata nell’Antropologia di Kant, diventi simbolo dell’ambiguità epistemica e ontologica dell’esistenza umana: si tratta di un’espressione che si fa carico di tutto l’enigma che costituisce la condizione dell’esistere, della sua essenza patica e al tempo stesso artefice, dove nulla si dà alla coscienza se non attraverso la libertà di cui essa gode e allo stesso tempo di cui essa stessa è vittima, nel momento in cui non riconosce i limiti delle proprie possibilità di attingere in modo inequivocabile alla verità. La Kunst, in tal senso, non intacca il principio ontologico della libertà umana, ma piuttosto ne evidenzia la natura mutevole in quanto potenzialità e possibilità da implementare (p. 11). Se Kant, però, aveva postulato l’esistenza di un mondo noumenico entro il quale operasse la libertà in quanto carattere distintivo della ragione in virtù di una supposta autonomia delle strutture razionali della mente umana, per l’empirismo naturalistico di Dewey la libertà costituisce un fattore che pervade a tutti gli effetti la sfera biologica, sensibile e fisico-naturale. Il metodo empirico, seguendo la scia jamesiana, non solo permette di approfondire aspetti ontologici della realtà, ma consente allo stesso tempo di indagare le fitte relazioni tra realtà fisica e realtà psichica, tra sensibilità e ragione. Appare dunque eloquente la posizione deweyana in merito alla valenza antropologica della produzione artistica, nonché il profondo legame che lega l’ontologia all’antropologia, là dove l’ordine non viene imposto dall’esterno, bensì sviluppa se stesso, coinvolgendo un numero sempre maggiore di cambiamenti e risignificazioni (p. 14). Al di là dell’impostazione trascendentale della conoscenza tipica di Kant, è dall’empirismo di William James che prende vita il progetto deweyano di dare rilievo alla ricchezza ontologica ed epistemica dell’esistenza umana. L’impatto jamesiano è palese anche nella considerazione del nesso tra piano dell’agire e piano del significato, un legame che non era sconosciuto nemmeno a Pierce. In tal senso, l’opera d’arte non è solo una risultante immaginativa, ma ha anche la possibilità di agire nel mondo concentrando e ampliando l’esperienza immediata in quanto comprova della complessità del vissuto (p. 17). Un aspetto altrettanto rilevante che compone l’indagine sulla costituzione del concetto di esperienza in Dewey arriva dall’attenta disamina di Rorty in merito all’utilizzo, da parte del filosofo pragmatista, di un vocabolario e un’epistemologia fortemente contaminati dalla corrente idealista. È proprio partendo da questa constatazione che, secondo Rorty, si rende necessaria un’indagine comparativa tra esperienza e linguaggio, approdando alla possibilità di un Linguistic Turn in ambito pragmatico. Ma ciò che principalmente si evince da questo tentativo è l’imprescindibilità della ricostruzione di un concetto di esperienza che abbracci le diverse interpretazioni fornite da Pierce, James e Dewey nelle loro rispettive filosofie, al di là di qualsiasi paradigma fondazionalista. Infatti, sebbene le metodologie d’indagine dei tre filosofi siano evidentemente differenti, attraverso il loro intreccio è possibile agire su fruttuosi punti di consonanza, cercando così di svilupparne le tracce più rappresentative.

Il secondo contributo, di Danilo Manca, tenta di far fronte a quella che possiamo definire una negligenza filosofica rispetto al mancato dialogo tra fenomenologia e pragmatismo nel corso del Novecento. Nel saggio di Manca vengono prese in esame, nello specifico, le posizioni di Husserl e Dewey, dapprima constatandone le analogie in virtù di una doppia implicazione tra esperienza estetica e vissuto quotidiano, per poi evidenziare le sfide che i due pensatori rispettivamente pongono alla filosofia rispetto a un concetto di esperienza artistica inscritta in una dimensione naturale. Per entrambi i pensatori, seppure partendo da presupposti alquanto differenti, il riferimento all’arte risulta imprescindibile per descrivere i caratteri emotivi e percettivi dell’esperienza umana, nonché per dare forma alla sfida che l’arte ha il compito di lanciare alla filosofia. Contro qualsiasi impostazione isolazionista, l’obiettivo di Dewey è di comprendere come il “quotidiano far cose” si riveli una “forma di fare genuinamente artistica”, come prova del fatto che l’essere umano abbia la capacità di dare coesione al senso, al bisogno, all’istinto e all’azione in quanto caratteristica della creatura vivente (p. 28). È inoltre evidente l’intreccio tra esperienza ed emozione in quanto fonte dell’arte: l’atto espressivo necessita la frequentazione di uno stato d’animo che orienti la percezione. In questo gioco di fare e subire che è l’esperienza, anche l’immaginazione occupa un ruolo imprescindibile in quanto adattamento tra nuovo e vecchio. Diversamente, Husserl considera la percezione e l’immaginazione come atti totalmente differenti: in tal senso, considerare la parte ignota di un oggetto rappresentato in un’immagine non porterebbe ad immaginarlo, bensì a co-intenzionarlo in quanto aspetto irriflessivamente saputo (p. 31). Tale dissonanza, però, trova il suo punto di risoluzione nella consapevolezza che tutto ciò che viene esperienziato può essere notevolmente arricchito dalla componente immaginativa. Rivolgendoci inoltre alla sfida posta alla filosofia di dover partire dall’esperienza estetica per comprendere davvero cosa sia l’esperienza, si scorge tra Dewey e Husserl un’ulteriore differenza che cela in sé, anche in questo caso, la possibilità di rendere questo incontro particolarmente proficuo: se per Dewey l’esperienza estetica va a costituirsi come sguardo privilegiato sul costante alternarsi di armonia e disordine che scandisce l’incontro tra organismo e ambiente del vissuto quotidiano, per Husserl esperire esteticamente comporta una rottura con il mondo ordinario, costituendosi come atto che porta a maturare su di esso uno sguardo da spettatore disinteressato. Sebbene si tratti di una differenza incontrovertibile, entrambi concordano sul fatto che il soggetto sia portato ad agire e vivere all’interno di un sostrato abituale che non consentirebbe di assumere una posizione adeguata rispetto al vissuto. È qui che per entrambi i pensatori si fa palese la necessità di un arricchimento estetico capace di aprire l’essere umano a un’effettiva capacità critica che conduce a un’integrazione tra dato di fatto e novità (p. 36). Il pregiudizio husserliano nei confronti del naturalismo, concepito come modo ordinario del vivere o in quanto conoscenza naturalistica del mondo, viene superato attraverso l’approccio filosofico di Merleau-Ponty che, lavorando su un terreno fenomenologico, si accorse della mancanza di Husserl nell’esplicitare che l’atteggiamento naturale presuppone metodicamente una preparazione fenomenologica (p. 40). L’indagine sulle potenzialità dell’esperienza estetica da un punto di vista pragmatico e fenomenologico approda alla consapevolezza che questo tipo di vissuto sia da intendersi come preparazione al rivolgimento filosofico in quanto esperienza attiva che porta alla luce aspetti della specie umana: in tal senso, la fenomenologia dovrebbe considerare, oltre al corpo vissuto e al corpo come oggetto, anche il corpo vivente studiato dalla biologia. Il corpo vivente preso in considerazione all’interno del dibattito estetico, inteso come intenzionalità incarnata e sede dell’esperienza, è il punto di contatto con l’alterità, con il mondo storico e sociale, nonché con la sua dimensione naturale. Risulta dunque fondamentale parlare di corpo, in quanto ciò consente di mettere al centro tutte le possibili interconnessioni del vivente.

Nel terzo capitolo si delinea il tentativo di Nicola Ramazzotto di dar vita a un dialogo tra pensiero angloamericano e pensiero continentale in merito al tema dell’esperienza estetica e della sua capacità di costituire nuovi orizzonti di significato. Tale incontro viene realizzato prendendo in esame le posizioni di Heidegger e Dewey, due pensatori apparentemente agli antipodi, che però nelle divergenze possono dar forma a un dialogo estetico quanto mai fruttuoso. Partendo dalla constatazione di una progressiva compartimentazione e musealizzazione dell’arte nel corso della modernità, entrambi i pensatori concordano sul fatto che ad oggi l’esperienza artistica non soddisfi più il nostro bisogno di significato (p. 47). Il mondo greco, al contrario, necessitava dell’arte per comprendere e rappresentare la natura e la storia. La realtà moderna e classica diventano dunque per Heidegger e Dewey due esemplificazioni del concetto di arte totalmente diverse: nel primo caso, infatti, si costituisce come mero piacere soggettivo, mentre nel secondo come vera e propria possibilità di significazione in relazione a una determinata realtà storica. Non si tratta di un ritorno al classicismo in senso nostalgico, ma si mira piuttosto a dimostrarne la portata in virtù di un’odierna possibile riconfigurazione del nostro rapporto con l’opera d’arte che tenga conto della sua intrinseca capacità di arricchimento onnicomprensivo, in contrasto con la concezione che sorregge la visione artistica nel mondo moderno (p. 48). Per quanto l’ermeneutica e il pragmatismo siano due correnti filosofiche essenzialmente distanti, vi si può scorgere un’inaspettata assonanza nel tentativo di rispondere alla crisi dell’esperienza estetica, riconoscendo la sua capacità di dare vita a nuovi orizzonti di senso. Significato e orizzonte diventano allora due parole chiave per approfondire il dialogo tra Dewey e Heidegger: per entrambi l’esperienza umana non è ricerca di una mera verità teoretica, ma di una verità che sia significativa, una situatività che può essere dispiegata solo in relazione a un determinato ambiente. Dunque, l’arte, in quanto azione significante, consiste proprio nel trasformare una situazione data in un qualcosa che abbia senso e valore (p. 50). Il significato non è mai l’unico possibile, ma è sempre il senso di una precisa situazione, dove per senso s’intende l’unità di significati nella formazione di una realtà condivisa (p. 51). Noi abitiamo, o meglio “in-abitiamo” il mondo grazie ai nostri habits che insieme danno forma all’ethos, propriamente il nostro in-abitare, e solamente un mondo abitato artisticamente può essere significativo. L’arte, afferma Heidegger, fa sì che le cose siano liberate dal loro semplice essere-cosa e possiede la capacità di creare significati in virtù della sua particolare modalità di prendersi cura delle cose. Ramazzotto evidenzia come sia per Dewey che per Heidegger l’abilità di un soggetto che crea sia artistica se mossa dall’amore, e come questo amare sia l’essenza autentica del potere, che non solo può far essere questa o quella cosa, ma può anche permettere alla cosa stessa di essere presente (p. 53). Il significato può dispiegarsi solo all’interno di un orizzonte, cioè la totalità dell’insieme di significati a partire da cui un evento può assumere senso. L’arte, dunque, non ha solo il compito di svelare la dimensione situazionale, orizzontale e spazio-temporale del vissuto umano, ma possiede anche un carattere operativo, stabilendo i differenti e sempre mutevoli orizzonti di verità e di senso per l’abitare umano – là dove per abitare s’intende l’assunzione di un atteggiamento di radicamento nel mondo e di ricezione in divenire del vissuto. Infatti, sia per Heidegger che per Dewey, l’arte è una peculiare modalità di apertura all’evento mettendo in discussione la totalità dei significati che lo animano in virtù di un dispiegamento di nuovi orizzonti di abitabilità (p. 57). Tuttavia, così come non è possibile riferirsi a un significato unico, in egual misura non è possibile parlare di un solo orizzonte, ma di una serie di orizzonti che si susseguono storicamente. Ne consegue che l’arte diventa mezzo privilegiato per una comunità storica per conoscere se stessa: la storicità, in tal senso, è da intendersi come inevitabile situatività che permette al vissuto di essere significativo nella composizione di una rete di credenze che permette all’essere umano di accadere in un mondo condiviso.

Il quarto contributo, firmato da Elena Romagnoli, indaga il rapporto tra opera d’arte e pubblico, prendendo in considerazione le posizioni di Hans-Georg Gadamer e John Dewey, rispettivamente operanti nelle correnti dell’ermeneutica e del pragmatismo. L’idea di conciliare la lettura estetica dei due pensatori nasce in virtù del loro modo d’intendere l’opera d’arte come vero e proprio processo d’interazione. Sul versante deweyano, l’indagine prende avvio dal ripensamento dell’esperienza in senso anti-cartesiano con un particolare focus sul legame tra la creatura vivente e l’ambiente in cui questa dispiega il proprio esistere. L’ambiente diventa motivo, non causa, per cui la vita è: nessuna creatura vive solo sotto la propria pelle, piuttosto è solo quando essa riesce a prendere parte alle relazioni ordinate nel suo ambiente che si garantisce la stabilità che è essenziale per vivere. Da ciò ne consegue l’imprescindibilità di un ripensamento dell’esperienza stessa da un punto di vista antropologico (p. 67). Occorre tuttavia chiarire che un’esperienza estetica si differenzia significativamente da un’esperienza ordinaria, proprio per la sua capacità di racchiudere in sé un insieme di significati altrimenti dislocati e inafferrabili. Come viene lucidamente chiarito da Romagnoli, non si tratta di una separazione netta, quanto di un rapporto processuale di continuo perfezionamento e arricchimento reciproco, tale da procurare una vitalità intensificata. Su un altro versante, attraverso un approccio squisitamente heideggeriano, Gadamer intende mostrare il carattere mutevole e trasformativo dell’esperienza a partire dalla centralità dell’esperienza estetica. Un ruolo fondamentale in virtù di questo obiettivo è svolto dal tema del gioco, un concetto capace di mettere in discussione una lettura dualistica che vedrebbe l’opera d’arte come mero oggetto contrapposto a un soggetto. Da un punto di vista antropologico, il gioco diviene momento di comune sperimentazione a patto che venga preso sul serio e abbia una compiutezza (p. 71). In uno scritto successivo a Verità e metodo, ovvero il saggio L’attualità del bello. Arte come gioco, simbolo e festa, Gadamer descrive il gioco come funzione elementare della vita umana, come fenomeno di eccedenza di autorappresentazione del vivente riscontrabile nella natura e in tutti gli animali, come movimento senza fini che nell’essere umano però acquisisce razionalità e consapevolezza (p. 72). Anche lo spettatore è invitato a prendere posto in questo continuo movimento in virtù della determinazione stessa del gioco, il quale presuppone sempre un “giocare insieme”. Questo aspetto mette in luce il ripensamento dell’esperienza estetica in senso processuale in contrapposizione a una lettura che la renderebbe priva di potenzialità estrinsecative e interattive. Dewey, in tal senso, evidenzia come un’opera, per essere davvero artistica, debba anche essere estetica, ossia “concepita per una percezione ricettiva della fruizione” (p. 74). Tale esperienza andrebbe così a costituirsi come una forma stessa di creazione e partecipazione all’opera. Come per Dewey, dunque, anche per Gadamer risulta necessaria una riformulazione del rapporto tra creatore e pubblico in virtù di una rinnovata considerazione dell’esperienza estetica. Il carattere interattivo dell’arte ne mostra il suo aspetto collettivo essenziale, nonché il suo costituirsi come fenomeno collettivo, anti-elitario e trasformativo.

Continuando sulla scia di un dialogo che ha per sfondo una lettura pragmatista dell’estetica, il quinto contributo, di Stefano Marino, si focalizza sulla questione della popular music (nella forma di una sfida estetica rivolta dall’arte popolare all’estetica tradizionale) e si muove tra pragmatismo e teoria critica. Partendo dalla considerazione del modo di indagare tipico del pensiero occidentale, il quale si costituirebbe nella forma di un “All or Nothing”, viene enfatizzata la necessità di un superamento di tale tendenza dicotomica a favore di un approccio maggiormente comprensivo, tipico della corrente pragmatista. Nella sua opera Estetica Pragmatista Richard Shusterman evidenzia in modo eloquente la negligenza filosofica nei confronti dell’arte popolare, la quale, quand’anche considerata, viene abitualmente declassata a mero prodotto privo di valore (p. 82). L’arte popolare in realtà è un ambito molto vasto e in continua espansione, così come la popular music, la quale contiene in sé numerosi generi e sottogeneri, anche legati alle odierne sottoculture. Tra alcuni filosofi contemporanei impegnati nel dibattito sulla popular music – e, come si vuole sottolineare nel caso specifico, sulla musica pop-rock – spicca la disamina di Alva Noë, il quale, seguendo una tendenza piuttosto tipica delle odierne critiche filosofiche, evidenzia come alcune forme della musica pop-rock siano perlopiù trainate dalla figura stessa dell’artista fomentato dalle masse. In tal senso, ciò che viene adornianamente definito come il “materiale musicale” costituirebbe solo un mezzo finalizzato ad attrarre tutta l’attenzione sul personaggio. Non si tratterebbe dunque di musica, ma piuttosto di mero fanatismo e culto della personalità. È evidente come questo tipo di impostazione filosofica non sia disposta ad ammettere l’esistenza delle numerose sfumature presenti nel mondo della musica pop-rock, prediligendo al contrario un’ottica che mira a porre delle pretese totalizzanti valide per tutto il genere, in linea con la succitata logica “Tutto o nulla”. Viene evidenziato però come, in modo alquanto interessante, Noë si smentisca nell’ammettere che alcuni fenomeni nel campo della musica pop-rock come i Radiohead possano occupare una sorta di “spazio intermedio”, posizionandosi nella sfera del genere pop-rock e al contempo creando una musica che richiede attenzione e che affascina in quanto musica (p. 86). Ciò comporta che non ci sia alcuna ragione per ignorare altri tipi di eccezionalità, altri “oggetti di consumo d’avanguardia”, come ad esempio i Nirvana, chiave di volta all’interno di questa indagine, oltretutto citati più volte nell’analisi critica di Noë per supportare la sua posizione in merito allo scarso valore significativo della musica pop-rock. Come evidenziato dal famoso pianista contemporaneo Brad Mehldau, per quanto sia indubbio che molte persone siano attratte all’ascolto di questa band per via del culto della personalità, è altrettanto evidente che fermarsi a queste considerazioni limiterebbe la possibilità di accogliere qualcosa di più sottile, come la capacità e la forza di Kurt Cobain di esprimere la propria vulnerabilità, nonché la fragilità di una generazione politicamente destabilizzata, un’abilità oltretutto supportata da un grande talento compositivo (p. 89). Al di là di qualsiasi pretesa generalizzante, Shusterman mette in luce come gran parte della popular music del nostro tempo pretenda di essere creativa e originale, e come questa originalità si possa raggiungere anche attraverso quella che potremmo definire un’appropriazione creativa del vecchio (p. 91). Dunque, attraverso un approccio adorniano “eterodosso” alla popular music (ossia, al di là di una dicotomia troppo ferrea tra musica leggera e musica seria) e attraverso le stimolanti intuizioni di filosofi impegnati nella valorizzazione dell’arte popolare come Shusterman, emerge la possibilità di sviluppare analisi maggiormente concrete delle varie arti e delle differenti forme della loro appropriazione (p. 93). Tale capacità, come chiaramente evidenziato nel capitolo qui presentato, può emergere in maniera decisiva grazie a un punto di vista estetico che sia pluralista e pragmatista, capace di donare rilievo e slancio a generi musicali come il pop-rock che, seppure segnati dai caratteri di mercificazione e feticismo, possono costituirsi come esperienze estetiche dalla grande ricchezza significativa.

Nel sesto contributo, firmato da Anita Merlini, l’intento è quello di mettere in luce gli sviluppi teorici sugli studi visuali e sulla Bildwissenschaft attraverso un’ottica critica squisitamente pragmatista. Entrambi gli ambiti nascono ufficialmente nel 1994: i primi con la pubblicazione del volume Picture Theory di William J.T. Mitchell, nel quale viene annunciata una “svolta figurativa”; i secondi con la pubblicazione dell’opera Was ist ein Bild? di Gottfried Boehm, nella quale viene presentata una “svolta iconica” (p. 99). Al di là delle modalità con cui si vogliano descrivere tali svolte, questi campi di studio si contraddistinguono per la promozione di un approccio interdisciplinare, il quale però rischia di risultare particolarmente destrutturato, soprattutto in mancanza di un assetto epistemologico ben definito. Innanzitutto, bisogna specificare che entrambe le correnti mirano al raggiungimento di uno statuto che consideri l’immagine come fenomeno a se stante, libera dall’imperante logocentrismo su cui il sapere in generale e gli studi sulle immagini in particolare tradizionalmente si poggiano (p. 100). Le posizioni teoretiche di Mitchell in merito allo statuto delle metapicture, cioè immagini capaci di fornire un discorso retrostante alla pura rappresentazione che ci dice qualcosa dell’immagine stessa, vengono contrapposte all’impostazione pragmatista e fenomenologica di Wiesing, il quale, nel volume Sehen Lassen, contesta tale descrizione dell’immagine, che tenderebbe a concepirla come una sorta di soggetto capace di agire (p. 104). Secondo Wiesing, infatti, non sono le immagini di per sé a mostrare un determinato stato di fatto, ma siamo noi, in quanto soggetti umani atti all’interpretazione, ad attribuire all’immagine una capacità significativa. L’immagine si costituirebbe così come un intreccio segnico sviscerabile solo da un ente interpretante. Il nodo problematico delle premesse di queste due correnti si muoverebbe attorno a una mancata distinzione tra visibilità e ostensione: se il primo concetto può essere inteso come un dato di fatto potenzialmente osservabile, il secondo va a configurarsi come una vera e propria azione mossa dall’intenzione. Risulta evidente, dunque, come la visibilità dell’immagine non sia metodicamente legata alla sua ostensione: la capacità ostensiva dell’immagine non rappresenta una sua caratteristica visibile, quanto piuttosto una sua disposizione attuabile solo grazie alla presenza umana. Così, l’approccio dei Visual Studies e della Bildwissenschaft, che tende a soggettivizzare le immagini in virtù di un approccio all’immagine fortemente animista, rischierebbe di trasformarsi in una nuova ideologia dell’immagine, minando i fondamenti di qualsiasi comprensione filosoficamente coerente capace di fornire un impianto epistemologico e metodologico alla base di tali approcci. L’indagine qui riportata mira, dunque, a risvegliare la presa di coscienza rispetto a tali rischi, promuovendo una riconfigurazione degli studi sull’immagine in virtù della possibile istituzione di una vera e propria disciplina, un’esigenza che risulta quanto mai necessaria.

Nel settimo capitolo, Alberto Siani focalizza la propria attenzione sul tema della valutazione del carattere di paesaggio, una nozione che fa la sua prima comparsa negli ultimi trent’anni in ambito anglosassone, diffondendosi rapidamente in altri contesti. La sua nascita è finalizzata alla tutela e alla gestione di un paesaggio sulla base delle sue caratteristiche, rispondendo a un’urgenza di tipo pratico e teorico. L’obiettivo qui proposto è quello di sottrarre il controllo dei criteri di valore del paesaggio al monopolio di pochi individui privilegiati, rendendo tale gestione libera dal paradigma modernista sotteso a operare tramite un dualismo di oggettività e soggettività. Il paesaggio sarebbe dunque inteso come un’entità oggettivamente data, in contrasto con l’esperienza profonda di chi lo abita. Ci si propone, dunque, di delineare una proposta di miglioramento ispirata alla corrente pragmatista che consideri il paesaggio come unità vivente e concretamente situata della nostra esperienza, in virtù di una riconsiderazione dei concetti di estetica e di esperienza (p. 120). L’oculocentrismo e l’essenzialismo che dominano gran parte della teoria e della pratica del paesaggio ostacolano l’obiettivo di transdisciplinarietà, che parrebbe almeno formalmente condiviso. L’ambito della valutazione paesaggistica, difatti, sembra essere guidato da metodi e prospettive di architetti e geografi, a discapito di altre discipline e altri ambiti altrettanto necessari in tale contesto. Il principale problema, secondo tale indagine, è sostanzialmente la vera e propria “scomparsa dell’estetico” e una ristretta concezione di esperienza (p. 118). Una prospettiva pragmatista, invece, favorirebbe la costituzione di un concetto di esperienza che riguarderebbe ogni singola interazione tra essere umano e ambiente, così come un concetto di estetica che agirebbe sulla qualità di tale interazione. Il paradigma dominante, che mira a considerare il paesaggio come un costrutto oggettivo parcellizzabile, dovrebbe al contrario considerare che il carattere di un paesaggio richiede la consapevolezza di un certo grado di arbitrarietà e instabilità, attraverso una prospettiva che dunque non dia nulla per scontato, ma sia anzi in grado di problematizzare (p. 121). In tal senso, la nozione di carattere dovrebbe render conto, per quanto possibile, di aspetti come la pluralità culturale, psicologica ed esperienziale di un determinato ambiente attraverso una rinegoziazione di esigenze, valori e punti di vista. La proposta qui presentata non mira certo alla fondazione di una prospettiva soggettivista e relativista dell’ambiente, quanto piuttosto all’apertura di uno spazio all’interno del quale sia possibile esplicitare una valutazione del carattere del paesaggio davvero includente, trasparente e partecipata, guidata da un approccio pragmatista dell’esperienza e dell’estetico.

L’ottavo contributo, firmato da Giovanni Matteucci, conclude il fruttuoso dialogo sin qui esposto proponendo di indagare la svolta pragmatista degli ultimi cento anni nell’ambito dell’estetica filosofica. Tale teoria estetica, rispetto alle altre, implica la revisione di strutture fondanti della stessa filosofia moderna, in virtù di una radicale rivalutazione teoretica in ambito estetico. Si tratta, dunque, non solo di una sfida filosofica all’estetica, ma anche di una sfida estetica alla filosofia (p. 125). L’intento del contributo di Matteucci è proprio quello di mettere in luce il senso di tale sfida: riprendendo alcune delle tesi dell’estetica moderna, si procede ad evidenziarne i punti critici attraverso una disamina diversiva di impianto pragmatista. Quello che ne risulta non è un sistema chiuso volto all’istituzione di principi fissi e immutabili, ma uno spazio entro il quale sono ravvisabili i principali impianti tematici di una reale rivoluzione pragmatista in ambito estetico. Una delle tesi di stampo modernista qui presentata descrive la disciplina estetica come finalizzata alla considerazione e alla valutazione dell’arte e dei suoi prodotti, una pretesa che, in un’ottica pragmatista, risulta di per sé essenzialista – in quanto tendente ad attribuire all’arte un’essenza valida per tutti i suoi prodotti – e giustificazionista – perché non in grado di accogliere fenomeni estetici inaspettati, che si costituirebbero al di là di ciò che viene in modo unanime ritenuto esistente. In tal senso, è necessario mettere in discussione la pretesa di istituire un principio che riconosca un prodotto perfetto come standard dell’estetico: l’opera d’arte, come evidenzia Dewey, non è un prodotto oggettivo assumibile come dato, ma mira piuttosto a dare risalto alla modalità dell’esperienza rispetto all’oggetto fattuale, coinvolgendo in un movimento unitario organismo e ambiente. L’estetico avrebbe dunque un’accezione oggettuale, addirittura avverbiale: l’interazione si costituisce esteticamente quando l’esperienza prende forma attraverso le variegate modalità d’interazione tra organismo e ambiente, dove per organismo s’intende un essere vivente di cui si riconosce pienamente la sua immanenza corporea. Un’ulteriore tesi di stampo modernista tenderebbe a rilegare l’estetico al di là dell’ambito percettivo, sublimando il sensibile nello spirituale. Al contrario, il pragmatismo invita a prendere sul serio il senso etimologico del concetto di aisthesis, che dunque non dovrebbe preoccuparsi del prodotto, quanto piuttosto del modo in cui soggetto e ambiente interagiscono intessendo un particolare costrutto esperienziale. In tale contesto, Dewey mette in luce come l’esperienza estetica, e dunque l’opera d’arte nella sua attualità, sia percezione (p. 129). Tale approccio antropologico alla teoria della percezione mette in secondo piano ogni partizione tra differenti facoltà sensoriali, in virtù di un’unità percettiva sinestetica e cinestetica. Inoltre, contrariamente alla teoria secondo cui l’esperienza estetica si costituirebbe a partire da ciò che di determinabile cognitivamente va a presentificarsi, il pragmatismo promuove un’esperienza pre-discorsiva, ponendosi in quello spazio liminale in cui il soggetto, non ancora completamente individualizzabile, costituisce un’unità simbiotica con l’ambiente in virtù di un’interazione immediata, intuitiva e contestuale (p. 133). Ciò non equivale ad escludere totalmente ogni contenuto cognitivo: un simbolo, ad esempio, configura automaticamente una presenza che non rinvia, bensì manifesta. La pregnanza significativa dell’estetico, con le parole di Dewey, non risiederebbe in una presunta funzione semiotica, quanto piuttosto in una relativa aspettualità espressiva. Si può allora parlare di giudizio estetico, ma solo come processo mutevole e mai esatto, mai concluso. Risulta interessante anche la posizione del pragmatismo in merito alla presunta mancanza di significato dell’esperienza estetica teorizzata dalle correnti moderniste: per quanto l’estetico in senso pragmatista escluda le dimensioni del significato in senso denotativo, ciò non implica che sia privo di una carica semantica. Tale carica espressiva, significativa ancor prima che significante (perché si vuole dare rilievo alla significatività immanente al campo, piuttosto che alla denotazione di senso), recupera l’effettiva qualità dell’esperienza nel suo invito a prender parte, nella sua dimensione relazionale (p. 135). La percezione, in tal senso, è da intendersi come prassi immanentemente dotata di orientamento, rilevanza e ricettività performativa, ben diversa dalla passività del riconoscimento fattuale (p. 136). Il pragmatismo non s’impegna a prendere in esame gli aspetti canonici di espressione, forma e contenuto: la nozione di esperienza messa qui in risalto rende giustizia alla pienezza dell’arte, collegando artista e pubblico in un processo di mutuo scambio. L’arte, nella sua creazione e nella sua fruizione, non si costituisce in un binomio soggetto/oggetto, nel senso che non c’è qualcuno che chiama e qualcuno che risponde, cioè non ci sono ruoli predefiniti senza possibilità di mobilità: c’è la partecipazione di un movimento magmatico creato da questa stessa partecipazione che, partecipando, crea lo stesso appello, crea la stessa chiamata.

Martin Heidegger: Histoire de la philosophie de Thomas d’Aquin à Kant, Seuil, 2023

Histoire de la philosophie de Thomas d'Aquin à Kant Book Cover Histoire de la philosophie de Thomas d'Aquin à Kant
L'Ordre philosophique
Martin Heidegger. Translated by François Jaran, Sylvain Camilleri

Peter Dews: Schelling’s Late Philosophy in Confrontation with Hegel

Schelling’s Late Philosophy in Confrontation with Hegel. Book Cover Schelling’s Late Philosophy in Confrontation with Hegel.
Peter Dews
Oxford University Press
Hardback £82.00

Reviewed by: David Gordon (Ludwig von Mises Institute)

Peter Dews has given us a work of great depth and detail, concerned especially to show the different ways in which Hegel and Schelling reacted to problems posed by Kant. Further, while fully recognizing the greatness of both Hegel and Schelling, Dews maintains that Schelling’s negative and positive philosophies of nature and history constitute a more adequate response to Kant’s problems than what he views as Hegel’s pan-rationalism, which struggles with difficulty to find a place for concrete events that are really new and are not just instantiations of the endlessly repeated categories of the Science of Logic.

In carrying out his project, Dews shows himself a master not only of the thought of the two notoriously difficult thinkers on whom he focuses but of analytic and existentialist philosophy as well; for example, he draws out with great insight the Schellingian resonances of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. But unfortunately some obstacles confront the reader. Schelling’s thought is often difficult to follow, and I freely confess that I have found myself lost in its labyrinthine complexity. The task of understanding Schelling is even harder, because, as Dews shows in painstaking detail, Schelling often changed his views. In what follows, I shall endeavor to discuss a few themes in the book that strike me as of particular importance, though I fear I will not succeed in doing the book justice.

Kant’s successors agreed that his thought changed fundamentally the way one should regard human beings’ relation to reality.  “The new beginning in European philosophy marked by the appearance of the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781 can be summed up in the claim that Kant re-centered philosophical attention on the structure of the relation between the subject and the object of experience as such. The first Critique no longer asks how the mind can make cognitive contact with a reality assumed to subsist independently of it, or what it would mean to establish an accurate representation of such a reality.” (19) In Kant’s account, there of course remains a distinction between our minds and the objects given to us in experience, but this distinction is one within the phenomenal world, and we possesses no knowledge of the noumenal world. Kant is an empirical realist but a transcendental idealist. One question that Dews does not raise, but which might usefully have been addressed, is whether it is correct to deny that the mind represents a reality independent from it.  To the contrary, he takes for granted that the “Kantian turn” cannot be undone. It would not be a good reply to say that Dews is engaged only in a historical account of how the great post-Kantians reacted to the Critique, as clearly he is not; he wishes to show the greater reasonableness of some philosophical options over others. But this is by the way.

Kant’s new account of knowledge led to problems of its own, and two of these in particular were central to his successors. If we have no knowledge of the noumenal world, on what basis is it claimed that it exists and, in interaction with the categories of judgment and the intuitions of time and space, brings about the phenomenal world? And how is the “unity of apperception” present during this interaction related to the minds of individuals, which are perspectives on the phenomenal world, not the phenomenal world sans phrase? As Dews puts the latter problem, “Evidently, in this account, the I which carries out the combining cannot be equated with the identity of consciousness which results from the process, even though Kant insists that we could not formulate the thought ‘I think’—which is grounded in what he terms “pure apperception”—except as identical subjects of experience. The important point is that our status as subjects cannot consist simply in a formal unity which emerges through a contrast with what is constituted as the objective content of experience. There must also be an awareness of our spontaneity as thinkers, of which some explanation, or at least a plausible characterization, must be given.” (22-23)

How were these problems to be unsnarled? One path was taken by Fichte, who attempted to derive the world entirely from the I, though he constantly changed his views on how exactly this task was to be accomplished. Though Schelling and Hegel were greatly influenced by him, they soon turned away, in considerable part because, far from being a vindication of common sense, as Fichte claimed it was, his approach seemed to dissolve the world into hypotheticals: “At the same time, in the Sonnenklarer Bericht Fichte still tries to persuade his imagined reader and interlocutor that the meaning of statements regarding unobserved events —he gives the example of the movement of the hands of an unwatched clock, while the reader is sunk in reflection—should be given a strictly verificationist analysis . . . But why should this conception, in which the reality of objects and events must be cashed out in terms of counterfactuals confined to the subject-object nexus of experience, be any less an affront to common sense than the metaphysical conjectures which transcendental philosophy was supposed to have overthrown?” (31-32)

Schelling and Hegel came to embrace the opposite way of dealing with Kant’s problems to Fichte. They turned to the object rather than place exclusive stress on the subject, in this way reviving the metaphysical inquiry that Kant had declared impossible, though indeed not die alte metaphysik but a metaphysics in line with the transcendental turn.

Before Dews can proceed with his investigation, he needs to address a problem. An influential reading of Hegel does not take him to be a metaphysician at all, instead seeing him as trying to discover the necessary features of the “space of reasons.” Dews not only rejects this view but reacts vehemently to one of its principal defenders, Robert Pippin, who in the course of expounding his interpretation of Hegel, Dews alleges, is unjust to Schelling: “However, because of his insistence that the ‘problematic of German Idealism,’ as developed by Hegel, was the ‘transcendental problem of self-consciousness’ . . . Pippin had no option but to dismiss the Schellingian tenor of Hegel’s early writings as an unfortunate and misleading aberration. This he did partly by means of ad hoc historical and psychological suggestions to the effect that Hegel was somehow pressurized into adopting Schelling’s position; partly by means of a perverse exegesis of Hegel’s early publications, which tried to cast doubt on their commitment to a trans-subjective (and trans-objective) absolute that cannot be accessed through an abstraction from empirical consciousness in the Fichtean manner, since the result would then remain subjective and conditioned, but only through what Hegel himself terms ‘pure transcendental intuition’; partly by the simple expedient of rewriting Hegel, so that his ontological claims become epistemological ones.” (8) One awaits with interest Pippin’s reaction to this book.

Schelling’s turn to the object led him to a fundamental assault on the Cartesian starting point of modern philosophy. Descartes maintained that by applying his method of doubt, everything except the bare “I think” was uncertain; to regain knowledge of the external world, it was necessary first to prove the existence of God and then to contend that God would not deceive us about what was clearly and distinctly perceived. Schelling rejected this entirely: one’s certainty is not that thinking exists but that one’s body exists, and, further, that one’s body cannot be detached from the world, of which it is an organic part: “But whereas, according to its surface grammar at least, Descartes’ cogito suggests that my existence necessarily follows from the thought of my existence, Schelling proposes a performative analysis: my being is a precondition of my entertaining the very thought of it. As he points out, in the statement, ‘If I exist, then I exist,’ the truth of the consequent is presupposed by the thinking of the antecedent, even though the statement has the form of a hypothetical. Hence it is equivalent to an absolute assertion of existence: ‘I exist because I exist.’ Schelling concludes: ‘My I contains a being which precedes all thinking and representing. It is by being thought, and it is thought because it is; this for the reason that it only is, and is only thought, to the extent that it thinks itself’. . . Schelling both asserts an identity of thought and being, in line with the concept of intellectual intuition, and refers to ‘a being which precedes all thinking and representing.’” (34-35)

If Schelling regards thought and being as united in this way, is he not in danger of reviving the monism of Spinoza, who likewise saw thought and being as attributes of Deus sive natura?  Schelling responds that though Spinoza was on the right track in taking thought and being to be united in one entity, he erred in seeing their unity as mechanical rather than freely developing, changing and growing in a real and not illusory time: “All freedom is lost because, with the subject of being—the primordial possibility of ways of being—now occluded, philosophy can only understand its a priori task as being to track the unfolding of the necessary consequences of unknowingly objectified being-ness. For Schelling, Spinoza is the thinker who expresses this situation in the most stark and unerring way.” (125)

Freedom, then, does not in Schelling’s view arise only at the level of human decisions: to think that it does would be to recur to the Cartesian error. It is present in animal life and indeed in a whole series of potentials, which Schelling expounds in dizzying detail through a series of Potenz, a word that originally designates mathematical powers, as in squares or cubes of numbers, but later comes to mean potentiality. In explaining what Schelling has in mind, Dews makes creative use of the contemporary analytic philosopher Helen Steward. Like Schelling, she sees freedom as present in animals: “The views put forward by the British philosopher Helen Steward are especially relevant in the present context, since—operating strictly within the parameters of contemporary analytical philosophy—she arrives at many positions strikingly reminiscent of those proposed by Schelling in his philosophy of nature and freedom. For example, one of Steward’s main contentions is that philosophical discussions of freedom often begin at too elevated a level, where conscious decision-taking capacities and the exercise of the will are the focus of attention. . . In a challenge to this ingrained tendency, she argues that, to avoid human beings appearing, in the libertarian portrayal of them, as a strange metaphysical anomaly, a view which understandably calls forth deterministic reactions, we should focus rather on the notion of agency. On Steward’s account, agency cannot be a matter of consciousness intervening in a natural world separated from it by a metaphysical gulf, or of purely mental processes initiating physical ones; the applicability of the concept of agency extends quite far into the domain of non-human nature.” (198)

Dews conveys to readers his great admiration for Schelling as a thinker, but skeptical readers may well wonder, “Why should we believe any of this?” In answering this question, Schelling is at his most original and, in my judgment, at his best. He contends, in line with his stress on freedom, that by studying the history of religion and myth, and endeavoring to explain what we have learned, we can discover how God—taken not just as an idea in people’s minds but as a real entity— has developed in time. We could not have deduced this development a priori, but once it has happened, we grasp its necessity. “Schelling also contends, again anticipating Sartre, that speculation can at most seek abductively for optimal explanations.” (177-178) He applied this view in particular to the history of Christianity. “The focus of Schelling’s philosophy of revelation, then, is the historical fact of Christianity: ‘the philosophy of revelation cannot be dogmatic, but rather simply explanatory, just as it must set to work in general in a more investigative than assertoric manner.’ . . Schelling evidently takes what he regards as his uniquely comprehensive and theoretically coherent interpretation of mythological consciousness to have validated the objectivity of his principles, as a hermeneutic framework” (229, 231)

A metaphysical and ethical lesson Schelling takes his study of Christianity to have validated is the value of suffering. By freely accepting his death on the cross, Jesus disarmed cosmic power, symbolized, for reasons I shall not here enter into, as “B”; and thus the crucifixion has significance for the metaphysical development of the universe: “Only a complete renunciation of any claim to superiority or sovereignty on the part of . . .[the principle of unity] as a cosmic power could deprive B of the antagonist it dialectically required to sustain its own identity. . . This complete surrender of selfhood is enacted by Christ in his acceptance of arrest, torture and execution on the cross; only by voluntarily going to his death could he fully disarm B, and thereby bring about the reconciliation of the potentialities, whose tension (Spannung), in their guise as cosmic-psychic powers, obscurely dominated mythological consciousness.” (233)

To those who find Schelling’s ideas strange, Dews replies that they are not without parallel in recent philosophy. As I mentioned at the start, he finds Schellingian themes in the thought of Sartre, in particular the unity-in-difference between consciousness and being: “In order to bring Schelling’s approach to un-pre-thinkable being, and the problems which it raises, into focus, it may help to draw a comparison with a historically more recent and—no doubt to many—more familiar philosophical project which proposes a similar conception of being: that of Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1943 masterpiece, L’être et le néant (Being and Nothingness). ‘Being,’ Sartre states in the Conclusion of this work, ‘is without reason, without cause, and without necessity’ Sartrian being, then, which he further specifies as ‘being-in-itself ‘ (l’être-en-soi) or simply the ‘in-itself ‘ (l’en-soi), in contrast to consciousness or the ‘for-itself ‘(le pour-soi), cannot be regarded as the cause of itself, or as the necessary realization of its own thought possibility. Indeed, in Sartre’s view the notion of ‘causa sui’ is viciously circular.” (173) Schelling also rejects the notion of causa sui.

Schelling’s speculations are of great interest, though they will not be to the liking of those who, like W.V. O. Quine, “have a taste for desert landscapes”; but Dews faces a challenge. If Dews is right, Hegel also developed a metaphysical account of the world, one which attempted by strict logic—of a special kind, it is true—to deduce the essence of the world. Why should we prefer Schelling’s system to Hegel’s? One answer to this question is to deny that Hegel was a metaphysician; but, as we have seen, Dews rejects this with great vehemence. Another answer would be to find flaws in Hegel’s reasoning, but this is not the path that Dews takes.  Instead, he argues that because for Hegel the categories of his Logic proceed in a circle that is endlessly repeated, he cannot acknowledge the genuine significance of human actions. “Hegel’s Logic takes the form of a quest for the reconciled unity of the Idea, which proceeds through the repeated resolution of contradictions. However, the Idea—as Hegel presents it—unfolds with rational necessity: it allows no space for the other dimension of freedom: the possibility to be or not to be. This would not pose a problem if Hegelian logic were able to acknowledge its own limit, as negative philosophy—but this it is constitutively unable to do because it takes itself to have fully articulated, in the Idea, the structure of the immediate ‘being’ with which it began, but which, from Schelling’s viewpoint, is already an occlusion of being-ness as possibility.”

Schelling’s Late Philosophy in Confrontation with Hegel is a major contribution. It will lend support to those who agree with the great twentieth-century philosopher of history Eric Voegelin that Schelling was “one of the greatest philosophers of all times.” (Eric Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, Volume VII, University of Missouri Press, 1999, p.198.)

Robb Dunphy, Toby Lovat (Eds.): Metaphysics as a Science in Classical German Philosophy, Routledge, 2024

Metaphysics as a Science in Classical German Philosophy Book Cover Metaphysics as a Science in Classical German Philosophy
Edited By Robb Dunphy, Toby Lovat
380 Pages 2 B/W Illustrations

Gregory Desilet: The Enigma of Meaning: Wittgenstein and Derrida, Language and Life

The Enigma of Meaning: Wittgenstein and Derrida, Language and Life Book Cover The Enigma of Meaning: Wittgenstein and Derrida, Language and Life
Gregory Desilet

Reviewed by: R.A. Goodrich (ACHE Chapter of the Society for the History of Emotions – University of Melbourne & ADI Philosophy & History of Ideas – Deakin University)

Gregory Desilet plunges his readers into a hypothetical debate between the early Jacques Derrida, especially of the ’sixties and ’sevembeenties, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, mainly of the ’thirties and ’forties. It is a debate that seeks comparable concerns with language, meaning, and metaphysics by both intellectuals before pursuing significant contrasts between them. For all his interests in theories of communication and rhetoric, Desilet avoids the vagaries of thematic adaptations or rejections of decontextualised, often provocative statements by paying closer attention to published and unpublished writings emanating from the above-mentioned decades.

The Enigma of Meaning is divided into three main parts preceded by “The Life of Signs” (5-12) and succeeded by “The Signs of Life” (161-177). The first part (14-81) comprises six chapters centred upon Derrida’s response to Wittgenstein on the role and significance of mind, use, interpretation, rules, limits and justification. The second part (84-107) devotes three chapters to contrasting terms informing Wittgenstein and Derrida, specifically public and private, family resemblance and dissemination, and games and “economies” (or degrees of predictability) respectively. Chapter by chapter the third part (110-160) explores both thinkers on five central philosophical themes: other minds, metaphysics, time, truth, and “violence” (introduced by the selective categories of language).

Desilet’s ultimate aim is to view Wittgenstein and Derrida despite their differences as not confronting us with a choice between their respective accounts of language, between their “metaphors of the tool and the trace” (169). Such a choice “refuses to reduce to either/or as it continually slips into both/and” (169-170). Why? Because the “nature of language as a tool changes when supplemented with the … trace” (176). Why, in turn, should this be?  Because the “trace changes the essence of the tool by placing it within a temporal, moving context” and by doing so “the tool’s identity becomes mobile and divided as it acquires aspects from every new context through which it is used” (176). The mutual “entanglement” between trace and tool leads Desilet to declare:

Wittgenstein without Derrida can make language appear misleadingly whole. And yet Derrida without Wittgenstein can make language appear misleadingly broken. Wittgenstein calls forth Derrida, not as opponent but as supplement, drawing out the both-and/neither-nor complementarity of difference. (177)

This review essay on The Enigma of Meaning will initially pursue two complementary points of view regarding a pivotal argument exploited by Derrida without which readers unfamiliar with him could quickly lose their moorings. Next, we shall briefly focus upon the twelfth chapter on time; temporality for Derrida being so crucial to comprehending not only experience but also the nature and role of “the trace.” At the same time, our first three sections shall incorporate passing references to the early transcendentally weighted phenomenological stance taken by Edmund Husserl. In our fourth and final section, we shall examine two alternative approaches to understanding Wittgenstein that appear not to have been fully recognised by Desilet. The first draws upon a student of Husserl, Helmuth Plessner, and the second, upon another interpretation of Wittgenstein misconstrued by Peter Hacker which Desilet omits in his appendix (179-189) devoted to the latter. Considering such alternatives is warranted by a volume that could well become the standard defence for upholding how Derrida’s contribution “to understanding the complexities of language” explicitly “emerges with a metaphysical depth beyond the positions Wittgenstein occupies” (177).


Beneath the wealth of topics probed by Desilet’s monograph lies a pivotal line of argument deployed by Derrida which can be construed from at least two perspectives. We shall call the first point of view verbalizable experience and the second revisable binaries or hierarchies. Applied rigorously, both undermine any philosophical attempt to uphold if not access reality, be it questioning “What is …?” (119) in the case of essential meanings and phenomena or first principles and conditions. Let us begin, albeit briefly, with the first perspective.

Desilet’s eleventh chapter takes Derrida’s La Voix et le Phénomène (in the 1973 David Allison translation rather than the 2011 Leonard Lawlor one) as exemplifying Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological avoidance of the question “What is a sign?” However, as quickly becomes apparent, Husserl’s avoidance is quite unlike that in Wittgenstein’s 1933/1934 notes popularly known as the Blue Book (or the Nachlass Ts-309):

If we say thinking is essentially operating with signs, the first question you might ask is: “What are signs?” – Instead of giving any kind of general answer to this question, I shall propose … to look closely at particular cases which we should call “operating with signs.” (16; Ts-309, 26)

Husserl in his First Investigation of Logische Untersuchungen, by contrast, seizes upon a “twofold sense” of the term “sign” which can apply to an experiential “indication” (Anzeigen) and a semantic “expression” (Ausdrücke) (Vol. 2, Ch. 1, §§1-16).  Its twofold character need not exclude the possibility that the one sign can convey both aspects. For instance, “signal” may indicate the event or occurrence of conveying an utterance as well as the expression of the meaning of an utterance. Does the same apply to the use of idioms popularly thought to distinguish one language from another? However, to adapt an example from Lawlor (2021, §2, para 3), idioms can confront us with distinct meanings even within the one language without identifying the experience undergone and without ensuring which meaning might act as the actual or essential, proper or true one:

After Héloïse overheard her studious brother Hugues muttering “Il y va d’un certain pas,” she wondered whether he meant “One goes there at a certain pace or with a certain step” or “What’s at issue is a certain kind of ‘not’ or negativity.”

As Derrida (1967) insists, indicative and expressive signs whether idiomatic or not prove to be “a difference more functional than substantial” since they are “signifying relations, not terms” (p. 20; cf. p. 37). This is because the same phenomenon can be apprehended as an expression or indication, “a discursive or nondiscursive sign,” depending upon “the intentional experience [vécu intentionnel] which animates it” (p. 20). Although Husserl regards communication itself as “a stratum extrinsic to expression,” “each time an expression is in fact produced, it communicates, even if it is not exhausted in that communicative role” (p. 20). Furthermore, in Derrida’s terms, “the discursive sign, and consequently the meaning, is always involved, always caught up in [or “contaminated” with] an indicative system” of sounds, marks, and so forth, although “the reverse … is not true” (pp. 20 & 21). Husserl himself (Vol. 2, Ch. 1, §1) concedes the expressive and the indicative are “always interwoven (verflochten),” yet “must not …cut off the possibility of a rigorous distinction of essence” (p. 20). However, as Derrida (1967) asserts, this appeal to what is the essential is at best discoverable through and relies upon “the possibility of language” (p. 21); an assertion reminiscent of Wittgenstein (1945, §§371 & 373): “Essence [Wesen] is expressed in grammar” and “Grammar tells us what kind of object anything is.” Moreover, claims Derrida, the “entanglement” of the expressive and the indicative is “always produced” in mutual discourse or actual conversation for two reasons. Firstly, “expression indicates a content forever hidden from … the lived experience of another” (1967, p. 22). Secondly, “the ideal content of the meaning” has been attributed by Husserl to “sensibility”; his phenomenological project having already committed itself to “intentional consciousness” only becoming “revealed … in the reduction of the totality of the existing world in general” (p. 22) (see, e.g., Logische Untersuchungen, Vol. 1, Ch. 8, §49).


So far, Derrida has set the scene for detecting “entanglement” or “contamination” as the norm for all communicative acts which Desilet connects to Derrida’s “law of contamination” where, although “oppositional relations do not dissolve oppositions and thereby do not support the use of terms without their antitheses, they nevertheless alter the structure of oppositions by way of supplementation to the structure” (126). The first perspective we labelled verbalizable experience above now begins to be re-enforced by the second one labelled revisable binaries or hierarchies.

Desilet next focuses upon Derrida’s 1966 Baltimore lecture, “Structure, Sign, and Play…” which sees Derrida (by way of Claude Lévi-Strauss) indirectly pursuing the intersection of signifier and signified propounded by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Although de Saussure, unlike Derrida, gives priority to speech (la parole) against the derivative standing of writing (l’écriture), both he and Derrida argue that a sign in sheer isolation cannot signify: it can only do so in relation to other signs. To that extent, the basically syntagmatic and syntactic sequential arrangement of individual signs in intersection with the largely semantic and phonic open-ended association of other signs (see, e.g., de Saussure, 1922, Part 2, Ch. 5 & 6) seems to imply the systemic, self-referential nature of language (la langue). For both theorists, the detectable patterns language incorporates indisputably points to its capacity for repetition. As we find Derrida declaring, “A sign which would take place but ‘once’ would not be a sign” because as an “event” it would “mean an irreplaceable and irreversible empirical particular” (1967, p. 50). He then concludes,

A signifier (in general) must be formally recognizable in spite of, and through, the diversity of empirical characteristics which may modify it. It must remain the same,  and be able to be repeated as such, despite and across deformations which the empirical event necessarily makes it undergo …. But it can function as a sign, and in general as a language, only if a formal identity enables it to be issued again and to be recognized. This identity is necessarily ideal. (1967, p. 50)

Why does Desilet focus upon the Baltimore lecture? Because it illustrates the oppositional relationship between signifier and signified of the sign itself to the point of modelling “the structure of every opposition” (127). To cite Derrida himself on the paradoxical consequences of attempting “the metaphysical reduction of the sign” which “needed the opposition it was reducing”: “The opposition is systematic with the reduction. And what we are saying here about the sign can be extended to all the concepts and all the sentences of metaphysics, in particular to the discourse of structure” granted that there were and still are “several ways of being caught in this circle” (1966, p. 281). Without the opposition between signifier and signified, there can be no sign; without the sign, there can be no discourse, leaving Desilet to elaborate that the

nature of the particular oppositional structure between the signifier and the signified is … complementary such that the signifier and the signified form a system where one cannot exist without the other and each cannot be reduced to the other without effectively destroying the system, without destroying the sign and its functionality. (127; cf. Derrida, 1967, p. 51)

Furthermore, he continues, the “logic of opposition … posits no pure instance of either pole of the opposition” which, in turn, implies that “every presumed singular identity contains the seed of its other within its essence” (128). Even casual occasions can reveal how postulating, say, a hierarchy of culture over nature is by virtue of their binary interdependences always revisable:

When Héloïse began teasing Hugues by saying, “Culture can always destroy nature,” he immediately retorted, “Yet without nature there can be no culture.”

At this juncture, we shall leave aside the transcendental and eidetic reductions comprising the phenomenological reduction characterising Husserl’s project pursued by Derrida and succinctly summarised by Desilet (e.g., 121). Nonetheless, readers may well question why Desilet’s eleventh chapter does not overtly confront the accusation notably raised by Martin Dillon (1995) that Derrida remains guilty of assuming another kind of reduction. In effect, this suggests that both Husserl and Derrida exploit a methodology of reduction. According to Dillon, Derrida employs a methodology of “semiological reduction,” one which involves an “ontological bifurcation which sets language in a realm apart from perception and denies reality” to the “world as perceived” because it is “displaced by the world as inscribed in language” (1995, p. 100). (Here, Derrida, as previously discussed, disputes the realm of indicative signs which, even in moments of self-directed monologues according to Husserl’s First Investigation of Logische Untersuchungen, are communicatively prelinguistic because “we live in the experience of the object” (Vol. 2, Ch. 1, §8).) Alternatively expressed, Dillon regards semiological reduction as “driven by an argument based on the transcendental function of signifiers” (1995, pp. 19 & 35). Why? Because cognition if not consciousness “presupposes identification which presupposes a formal ideality,” be it a concept, an essence, or a signifier (p. 19). As Dillon warns his readers from the outset of his monograph, a semiological reduction appears to beg two questions. One is “the question of the re-identification of signifiers themselves” and the other is “the question of how the play of signifiers temporalizes and makes history possible” (p. 13).

Before briefly turning to Derrida on temporality in our next section, what follows were Desilet to accept Dillon’s critique? Would he need to concede the degree to which “intentional consciousness” implies that there is an experience of something? By so doing, would he also need to concede that the experiencing subject need not be entirely removed from the “world as perceived,” from the community of persons, especially when the expressive, as distinct from indicative signs visible in nature, “extends beyond mere indication in its capacity to communicate meaning from one subject to another by means of a system of exchange … organized through structure (grammar, syntax) and categories (meaning, concepts)” (120)?


For those still searching for a singular absolute transcending all possible oppositional relationships, not only must they transcend the signifier-signified nexus of language but the quest for absolute unity also needs “the absence of time” (131). Returning to the “most disconcerting” First Investigation of Husserl’s phenomenological project, according to Derrida (1967, p. 56), particularly where the temporality of experience is juxtaposed with deictic or indexical expressions such as “I” and “now” which “shift with the occasion” of their utterance, they also have a fixed meaning such as “the person currently speaking” and “the present time” respectively. Yet, semantically speaking, as Husserl realises, shifting and fixed meanings cannot be invariably substituted for each other in all circumstances (Logische Untersuchungen, Vol. 2, Ch. 3, esp. §26). Derrida criticizes the conflation of “pure ideality” with temporality in Husserl which “signifies the certainty, itself ideal and absolute, that the universal form of all experience (Erlebnis), and therefore of all life, has always been and will always be the present” (1967, p. 53). On the contrary, suggests Derrida, “The I am, being experienced only as an I am present, itself presupposes the relationship with presence in general, with being as presence. The appearing of the I to itself in the I am is thus originally a relation with its own possible disappearance. Therefore, I am originally means I am mortal” (1967, p. 54). Whether such an original meaning holds in indexical or deictic cases—for example, Hugues’ present statement (to Héloïse’s query “Are you there”?) “I am there,” let alone the past “I was there” and the future “I will be there”—remains open to debate.

Given that time and experience are interwoven, it is commonly understood that every experience occurs in present time, in the “now.” Although what happens now is a distinct event different from any other we have ever experienced, yet, in the present, we can recollect the recently past and/or anticipate what is about to happen. Because what we experience now can be immediately recalled, it is repeatedly re-identifiable, such repeatability enabling us to anticipate the same thing happening again. Hence, from Derrida’s perspective, what is happening now also does not differ from every other “now” experienced. In other words, the present experience is both an event and, owing to its repeatability, not an event. Consequently, we cannot have experience in time that does not contain both event and repeatability.

Derrida’s argumentative trajectory ultimately carries the same kind of implication for time as it does for language. Experience of the present (“now”) is not simply reducible to a single experience of something present to us because it contains the re-iteration of what has passed, but no longer present, as well as what is about to occur, but not yet present. In brief, the present, to quote Lawlor (2021, §3, para 3), “is always complicated by non-presence.” This basic instance of repeatability residing in every experience is what Derrida (1967) calls “the trace” (e.g., pp. 67 & 85) which has already been implied in our previous section by the minimally re-identifiable signs of language itself.

Some readers may still have misgivings over a gap in Desilet’s treatment of re-identifiability. For example, how, in practice, does re-identifiability work when, say, Héloïse insists, “That’s my signature, Hermione”? If “signature” is in dispute, then Héloïse’s remark suggests that she is not only drawing a significant distinction between authenticity and forgery, but she is also appealing to her actual role in its inscription. Alternatively expressed, she has in effect adopted what Nelson Goodman explores as the “autographic” conditions for re-identifying her signature, whether she happened to etch or paint it, “if and only if even the most exact duplication of it does not thereby count as genuine” (1968, p. 113).  By contrast, if the sign in question is Héloïse’s above utterance in full, but now embedded within her draft playscript, performative instantiations of this playscript operate independently of its history of production. In this case, Goodman explores the sign as one of a set of complex “allographic” conditions for its (re)identification. Mistaking “what’s” for “that’s” and “bi-” for “my” in a misreading of the playscript by someone, say, an actor, director, or understudy, does not comply with the syntactic and semantic characteristics of its governing “notational” system. From a metalingual point of view, “What’s bi-signature, Hermione” has become a wh-question in the language system.

This and the previous section have concentrated upon Derrida and have particularly alluded to one of his better-known critiques of Husserl’s phenomenological project with which Desilet is obviously familiar. The next section shall shift the focus to alternative approaches to understanding Wittgenstein that appear not to have been fully recognised by Desilet notwithstanding his contention that

Both Wittgenstein and Derrida belong to metaphysical positions presenting forms of dualism, but Wittgenstein, despite his opposition to Cartesian mind/body dualism, still belongs more in the Cartesian modern tradition of oppositional structure whereas Derrida offers a genuinely different metaphysical alternative. (130)

The alternative, Desilet continues, lies in recognising oppositional relations “maximally anticipating the shifting ground of meaning under the influence of temporal succession and changing contextual boundaries” (138) irrespective of whether “temporal succession” is construed as temporal direction of past, present, and future, or as temporal order between earlier and later. Desilet then concludes:

For Wittgenstein, time affects everything, including language, but does so from the outside … For Derrida, time affects language, and everything else: without time there is no thing, no event, no position, no being—nothing. Time and space, time and matter, time and being—these oppositions name a complementarity such that each does not exist without the other. (138-139)


When Wittgenstein contrasts what “behaves like a human being” with a stone or a corpse, he simultaneously raises the question of “how can a body have a mind?” (1945, §§283-284). According to Desilet, this “positions human beings as mind/bodies embedded within the world and community” before making any inferences about “the separation of mind and body” (117). So, let us begin somewhat indirectly at first by recounting the way in which Peter Hacker and colleagues interrogate the longstanding binary distinction between mind and body, between mental and physical phenomena.

Maxwell Bennett and Hacker (2003, e.g., pp. 72-74, 103-106) claim that past and present followers of René Descartes are guilty of committing the mereological or part-whole fallacy. The fallacy is traceable within, for example, Part One of Descartes’ Les Passions de l’âme where the passion of the soul is a mental state or thought which directly results from the activity of the brain that causes us to act. However, that body and mind, or that which has spatial extension and that which has not, can causally interact remains puzzling. After all, as Harry Smit and Hacker (2014, pp. 1080 & 1084) argue, conceptually speaking because “the mind is not an entity of any kind,” the mind having “a relation to the brain” simply does not apply and “makes no sense,” although the brain’s neuronal activities are “a causal condition,” a precondition, for, say, our capacities for remembering, rehearsing, and reciting things. Hacker and his co-authors consequently cleave to Wittgenstein’s contention that an “‘inner process’ stands in need of outward criteria” (1945, §580). In his 1949 “Philosophy of Psychology – A Fragment,” Wittgenstein separates the criteria demonstrating someone’s capacity and “the criteria for ‘inner states’”: “Even if someone had a particular ability only when, and only as long as, he [or she] had a particular feeling, the feeling would not be the ability” (vi, §36).

Equally puzzling for Hacker and colleagues is that the mind and/or the brain is predicated as having psychological attributes which belong to the person as a whole. This, in effect, upends the former conception of person in which the psukhē (commonly but misleadingly translated as “soul”) was reconfigured. To quote an earlier article by Bennett and Hacker, the psukhē is no longer construed “as the principle of life, but as the principle of thought or consciousness” (2002, p. 12). After noting that Aristoteles upheld “the principle that only living beings have a psuchē,” Smit and Hacker (2014, p. 1091) describe the psukhē, by contrast with Cartesian conceptions of mind, as “a biological principle.” By identifying psukhē solely with the thinking mind (res cogitans), its other functions as enumerated by Aristoteles were frequently reclassified by Cartesian adherents as material or bodily features (res extensa). Because Descartes conceives of thinking as awareness or consciousness, thinking therefore comprises volitional, ratiocinative, and imaginative powers as well as sensory apprehensions ranging from perceptions to passions. In the first book of the Peri psukhës (On the Soul), we find Aristoteles articulating the conceptual conflation in question:

We speak of the soul [psukhē] as being pained or pleased, being bold or fearful, being angry, perceiving, thinking …. Yet to say that it is the soul which is angry is as if we were to say that it is the soul that weaves or builds houses. It is doubtless better to avoid saying that the soul pities or learns or thinks, and rather to say that it is the man who does this. (408b, 11-15)

It is a conceptual confusion which, outside “secondary” uses typical of child-play, Wittgenstein also depicts by virtue of our enactive and verbal interchanges as follows: “only of a living human being and what resembles (behaves like) a living human being can one say: it has sensations; it sees; is blind; hears; is deaf; is conscious or unconscious” (1945, §§282 & 281).

On reviewing Hacker and his co-authors, Jasper van Buuren (2016, pp. 226-227) questions what they understand by the mereological relationship between brain and person and between mind and person. To contend, following van Buuren, that Hugues’ brain is part of Hugues suggests that it is not part of the person Hugues so much as part of the person Hugues’ body. In other words, Hugues not only has a body of a particular size and weight which includes mouth and hands, lungs and brain, blood and bones, but he also is and, so to speak, lives through his body. Again, the person Hugues, whilst he continues to live, has a mind, a mind which can be said to belong to him. What the foregoing omits is that Smit and Hacker distinguish the concept of a person and that of a human. Whereas a human is a “rational, language-using” creature with “powers of intellect and will,” a person “is not a substance but a status concept,” a creature “capable of participating in a culture” and assuming “moral agency and responsibility” (2014, pp. 1092-1093 passim). Furthermore, Smit and Hacker warn us against conflating two senses of the human body, namely, “the body (the living organism) that a human being is with the body (the somatic features) that a human being has” (2014, p. 1083). That Bennett and Hacker elsewhere conceded that they are primarily concerned with “human beings qua possessors of those characteristics that render them persons” so that the brain “would be part of the human being” not the person leaves van Buuren unconvinced (2016, p. 226). Without considering whether mental properties might supervene upon physical ones (see, e.g., Robert Francescotti (c.2009)), van Buuren surmises, “Even if the mind is not literally a ‘part’ of the person, there must be some kind of mereological relationship between person and mind” (2016, p. 227). However, given Bennett and Hacker’s appeal to the unifying role of the psukhē “as that which encompasses and transcends the opposition between the mental and the physical,” then how, van Buuren asks, do they explain a person as both a physical and mental being whilst being “encompassed” by that which is “not reducible to the physical or mental” (2016, p. 228)?

In the apparent absence of an answer to this question, van Buuren looks to a student of Husserl whose philosophical anthropological theory has gained increasing interdisciplinary attention (see, e.g., Shawn Loht (2020) in this Journal). Drawing upon the largely non-Cartesian anthropological theory of Helmuth Plessner (1928) regarding “levels of organic life,” van Buuren argues that Hacker has overlooked the “threefold structure” of “our bodily existence” in the world (2016, p. 230). Baldly summarised, at an objective “level” (die Stufe des Objekts), our physical bodies are, firstly, “things among other things in the world” as are plants despite their variability (2016, p. 230). Secondly, at a subjective “level” (die Stufe des Subjekts), each organic body is “a center of sensorimotor activity” in the sense of being “open to the world” in a manner befitting most animals (2016, p. 230). Thirdly, from a positional or perspectival “level” (technically called exzentrische Positionalität), humans are distinctively “at a distance to both the body as object and the body as subject” because generally “we can always distance ourselves from any relationship we have to ourselves or the world” including other persons (2016, p. 230).

For readers more familiar with Wittgenstein, the positional capacity for distancing oneself in order to make connections, perceive relationships, resolve disparities, and the like complements his “concept of a surveyable representation [übersichtliche Darstellung]” which “characterizes the way we present things, how we look at matters” (1945, §122). Surveyability equally underpins Wittgenstein’s dual methodological attention that subsequently comes to the fore upon the interpretive role of interlocutors’ beliefs and upon logico-syntactic rules (1945, §§185ff.). Desilet’s initial focus, it is worth noting, centres upon the latter (45ff. & 179ff.) before summarising others’ arguments for the former (48ff. & 181-186 passim). For Wittgenstein in a critique not unlike Derrida’s, the distortion of surveyability emerges when “the question of the essence” of phenomena, be it thinking or language, feeling or literature “sees the essence of things not as something that already lies open to view, and that becomes surveyable through a process of ordering, but as something that lies beneath the surface” which somehow “an analysis is supposed to unearth” and where the answer claims “to be given once for all, and independently of any future experience” (1945, §92).

However, as Beth Savickey (2014) cogently argues, the foregoing translation of übersichtliche Darstellung endorsed by Hacker is highly contestable. She has at least two reasons, the first concerning the very phrase and the second concerning the Philosophische Untersuchungen itself. Translations of Űbersichtlichekeit are not merely “surveyability” or “overview,” but possibly more so “clarity” or “perspicuity,” “plainness” or “transparency” (2014, pp. 101-102). Similarly, not only “representation,” but also “account,” “depiction” or “portrayal” can translate Darstellung (2014, p. 112). For Hacker, Savickey continues, “the central preoccupation of the Investigations is the nature of language”; for Wittgenstein “it is life (i.e. all the expressions of life in language)” making a “representation of life … inherently dynamic” (2014, pp. 111-112). As Wittgenstein himself pointedly remarks, “Every sign by itself seems dead. What gives it life? – In use it lives. Is it there that it has living breath within it? – Or is the use its breath?” (1945, §432). Further elaboration can readily be found in Wittgenstein’s Zettel, including, for example, how “to explain our understanding of a gesture by means of a translation into words” and vice versa (1948, §227). This then elicits the remark:

How can these gestures, this way of holding the hand, this picture, be the wish that such and such were the case? It is nothing more than a hand over a table and there it is, alone and without a sense. Like a single bit of scenery from the production of a play, which has been left by itself in a room. It had life only in the play. (1948, §238).

In fact, the Zettel constantly applies other examples of understanding wrought by übersichtliche Darstellung to the arts, especially music and poetry (1948, §§155-176).

Now, let us return to Plessner’s tripartite approach as summarised by van Buuren. It ultimately reveals the limits of the mereological fallacy employed by Hacker and colleagues. Owing to the positional or perspectival capacity to “distance from our relationship to the external world,” we can focus upon “an inner world” and “a social world” in mediated rather than immediate, idealised rather than perceptual ways, a focus conducted as mental thinking rather than as embodied processing (2016, p. 232). Moreover, the above-mentioned subjective and objective senses of the body in effect are dual “aspects of the one and same body” without necessarily implying that one sense is reducible to the other (2016, p. 234). That Héloïse, for example, has a brain and two hands is one way of classifying parts of her body. However, brains are not perceived, possessed, or deployed in the way hands are. Why? Because, as van Buuren succinctly contends, “our hands are part of our first-person world” whose bodily appearance has “immediate practical” meaning when feeling, gathering, moving, touching, and so forth (2016, pp. 234 & 238). However, the “appearance of the brain,” which fulfils its complex functions independently of us, “presupposes the third-person perspective of science” (2016, p. 234). If the foregoing account holds, then Hacker’s mereological accusation falls short. According to van Buuren, it needs to differentiate between two different kinds of part-whole relationships in terms of parts and aspects, namely, that “between a part of the body and the body as a whole” and that “between a partial aspect of our bodily existence and this existence as a whole, whereby the whole is the person” (2016, p. 237).

In conclusion, Desilet’s volume extolling the “metaphysical depth” achieved by Derrida in comprehending “the complexities of language” beyond the logico-linguistic explorations of them by Wittgenstein (177) demands our attention. Nonetheless, one might wonder whether both philosophers were aiming at the same metaphysical trajectory with greater or lesser success. Those sympathetic to Desilet’s conclusion may well question how to determine what counts as “the same” here. Of course, none of us can definitively determine, to echo Bernard Williams,

what counts—what will have counted—as going on in the same … way. Nothing can do that, finally, except the future itself. The Last Word, as always, will lie with what actually comes about. (1998, p. 44)


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Samir Gandesha, Johan F. Hartle, Stefano Marino (Eds.): The “aging” of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. Fifty Years Later, Mimesis, 2021

The "aging” of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. Fifty Years Later Book Cover The "aging” of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. Fifty Years Later
Samir Gandesha, Johan F. Hartle, Stefano Marino (Eds.)