Roland Breeur: L.I.S. Lies – Imposture – Stupidity, Jonas ir Jokūbas, 2019

L.I.S. Lies – Imposture – Stupidity Book Cover L.I.S. Lies – Imposture – Stupidity
Roland Breeur
Jonas ir Jokūbas
Paperback 9.00€

Richard I. Sugarman: Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach

Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach Book Cover Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach
SUNY series in Contemporary Jewish Thought
Richard I. Sugarman
SUNY Press
Hardback $95.00

Reviewed by: Hannah Bacon (Stony Brook University)

The eminent French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995) has garnered recent renewed interest, both in terms of his philosophy and his reflection on Judaism. Sugarman contributes to this emergent scholarship in his extensive analysis Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach (published by SUNY Press in 2019), which extends and deepens his own body of work on Levinas.[1]

Sugarman’s extant Levinas scholarship includes the articles “Emmanuel Levinas: The Ethics of ‘Face to Face’/ The Religious Turn” in Phenomenology World-Wide; “Messianic Temporality: Preliminary Reflections on Ethical Messianism and the Deformalization of Time in Levinas” in Recherches Levinassiennes; and “Toward a Rationality of Transcendence: The Importance of Emmanuel Levinas to Contemporary Jewish Thought” published in A Perennial Spring.[2] Sugarman, with H.A. Stephenson, translated Levinas’s Talmudic text “To Love the Torah More Than God.” Pertinent to this project is the collection of John Wild’s work that Sugarman edited with R.B. Duncan entitled Speaking Philosophy: The Posthumous papers of John Wild.[3] John Wild (1902-1972), an influential phenomenologist, was Sugarman’s former teacher and mentor at Yale. Sugarman credits Wild with introducing Sugarman to the work of Levinas. As a result of his association with Wild, Sugarman personally met with Levinas in 1973.

Levinas and the Torah, an approachable but extensive text, begins with Sugarman’s own introduction and study of Levinas’s work, including a short, but relevant, biography of Levinas. This biographical framing includes three events pertinent to his philosophical work: the political horror that served as the backdrop of Levinas’s early life, including World War I; the Russian October Revolution which precipitated his family’s exile and relocation as Lithuanian Jews to the Ukraine; and, most saliently, World War II, during which he was imprisoned in a labor camp, his wife and daughter went into hiding, and most of his extended family was murdered. He dedicates Otherwise than Being: Beyond Essence to these family members murdered during the Holocaust of World War II. Sugarman’s biography also highlights his lifelong Jewish education in Talmudic Studies, his early philosophical immersion in phenomenology as a student of Edmund Husserl, and the trajectory of his work and the anxiety over influence as a colleague, admirer, and eventual critic of Martin Heidegger.

The guiding principle of Dr. Sugarman’s study is that, “The approach of Levinas to both Talmudic texts and philosophy is governed by the discipline of phenomenology.”[4] That said, Sugarman is a professor of religion: the book leans more towards religious studies than philosophy. To wit, there are more than twice as many commentators cited on the rabbinical texts as there are commentators on Levinas. Despite this focus, one need not be a religious scholar. The book is accessible and provides contexts and historical interpretations for the texts cited (such as the differences between the Pentateuch, the Mishnah, and the Bible).

Levinas and the Torah is decidedly focused on Levinas’s religious hermeneutics. The five main books of the Torah is the organizing taxonomy of the book (Genesis: Bereishis, Exodus: Shemos, Leviticus: Vayikra, Numbers: Bamidbar, and Deuteronomy: Devarim). These five sections are further divided down into the weekly readings portion of the Pentateuch. Sugarman pairs these readings with an equally diverse array of Levinasian concepts and interpretations of the underlying topics. Needless to say, this rich and multifaceted text covers a lot of ground, making it a difficult book to summarize.

One drawback to this structure is that the Levinasian philosophical concepts are spread across different sections. For example, the Talmudic concept of the Hineini, or the “Here I am,” that Levinas employs in his philosophical writings is discussed not in Genesis and the story of Abraham where one might expect it. Instead, it is treated in the section on proper names and Exodus 1:1-1:6 and then again in more depth in the section devoted to Prophetism: Inspiration and Prophecy, Numbers 22:2-25:9. These sections are almost two hundred pages apart and there is no indexical entry for this concept despite the centrality to Levinasian thought. For a Levinasian neophyte it is difficult to trace certain Levinasian specific concepts or ideas that are treated in multiple sections, but also to have a view of how specific leitmotifs fit together to form in his overarching philosophy. Similarly, Sugarman fails to attend to the nuanced way in which specific Levinasian concepts shift over time.[5]

In addition to the Jewish inflection that one can find in Levinas’s’ straightforward philosophical texts, Levinas also produced scholarship specifically on Jewish religious texts. Levinas lectured on the weekly Torah portions at École Normale Israelite Orientale. These lectures have no transcripts as recording and note-taken is forbidden during Shabbat. Levinas published two notable collections of essays specifically on Judaism: in 1963 with a book translated as Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism) and in 1968 with Nine Talmudic Readings. New Talmudic Readings was published posthumously in 1996. Sugarman draws on both the Talmudic texts and the philosophical texts. Sugarman puts Levinas’s Talmudic readings in dialogue with other Jewish scholars such as Mordechai Shoshani, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Rashi, Maimonides, Abrham Ibn Eza, Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner, and others.

Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach yokes Levinas’s conceptual framework to Talmudic passages and hermeneutical religious scholarship. Beginning with Genesis, Sugarman lays out Rashi’s, Erwin Straus’s, and Abraham Ibn Ezra’s readings of Genesis, drawing out the passages that pertain to Levinasian philosophy. In the first of fourteen subsections on Genesis, Sugarman gives an in-depth reading of Cain’s query, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). The obvious Levinasian response to this is affirmative: Responsibility to and for the other is one of Levinas’s central underlying ethical tenets. The Levinas that is juxtaposed is not always the most obvious. For instance, I assumed a discussion of fraternity in Levinas and its role in justice would ensue, but instead Sugarman focuses on God withdrawing his face as a form of grave punishment. The face and its appeal, specifically its appeal in terms of its unspoken command, is another central concept for Levinas. From there, Sugarman moves on to a discussion of responsibility to the future, and whether Cain is guilty not just of fratricide but guilty of the violence against Abel’s future bloodline in what he terms generational responsibility. Levinas argues one has a responsibility to the other not just in the current moment, but a responsibility to the other in ensuring their future. One is infinitely responsible to the other. Sugarman’s treatment of Levinas’s theories of fraternity and justice did come later. By highlighting minor or less overworked aspects both in the Torah and in Levinas, Sugarman opens room for the reader to pursue lines of thought that are not already so established and exhaustively treated as to be clichéd.

One of the more compelling and interesting moments is the discussion of Levinas’s 1935 text On Escape with relation to the Talmudic account of Abraham and Sarah (also found in Genesis). The Abrahamic story begins with the command Lech Lecha, which is often translated as meaning ‘go for yourself.’ Sugarman however, proposes an alternate reading of “go out from yourself” (19). This interpretation is then put in conversation with Levinas’s phenomenological description of embodiment as being trapped in the self and under the thumb of various affects such as hunger, exhaustion, restlessness, and malaise. In other places the most dynamic insights come from these close hermeneutical alternative readings.

In Levinas, the self becomes a self by sacrificing for the other. Egoism, or putting the self before the other, is a grave ethical failure and a form of spiritual death. Abraham becomes the father of faith by being willing to make the most profound sacrifice for the divine. Sugarman is a close reader: he reminds the reader of details that are often forgotten because they do not seem relevant, but they become significant because of the Levinasian framing.  In his reading, Sugarman returns us to the less sanitized version of Biblical stories, although he does not say as much. I, for one, had forgotten that Jacob had children with four women and that Sarah convinces Abraham to sleep with their slave/servant (depending on your reading) Hagar, an act that Sugarman characterizes as ‘selfless’ of Sarah.  Sarah then casts Hagar out when Ishmael (Hagar’s and Abraham’s son) and Isaac, (Sarah’s and Abraham’s son) get into a verbal altercation. The return to the original text opens us up to the possibility of less cemented hermeneutical readings, and raises questions as to what we forget or exclude when we tell the story of Abraham. This incident could be an interesting counter-example of Abraham and Sarah as “exemplars of hospitality.”[6] Sugarman does not go this far, and in fact does not have a critical reading of either Levinas or the Talmudic sections. By bringing in the actual text, however, the reader can take the task of critical reading upon herself.

One powerful aspect of the Talmudic stories that Sugarman highlights is that these are not stories in which one returns home in the end, but instead lives in exile. Sugarman argues that this narrative arc essentially differs from the hero’s journey of Greek myths such as Odysseus, or the teleological structure of human nature put forth by Aristotle. Odysseus and Abraham are fundamentally different cultural narratives: when a person leaves without the guarantee of returning or even the hope of returning, this is the basis of an essentially different kind of narrative and thus an essentially different kind of subject. Pointing out the resonance between the story of Abraham and the centrality of responsibility to the other in Levinas’s construction of the subject is not a fresh or new idea. Sugarman provides a compelling hermeneutical argument that, in its most successful passages, makes the reader newly aware of how uncommon specific narratives and arguments are in present-day culture and contemporary intellectual thought. By sharing the joyful ruminations gleaned from a close hermeneutical reading practice, this book is a successful argument for the importance of revisiting the Torah. Sugarman reminds the reader of what a radical shift it is to think of the self or the subject as inherently for the other, and he also demonstrates how against the grain Levinasian thought is in relation to the prevailing intellectual history of the subject or ego.

In the sections devoted to “Exodus: Shemos,” Sugarman outlines experiences of exile, revolution, tyranny, oppression and the duty towards social justice. Sugarman relates these concepts and narratives to the consequences they have for identity, morality, and temporality in the Talmudic text. These passages on temporality include a clarifying distinction between nostalgia and tradition. This constellation of ideas is related to Levinas’s conceptual framework of responsibility, freedom, law, and development of the moral subject. The most interesting aspect of this section is an account of the moral importance of the act of promising and the essential role it plays in intersubjective relationships. In order to promise one must have hope for a future. The discussion of promising emerges in Exodus in form of the promise G’d makes to the enslaved Jewish people. One consequence of slavery is the loss of individual identity evinced in the loss of proper names (Shemos the Hebrew for Exodus means names).[7] For Levinas, to be a subject, one must be responsible to the other. Sugarman shows, through his reading, how enslavement inhibits one’s ability to be a Levinasian ethical subject, in that one cannot make a promise to the other, nor can one respond to the needs of the other, or take responsibility for the future of the other. Exodus contains the command to protect ‘the widow, the orphan, and the stranger’ a phrase that regularly appears in Levinas’s ethical philosophy, suggesting that these Talmudic passages are immensely pertinent for Levinas in terms of our ethical duty to others.

Sugarman’s analysis of Leviticus: Vayikra focuses on holiness, religious law, the duty to study, and the atonement or repentance of Yom Kippur for transgressions against each other and against G’d. Leviticus is often considered the most esoteric and least well-known book of the Torah. Sugarman draws on Levinas’s discussion of holiness, the importance of language and dialogue, further analysis of diachrony (the time of the other), the difference between holiness and sacredness, and the phenomenology of human suffering to enliven this section successfully. In it Sugarman returns to his analysis of Nietzschean ressentiment.[8] Levinas is attentive to the ritual of Yom Kippur and how forgiveness and pardon can only be enacted after genuine action is taken to repair or alleviate the ongoing suffering that one’s actions have caused. Levinas also cautions against the rationalization of evil and suffering with relation to the Holocaust, which he argues was wholly inexplicable and unjustifiable. This section also puts forth a reading of the environmentalism inherent in Talmudic laws around agriculture.

The Book of Numbers: Bamidbar gives account of the period from the teachings on Sinai to the journey to the Promised Land. It begins with two censuses, which Sugarman juxtaposes with insights gleaned from Levinas’s book Proper Names. It then moves to a discussion of peace, prophecy, and most saliently Israel, which is central to the complicated issue of the relationship between ethics, politics, and Judaism in Levinas. Other topics discussed include fanaticism and obsession, infinity, and justice as it relates to cities of refuge for those who have committed involuntary manslaughter. Each of these sections, although often only a few pages long, are filled with provocative readings raising rich philosophical and religious questions.

Deuteronomy: Devarim, the last of the five books, mostly hinges on Moses’s dictum on how life ought to be lived in the Promised Land and what can be learned or what needs to be reiterated from the journey there. These sermons, Sugarman notes, contain a sense of urgency in that they would have been given in the last 37 days of Moses life.[9] This form of reflection aligns with Levinas’s notion of the past as trace, and the importance of facing that past in order to open a new future. Sugarman discusses topics that include prayer, profundity in the prosaic, whether it is righteous to exist, the responsibility to pursue and enact justice, and revolution. In his Nine Talmudic Readings, Levinas emphasizes the Talmudic basis for social justice and workers rights. Sugarman points out that Levinas’s text was written immediately following the 1968 Paris uprising. Here, and elsewhere, Sugarman indicates the lessons we may still need to learn or the concepts that may be pertinent in securing a more open future today. The book closes with an epilogue, two appendices—a useful and compact glossary of Talmudic and Biblical Terms, along with a glossary of Levinas’s terminology—and a brief but descriptive list of the Talmudic scholars or commentators that Sugarman is employing.

One possible criticism of Levinas and the Torah is that in order to make Levinas’s philosophy accessible, complex concepts are occasionally given superficial treatment. It is debatable whether necessary nuance and complexity were sacrificed. Sugarman seemingly makes these choices for the sake of clarity. For example, when Levinas speaks of the face of the other, at times it seems he is in truth speaking of an actual face or visage; at other times the face is clearly a metaphor, the face of the other is language or expressivity, or the face is meant in terms of orientation but not the literal sense of face. Other concepts developed and shifted over the course of his work: for instance Levinas’s descriptions of role of justice or politics shift in significant ways from his early texts to his later texts.

These conflicting meanings and connotations are often left unsaid in Sugarman’s hermeneutic reading, whether for the sake of clarity, efficiency, or simplification. There are passages in Levinas and the Torah where the move from the specific and singular other to multiple others, or the transition from ethics to justice, is more fluid and neat than it is in Levinas. Debates about what the face means in Levinas and what a Levinasian politics is are live and contentious, but these competing readings are not brought in. The narrowness of Sugarman’s reading could lead to misunderstandings or misinterpretations if the reader has not already read Levinas, or is not reading the original Levinasian texts in concert with Levinas and the Torah.

In the most successful exegetical analysis, Sugarman does not shy away from the complexities in Levinasian philosophy. This attention to nuance is shown in his careful and persuasive account of substitution and Levinas’s claim that one must take responsibility even for one’s persecutors. Arguably, with these lean arguments, there is more room for other types of rumination. When one is not reading and re-reading dense and convoluted Levinasian texts one can see the simplicity of this assertion. The reader can instead focus on an argument for radical responsibility for one’s persecutors that was made by someone who was held in a labor camp and whose family was murdered during the Shoah. For Sugarman this room for rumination is more important than making sure his reader understands all the subtle tonalities of the face in Levinasian philosophy.

Readers will most likely not always agree with Sugarman’s readings of either the Torah or Levinas. Additionally, some of the specific resonances between the Talmud and Levinasian philosophy feel more tenuous than other. By Sugarman’s reading it seems that anytime one leaves one’s house is an example of the Levinasian passage from the self to alterity and radical exteriority. Hopefully, any reader will be motivated to return to the original texts in order to ground productive disagreements and participate in the rich tradition of Jewish argument.

In this way the book is doing something different. There is already a wealth of scholarship that interrogates Levinas’s use of the concept of fraternity or whether or not one can use Levinas to move from an ethics to a robust account of justice or politics. While not every book needs to be critical of Levinas—and if criticism is what one wants there are plenty of resources for a more measured reading of Levinas outside of this book—there are instances where it would have opened a more nuanced or rich reading. The author recommends reading Levinas and the Torah alongside of the Talmudic readings. I would advise to read it alongside the wealth of contemporary Levinas scholarship that analyzes both the strengths and weaknesses of his work.

There are three main aspects of Levinas that are usually the focus of criticism. First, he tends to employ an overly masculine account of ethics in his reliance of concepts such as fraternity, and the son rather than the child (This is central to Derrida’s criticism and is all the more striking in that Levinas had two daughters, although one did not survive) and his equivocating femininity with the domestic sphere and with alterity. Second, Levinas’s actual political statements occasionally verge on nationalism in the case of France and Israel. Perhaps Levinas’s most controversial opinion was given during a 1982 radio interview weeks after the Sabra and Shalita massacre of between 700-3,000 Palestinian men, women and children in which Israeli courts later deemed the IDF complicit. When repeatedly pressed by the interviewer Levinas avoided finding fault in this behavior, and implied that these victims perhaps did not rise to the level of being an ethical other. Last, Levinas has been accused of Euro-centrism in his championing of Europe and European culture through his claim that Greek culture and the Bible were the pinnacle of civilization and societal achievements, and that other cultures were non-serious or lesser. These issues raise crucial questions of who can be an ethical other, of whether or not hospitality has its limits, and whether Levinas makes exception to his own dictums. This sometimes overly laudatory account of Levinas’s work does not even footnote the criticisms that Levinas has received, let alone place them in conversation.

Although clearly rooted in intense Talmudic scholarship, this text does not provide a critical lens for Levinas’s religious readings. A generous reading would state that Sugarman is not concerned with these debates and that they are well documented elsewhere. A more critical reader may see this as a missed opportunity to provide a more robust discussion and also a chance to respond to these criticisms and defend Levinas’s positions. In the tradition of questioning within the Jewish intellectual tradition, it would benefit the readers of Levinas and the Talmud to have this same hermeneutical precision trained on the full range of readings and scholarship.

Levinas and the Torah is a rich and compelling text that provides the reader with a general overview and the necessary exegesis and hermeneutic tools for further inquiry. Through persuasive and spirited analysis, Sugarman makes clear a generous intention for his reader. I would recommend Levinas and the Torah for those who are curious or towards the beginning of their study but feel overwhelmed by the jargon and complexity of other exegetical readings of Levinas’s Jewish thought or to those with familiarity with either the Talmudic texts or Levinas and have a thirst for knowledge for the other. Moreover, this seems to be a book conscious of the zeitgeist of our time, with its pertinence to questions of apocalypse, exile, revolution, suffering, political uncertainty, and futurity. Levinas and the Torah is rich without being exhaustive; it is penetrating without being abstruse and esoteric.  In Levinasian terms we have an infinite responsibility to the future. Sugarman argues compellingly for the importance of learning the narratives and ideas of the deep past in order to enact a more ethical and just future for the coming generations.

[1] Sugarman, Richard I. 2019. Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach. Albany: State University of New York.

[2] Sugarman, Richard I. 2003. “Emmanuel Levinas: The Ethics of ‘Face to Face’/ The Religious Turn.” In Phenomenology World-Wide, ed. Anna Teresa Tymieniecka (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers), published in Analecta Husserliana 80: 409-430; Sugarman, Richard I. 2012. “Messianic Temporality: Preliminary Reflections on Ethical Messianism and the Deformalization of Time in Levinas.” Recherches Levinassiennes, ed. R. Burrggreave et al. Series Bibliotheque Philosophique de Louvain 82, 421-436, Peeters Publishers, Leuven, Belgium; Sugarman, Richard I. 2013. “Toward A Rationality Of Transcendence: The Importance Of Emmanuel Levinas To Contemporary Jewish Thought.” In As A Perennial Spring: A Festschrift honoring Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, 473-493.

[3] Wild, John. 2006. Speaking Philosophy: The Posthumous papers of John Wild,ed. Richard I. Sugarmn & R.B. Duncan; Phenomenological Inquiry 24 (2000): 205-292.

[4] Sugarman, Ibid. 8.

[5] For instance, the face-to-face, the neighbor, and the trace are omitted from the index but are treated in multiple sections. Incomplete Indices is a common problem in academic books.

[6] Sugarman, Ibid. 32.

[7] Sugarman, Ibid. 96. Curiously, this section on Proper Names does not make reference or use of Levinas’s book Proper Names in this section, but in the beginning of The Book of Numbers.

[8] This was the topic of his book Rancor Against Time: The Phenomenology of Ressentiment (Felix Meiner, 1980)

[9] Sugarman, Levinas and the Torah, 303.

Martin Koci: Thinking Faith after Christianity, SUNY Press, 2020

Thinking Faith after Christianity: A Theological Reading of Jan Patočka's Phenomenological Philosophy Book Cover Thinking Faith after Christianity: A Theological Reading of Jan Patočka's Phenomenological Philosophy
SUNY series in Theology and Continental Thought
Martin Koci
SUNY Press
Hardback $95.00

G. Anthony Bruno (Ed.): Schelling’s Philosophy: Freedom, Nature, and Systematicity, Oxford University Press, 2020

Schelling's Philosophy: Freedom, Nature, and Systematicity Book Cover Schelling's Philosophy: Freedom, Nature, and Systematicity
G. Anthony Bruno (Ed.)
Oxford University Press
Hardback £55.00

Radek Schuster (Ed.): The Vienna Circle in Czechoslovakia, Springer, 2020

The Vienna Circle in Czechoslovakia Book Cover The Vienna Circle in Czechoslovakia
Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook 23
Radek Schuster (Ed.)
Hardback 88,39 €
VII, 206

Eugene T. Gendlin: Saying What We Mean: Implicit Precision and the Responsive Order

Saying What We Mean: Implicit Precision and the Responsive Order Book Cover Saying What We Mean: Implicit Precision and the Responsive Order
Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy
Eugene Gendlin. Edited by Edward S. Casey and Donata M. Schoeller. Foreword by Edward S. Casey
Northwestern University Press
Paperback $34.95

Reviewed by: Hillel D. Braude (The Mifne Center for Treatment of Infants with Autism, Rosh Pina, Israel)

Saying What We Mean [SWWM] provides a collection of selected philosophical writings by Eugene Gendlin (1926-2017) edited by editors Edward S. Casey and Donata M. Schoeller. As Schoeller notes this volume is intended to “excite an appetite for the extraordinary thinking of Eugene Gendlin and for the effects of his concepts as well as his practices that, in paraphrasing Adorno, ‘open up’ the phenomena they make thinkable.” [xv] SWWM is the first collection of Gendlin’s specifically philosophical writings, and is Gendlin’s final publication, appearing several months after his passing. It presents a final explication of Gendlin’s personal philosophy of experience, in which he explored the contours of the relation between implicit and explicit knowing, and the generation of language and conceptual meaning from the ground of our embodied senses. At the same time this “farewell letter” invites the reader to carry forward this exploration in her own personal way. The publication of SWWM reminds us that, as Gendlin himself insisted, his professional identity was first and foremost that of a philosopher. Gendlin’s intellectual roots extend deeply into Continental, Analytic philosophy as well as American pragmatism. His intellectual influences include among others: Dilthey, Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Wittgenstein, Whitehead, and McKeon – the latter with whom Gendlin studied at the University of Chicago, and had a great influence on shaping Gendlin’s philosophical outlook. Gendlin was a prolific author, and his philosophical writings have been published in numerous essays and several books.[1]

Despite Gendlin’s prolific philosophical output, the publication of SWWM serves as a needful reminder of Gendlin’s philosophical ideas. Other than as a philosopher, Gendlin is most popularly remembered as the founder of the practical experiential method called Focusing, which provides a structured methodology to bring open, non-judging attention to embodied, experiential internal knowing – often referred to as the “felt sense” – prior to its conceptualization in language.[2]  Focusing is most widely used as an aid for psychotherapy, although it is accessible to everyone interested in a practical methodology for personal transformation. Focusing developed out of Gendlin’s research at the University of Chicago with humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers into the phenomenological-process-oriented theory of experience and its transformation. Gendlin’s original research revealed that the way in which a client related to his or her personal experience during psychotherapy sessions, irrespective of the particular psychotherapeutic approach, provided a single significant predictor of the therapy’s success. As a process oriented methodology with deep roots in phenomenological philosophy, Focusing can be applied to enhance any particular psychotherapeutic approach, or can occur as a stand-alone methodology to enhance human potential. The essays in SWWM attest that Gendlin’s practical method of Focusing would be unthinkable without its underlying philosophical foundation. At the same time, the practical and the theoretical aspects of Gendlin’s lifework cannot and should not be artificially separated. The practice of Focusing provided Gendlin with material for philosophical reflection, as much as philosophical reflection provided the conceptual apparatus for the development of Focusing’s methodology. The core insight animating all of the essays in SWWM is the unceasing bidirectional relation between experience and rational conceptualization.

Gendlin’s focus on process means that he is not limited to espousing a particular philosophical school; but rather provides a process model approach that can ground different forms of philosophical conceptualization. Gendlin’s emphasis on the processes of thinking rather than on the final forms themselves is no doubt inspired in large part by Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological critique of psychology and the natural sciences. Gendlin’s philosophical feat has been to radically personalize philosophy, countering the age-old tendency towards universalization in philosophical reflection, while at the same time respecting structures of explicit rationality and cognition. This personalized perspective – both in terms of personal philosophical meaning, as well as in terms of self-healing– has deep roots in Gendlin’s personal history. In a German language interview with Lore Kolbei (1994), Gendlin described how his childhood experience fleeing Nazi occupied Vienna with his family, shaped his future life and single-minded intellectual focus. In determining how to escape the clutches of the Nazis together with his family, Gendlin’s father relied on following his internal feelings in deciding which individuals they encountered could be trusted in their escape. Gendlin’s later life was dedicated to deciphering the meaning of these internal feelings, both through psychotherapeutic processes and philosophical reflection. I feel it important to mention this biographical history, since it is of central importance in shaping Gendlin’s personalized philosophy. It is of interest that Gendlin does not refer to such cultural and biographical influences in his philosophical writings, as if wanting to emphasize the universal nature of pre-conceptual sensations in giving rise to language and explicit cognition.

SWWM provides in single volume some of Gendlin’s most influential essays. As such, this volume makes Gendlin’s philosophical reflections accessible to a wider audience in a concentrated form, and may be important in bringing Gendlin’s intellectual work to the attention of philosophers who have not yet come across his work, or have glossed over its importance providing a structured methodology to analyze pre-conceptual cognition in relation to explicit forms of knowing. (It is also worth mentioning the collection of critical studies on Gendlin’s work in the philosophy of language entitled Language beyond Postmodernism [LBM] (1997),  published more than two decades ago and which like SWWM served as a kind of introductory volume for Gendlin’s philosophical ideas.)  The essays in SWWM are primarily philosophical, though they speak equally to Gendlin’s practice of Focusing, and the later application of Focusing to analyze professional knowing called Thinking at the Edge (TAE). TAE is a practical methodology for applying the “intricate precision” immanent in our experiential knowing to professional, scientific and private contexts. [xix] For example, a clinician reflecting on aspects of a clinical case, could apply TAE to investigate the boundaries of intuition and explicit knowing. Perhaps the most important function of SWWM is to provide a general framework for Gendlin’s conceptual evolution. Unfortunately, chronological details of each essay are not provided, which would give information about the progressive development of Gendlin’s thinking.

The edited volume is divided into four parts:

Part 1. Phenomenology of the Implicit;

Part 2. A Process Model;

Part 3. On the Edges of Plato, Heidegger, Kant, and Wittgenstein, and

Part 4. Thinking with the Implicit.

Part 1 provides different approaches of Gendlin towards developing a conceptual methodology and language to differentiate different layers of implicit experience. Phenomenology provides the major philosophical ground for this engagement with implicit experience; though Gendlin uses his phenomenological approach to interrogate different philosophical schools and methodologies, especially linguistic analysis and philosophy of language. Phenomenology too, is not spared Gendlin’s critical gaze, as depicted in his brilliant essay, “Two Phenomenologists Do Not Disagree,” in which he analyzes the situation whereby two committed phenomenologists disagree over a single observed phenomenon. As opposed to following a particular phenomenological school or individual philosopher, Gendlin proposes to ‘study the formulating process itself,’ as well as the ‘roles of experience in it’ in order to determine how experience can ‘ground different formulations differently,’ including different phenomenological statements or perspectives. [8] Even though a particular statement may be differentiated as phenomenological from a non-phenomenological statement by following a well demarcated phenomenological methodology or “noticeable signposts,, for example Husserl’s proposed methodology of bracketing, in order to enable a primordial experience of a particular object of inquiry, Gendlin observes that phenomenological statements may possess many unintended logical implications.[8] These hidden intentions or meanings are amenable to being uncovered or elicited through further processes of concentrated focusing or introspection.

Gendlin’s essays depict his intellectual debt to the tradition of phenomenology; and at the same time develops his own philosophy of the implicit in new directions, navigating between age-old dichotomies, such as reductionism and idealism. An important aspect of the collection of philosophical essays in SWWM lies in providing a means of tracing and analyzing the influence of various phenomenological traditions on Gendlin’s thinking, including that of Husserl, Heideger, and Merleau-Ponty, and how Gendlin carries this tradition forward in his personalized philosophical   way.

In his critical essay response to Gendlin’s philosophy entitled, “Experience and Meaning,” J.N. Mohanty (1997) provides key insights regarding Gendlin’s relation to Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, which are still relevant in relation to Gendlin’s collection of philosophical essays in SWWM. In his analysis of the relation between experience and meaning in Gendlin’s philosophical theory, Mohanty discerns four levels of meaning:

1. Experiencing with implicit, incomplete felt meanings;

2. Explicit, felt but prelinguistic (though still symbolized) meanings, inwardly attended to;

3. Experiential concepts (arising out of the interaction of felt meanings with language);

4. Logical concepts. [184]

The core tension animating each of the essays in SWWM is the inherent relation between each of these four levels of meaning. While not participating in logical inference, the “most basic level,” i.e., the implicit background has its own precise kind of order, which functions in the formation of new and ever more precise scientific concepts. Thus, Gendlin posits a pre-conceptual rational order, that is not the same as explicit logic, but which grounds the possibility for explicit rationality. In Part 2. “A Process Model,” which refers to Gendlin’s magnum opus of the same name, Gendlin articulates further this pre-conceptual rational order, or what he now refers to as the ‘conditions of possibility’ for the ‘implicit precision of experience.’ [xvii] Implicit precision refers to the embodied process generated through interaction between the conscious organism and its environment. While logical precision is explicitly rational and depends on defined units, the process of implied precision ‘generates and regenerates the background objects and their relationships, including logical scientific units.’ [111] Implicit precision articulates Gendlin’s basic insight that there is a direct reference between preconceptual and explicit cognition. Moreover, as the name implicit precision implies, this level of organismic consciousness possesses a rational structure, even if it is not ordered according to explicit logical principles. Movement between these two forms of precision can occur in either direction. Indeed, scientific logic is unthinkable without this foundational level of embodied knowing.

Mohanty claims that Gendlin requires a mediating concept, a “Zwischenglied” between implicit experience and logical concept. Gendlin’s concept of direct reference provides this Zwischenglied. In SWWM Gendlin refers to this direct relationality between felt sense and logical concept using the terminology of ‘direct experience’ and ‘direct referent.’ In my own imagination, this Zwischenglied of direct reference is analogous to the sensation in holding two opposing poles of a magnet in close proximity. One feels the invisible magnetic force between the two poles of experience and logic. However, maintaining this force is a slippery undertaking that gives rise to a perplexing sensation. Trying to elicit the connection and opposition between these different levels is key to getting a sense of Gendlin’s philosophical task. As Gendlin writes, saying exactly how ‘direct experience can function as a ground in each step of formulating’ ‘opens up a whole new field of enquiry.’ [7]

Names such as “implicit precision” and “carrying forward,” referring to the infinite possibility for bodily implying beyond explicit concepts, are terms that Gendlin provides in the Process Model for conceptual structures arising from and referring to his process methodology. This process of naming felt-sensations as they emerge into language is an integral part of the Focusing process. Gendlin would undoubtedly invite readers of his philosophical writings to extend his philosophical practice by developing their own names for universal processes of meaning-making. One can debate the precise relation between Husserl’s use of act and intentionality in relation to Gendlin’s process model. For example, Mohanty notes that Gendlin did not regard Husserl’s conception of act and intentionality as including data of awareness, but rather as principles presupposed by such data. [183] Similarly, Gendlin held that Husserl did not include felt experiencing as part of the datum given in meaningful awareness. [ECM, p. 276] However, Gendlin’s views on Husserl appear to have shifted, since he notes in his essay, “Two Phenomenologists Do Not Disagree,” that Husserl did not begin his phenomenological explorations with analyzing the relations between feelings, situations, and language. Yet, through his contact with direct experience, he encountered these interrelations in that experience. [54] However, even if felt experiencing can be traced back to Husserl’s conception of act and intentionality, Gendlin’s expansion and delineation of the methodology to track the relation between experience and meaning moves beyond its phenomenological foundations. Moreover, the process of giving provisional name to conceptual structures emerging from reflection on one’s felt experience, such as “implicit precision” and “carrying forward,” blending personal experience with rational conceptualization is a unique philosophical contribution of Gendlin’s.

Any reader of SWWM must necessarily be divided into two groups. Those with a first-hand familiarity of the process of Focusing, and those who approach the text as a purely philosophical text to be understood conceptually. In a sense, it is not possible to approach these texts purely intellectually, since Gendlin’s method explicitly aims to bridge the mind-body dichotomy. In her introduction, Schoeller writes that, ‘Gendlin’s thinking and practices move across the body-mind split, expanding the field of experience and thinking beyond so-called subjective or objective approaches in order to cultivate an awareness of the preciseness of what he calls a “responsive order.”’ [xiv] Gendlin peppers his essays with practical examples, exhortations to his readers to engage practically with his methodology. For example, in his essay “The New Phenomenology of Carrying Forward,” Gendlin notes how in writing a poem one’s body has a precise sense of what needs to be said. [84] The process of Focusing is similar in many ways to the poet’s attending to her felt sensations in the process of writing a poem. Grappling with Gendlin’s conceptual ideas necessitates an induction into the process of Focusing. Yet, Gendlin would argue that any meaning-making process incorporates this kind of embodied sense-making, formalized in a structured process, or not. Readers who do not concretely explore Gendlin’s practical examples through deep introspection, and who merely try to understand his conceptual arguments from a disembodied perspective, must necessarily fail to comprehend the tenor of his argument.

The “Process Model” emphasizes the embodied nature of Gendlin’s philosophical project. (As a Feldenkrais Method Somatic Education Practitioner I am particularly receptive to the centrality of the body in Gendlin’s philosophy of the implicit. The Feldenkrais Method is similiar to Focusing in providing a practical methodology to explore the relation between one’s felt sense and cognition; however, the Feldenkrais Method introduces the added dimension of movement exploration.) In his essay “The Derivation of Space,” Gendlin notes that, ‘… the clarity which an analytic layout brings lies not only in the layout before us. It has an effect in the body. It brings an implicit whole bodied understanding. “Aha!” we say.’ [156] Following Stuart, in the essay on “Implicit Precision,” Gendlin refers to a perceptual concept called enkinaesthesia, i.e., ‘the sentient half of a behavior sequence and the sentience of patterned interactions which is the sequence of bodily shifts I call versioning.’  [121] Taking the cue from Gendlin’s terminology, an embodied adaptation of Focusing, called Whole-Bodied Focusing, developed by Kevin McEvenue [2015], integrates Focusing with somatic experiential techniques from the Alexander Method. Nonetheless, even though Gendlin’s philosophy of the implicit does provide a means of overcoming mind-body dualism, the body is emphasized only tangentially, in the sense that real attention to the body requires an embodied practice, as in Whole Body Focusing, other somatic education practices, such as Feldenkrais Method. The complete intellectual grasping of Gendlin’s ideas requires an embodied practice in conjunction with attention to the embodied basis of our logical conceptualization.

Part 3. “On the Edges of Plato, Heidegger, Kant and Wittgenstein presents” Gendlin’s philosophical thinking in relation to major philosophers in the Western tradition. Gendlin’s philosophy does indeed present a methodology to reengage and reinvigorate the Western philosophical canon. His philosophical ambitions are simultaneously grand and modest, in the sense that Gendlin has enough confidence in his insights to re-read ancient philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle; yet does this, not by contesting their philosophical claims and arguments, but by “lifting out” the most basic experiential sensations elicited through engaging with the textual ideas. In other words, through his process model, Gendlin finds a means of re-engaging with ancient philosophical texts and ideas, to provide fresh insights and meanings, without attempting to disprove any particular philosophical approach.

This process of “lifting out” also has relation to phenomenology, though not Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, but Martin Heidegger’s phenomenology of Being, and particularly his concept of Befindlichkeit. As Francesca Brencio (2019) notes in her recent review of Befindlichkeit in relation to psychopathology:

Befindlichkeit stresses the basic state of Dasein in its being situated: finding ourselves already in situatedness, means finding ourselves gathered to a “there” (being-there, in German Dasein). The situatedness is strictly related to the existence’s facticity and it becomes manifest to us through our own moods and affectivity. [344]

Our moods and affective states provide the grounds of our pre-conceptual experience, and the means of becoming attuned to the external world. There is, therefore, a strong affinity between Heidegger’s concept of Befindlichkeit and Gendlin’s philosophy of the implicit. In his essay, “Befindlichkeit: Heidegger and the Philosophy of Psychology,” Gendlin observes that, ‘Heidegger’s concept denotes how we sense ourselves in situations. Whereas feeling is usually thought of as something inward, Heidegger’s concept refers to something both inward and outward, but before a split between inside and outside has been made.’ [195]

In referring to psychological affective states and moods, Befindlichkeit has obvious clinical importance for clinical psychology and theories of psychopathology, and resonates strongly with Gendlin’s philosophical project and practical methodology of Focusing. However it is in providing the phenomenological possibility of original disclosing that provides the strongest link between Gendlin and Heidegger. Gendlin quotes the following paragraph from Heidegger’s magnum opus, Being and Time:

Befindlichkeit is a basic existential way in which Dasein (being-here) is its here. It not only characterizes Dasein ontologically, but because of its disclosing, it is at the same time of basic methodological significance for the existential analytic. Like any ontological interpretation whatsoever this analytic can only, so to speak, “listen in” to the previously disclosed being of something that is… Phenomenological interpretation must give Dasein the possibility of original disclosing, to raise the phenomenal content of this disclosing into concepts. [178-79]

For Heidegger it is the disclosing of Befindlichkeit which renders a statement phenomenological, from a state of free-floatingness. [216] Gendlin claims to extend Heidegger’s concept of Befindlichkeit in his own practical philosophy through adding the bodily dimension; which Gendlin claims is missing in Heidegger’s philosophy. Additionally, Befindlichkeit provides a means of explaining Gendlin’s process methodology in Focusing, through getting in touch with and “lifting out” implicit felt meanings for conceptualization. As mentioned, for Gendlin, this lifting out process, while phenomenological, is not limited to any particular philosophical formulation, including that of Heidegger’s analysis of Being. The deep relation between Befindlichkeit and Gendlin’s philosophy of the implicit means that even though Gendlin’s philosophy is greatly indebted to the Husserlian phenomenological tradition, in his heart of hearts Gendlin appears more aligned with Heidegger’s philosophy of Being-in-the-world, though this relationship is not without its personal ambivalence. In his sole biographical observation in all of the essays in SWWM, Gendlin notes his indirect indebtedness to Heidegger, who he only came to read later in life once he overcame his personal antipathy to Heidegger:

My own work for many years preceded my reading Heidegger. I came to him quite late. Both the personality change mentioned above, and the philosophical work I will now mention, were written before I read Heidegger. But I had read those philosophers that most influenced Heidegger, and so I emerged from the same sources, at least to some extent. I had also read Sartre, Buber, and Merleau-Ponty, who were greatly and crucially following Heidegger. Hence my own work continues from Heidegger, and stands under his influence, although I did not recognize that until later….  [223]

Gendlin’s attraction towards Heidegger’s concept of Befindlichkeit can also be explained because of its inherent potential for developing a psychological or psychopathological theory. Since moods and affective feelings ground our experience of reality, psychopathological conditions such as anxiety are characterized by a breakdown or collapse of our affective experiential foundations.[3] It is not by chance that the practice of Focusing tends to emphasize uncomfortable physical and mental felt sensations, as the core of its therapeutic work.[4] Gendlin is attracted to and reworks Heidegger’s concept of Befindlichkeit because of his own deep therapeutic concern that informs both the practice of Focusing and his philosophical theorizing about the implicit. In “Befindlichkeit: Heidegger and the Philosophy of Psychology,” Gendlin observes that the essence of psychotherapy is phenomenological in the therapeutic process through the Heideggerian concept of lifting out. Thus, Gendlin notes that ‘any statements and interprerations are effective only when they lift something from the directly senses and preverbally “understood” felt complexity. Even very sophisticated statements by patients and therapists alter nothing in the patient’s living, unless there is the distinct effect of lifting something out.’ [218] This sentence encapsulates Gendlin’s life-work in interweaving philosophical conceptualization with lived experience in general, and psychotherapy in particular.

The final section of SWWM, Part 4. “Thinking with the Implicit,” presents an introduction to the practice of Thinking at the Edge (TAE), the extension of the practice of focusing to scientific and professional contexts. In Gendlin’s words, ‘TAE is a systematic way to articulate in new terms something which needs to be said but is at first only an inchoate “bodily sense.”’ [282] It seems to me (without having personally experienced its practice) that TAE applies the Focusing methodology in a specific structured context, as opposed for example, simply trying to assess one’s felt bodily sense, in order to elicit new logical analytical formulations and creative theorization. In other words, TAE is concerned with developing explicit logical concepts relating to specific spheres of interest or expertize out of the grounds of implicit knowing. Gendlin has an explicit political awareness around TAE, considering that it provides a tool for people from all social strata and intellectual backgrounds to articulate their experiences, and to develop new patterns of thought. Through TAE, Gendlin claims, the capacity to develop novel philosophical ideas and logical and scientific concepts is no longer limited to an intellectual elite, but is open to all.

TAE is of especial personal interest to me in terms of its potential applications to medicine and clinical reasoning. I have an abiding interest in the philosophy of the implicit, having conducted analogous research into the tacit foundations of clinical reasoning.[5] This work was not fundamentally informed by Gendlin’s writings, but rather was influenced by other phenomenologists, such as Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Emmanuel Levinas, as well Michael Polanyi’s philosophy of tacit knowing. Similar to Gendlin, my focus on the role of intuition in clinical reasoning has also brought me to conceptualize a kind of rationality in clinical reasoning that is not modelled on explicit knowing; but rather envisages clinical reasoning as a kind of embodied practical wisdom modelled on the Aristotelian conception of phronesis. Reading SWWM with this background context in mind, suggests that Gendlin’s delineation of a responsive order to pre-conceptual reflection does provide an important intellectual resource for re-conceptualizing the role of practical wisdom in clinical reasoning, especially through the application of practical techniques from Focusing and TAE. Theoretically, TAE might be of real value in expanding understanding of the tacit foundations of various forms of clinical reasoning, including the intuitive component of clinical judgement, and developing ideas from bench to bedside in translational medicine. Arguably, applying TAE to the clinical context could re-invigorate contemporary epistemology of medical knowledge.[6] As of yet, the application of TAE to the medical clinical context does not yet appear to have been formally developed. The collection of Gendlin’s selected philosophical essays in SWWM invites the reader to continue engaging with Gendlin’s philosophical ideas, and to continue the path that he forged finding one’s own personalized meanings as a means of individual and intellectual renewal.


Brencio, Francesca. 2019. “Befindlichkeit: Disposition.” In The Oxford Handbook of Phenomenological Psychopathology, edited by Giovanni Stanghellini, et al.  Oxford. Oxford University Press: 345-353.

Heidegger, Martin. 1962. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. London: SCM.

Mohanty, Jitendra Nath. 1997. “Experience and Meaning.” In Language beyond Postmodernism: Saying and Thinking in Gendlin’s Philosophy, edited by David Michael Levin. Evanston, IL. Northwestern University Press: 176-190.

Levin, David Michael (Ed.). 1997. Language beyond Postmodernism: Saying and Thinking in Gendlin’s Philosophy. Evanston, IL. Northwestern University Press.

Korbei, L. 1994. Eugen(e) Gend(e)lin. In O. Frischenschlager (Hg.), Wien, wo sonst! Die Entstehung der Psychoanalyse und ihrer Schulen. Wien/Köln/Weimar: Böhlau: 174-181. From

McEvenue, Kevin. 2015. Wholebody Focusing: Life Lived in the Moment. Copyright Whole Body Focusing.

[1] See most notably, Gendlin, Eugene. 1962. Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning (ECM). Glencoe, IL. Free Press, Evanston; 2017. A Process Model. Evanston, IL. Northwestern University Press.

[2] See, for example, Cornell, Ann Weiser and McGavin, Barbara. 2002. The Focusing Student’s and Companion’s Manual. 1. Berkeley, CA. Calluna Press.

[3] See, Brencio, Francesca. 2019. “Befindlichkeit: Disposition.” In The Oxford Handbook of Phenomenological Psychopathology, edited by Giovanni Stanghellini, et al.  Oxford. Oxford University Press: 345-353.

[4] See, for example, Gendlin, Eugene. 1984. “The Client’s Client: The Edge of Awareness.” In Client-Centered Therapy and the Person-Centered Approach: New Directions in Theory, Research and Practice, edited by Ronald Levant & John Shlien. New York. Praeger: 76-107.

[5] See, Braude, Hillel. 2012. Intuition in Medicine: A Philosophical Defense of Clinical Reasoning. Chicago. The University of Chicago Press; 2016. “Clinical Reasoning and Knowing.” In Companion to Contemporary Philosophy of Medicine, edited by James Marcum, Bloomsbury Press: 323-342; 2013. “Human All Too Human Reasoning: Comparing Clinical and Phenomenological Intuition,” The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy. 38(2): 173-189; 2016. “Skilled Know-How, Virtuosity and Expertise in Clinical Practice.” In Handbook of the Philosophy of Medicine, edited by Thomas Schramme and Steven Edwards, Springer Press: 699-716.

[6] See, Braude, Hillel. 2016. “Review of Miriam Solomon’s Making Medical Knowledge.” Theoretical Medicine & Bioethics, 37(5): 433-436.

John Behr: John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology

John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology Book Cover John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology
John Behr
Oxford University Press
Hardback £85.00

Reviewed by: Thomas Sojer (University of Erfurt)

Known for his enlightening readings of the Church Fathers, John Behr presents us with ‘A Prologue to Theology’ in 2019. Serving not only as the subtitle of his new book John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel, Behr’s ‘Prologue to Theology’ also marks the undertaking of a major theological project in the work’s ensuing pages. In light of the large-scale theological project that follows this humble subtitle, I find that this term ‘prologue’ may stand for two key references.

As Behr implicitly suggests, his own written entanglement joins a prestigious legacy of theological ‘prologues’, or prolegomena, by applying phenomenology, however, far from the former stereotype of an ‘ancilla theologiae’. Within the mainline Christian denominations, ‘prolegomena’ have been defined as the fundamental, preliminary questions concerning the rationality of each church’s essential theological propositions. Even a cursory outline of Behr’s ‘prologue’ demonstrates the wide theological range that his study on John accomplishes. In keeping with this trend towards comprehensive breadth, Behr’s approach reaches a climax in the book’s final pages, which feature the ‘glitterati’ of modern Systematic Theology: the Reformed theologian Karl Barth, the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, as well as their Russian Orthodox counterparts Vladimir Solovyov, Sergius Bulgakov, and Nicolas Berdyeav (330), not to mention the work’s latent leitmotif, which cites the Anglican theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. On a methodological level Behr does theology in such a way that implicitly stakes a claim to the question of how to conduct Christian theology in today’s context – that is to say, in a truly ecumenical spirit. As if setting a new standard for theological form were not reason enough for Behr’s book to merit consideration by theology departments across Christian denominations around the world, this is only one aspect of the book’s relevance and significance for us today.

Furthermore, in this work Behr succeeds in composing a ‘symphony’, as he himself puts it (331), by entangling historical scholarship of early Christianity, modern biblical criticism, as well as an overarching ‘phenomenology of Life’, as theorized by Michel Henry. Behr’s ability to unify three highly different areas of scholarship on each of their individual terms is not only ambitious, but also claims importance for the field of theology itself. With this work Behr also joins the recent movement of reclaiming theology as an inherently diverse and interdisciplinary field. In particular, Behr entrusts the field of phenomenology, represented in this case by Henry, with the task of opening up new ‘loci theologici’ – new perspectives on Christian origins – thus permitting theology to flourish anew in the varied contexts of our 21st century.

Behr’s implementation of the term ‘prologue’ is also key to the very subject of The Gospel of John, thus calling to question the authorship and meaning of the fourth gospel. In this context, the term ‘prologue’ plays a central and decisive role, as Behr explains in depth in Chapter 5: ‘The Prologue as a Paschal Hymn’. Here, Behr suggests that the ‘prologue’ in the Gospel of John (Jn 1:1–18) is to be read as three different summaries of John. Although Behr never explicitly elaborates on this, it is clear that his ‘prologue’ relates ‘to theology’ in much the same way as John’s prologue relates to the Gospel of John (at least as interpreted by Behr and his sources). What both ratios have in common is that each prologue illuminates its corresponding content in three very different, yet necessarily corresponding ways. Interestingly, Behr describes both ‘prologues’ with musical imagery. Concerning the three entangled summaries in John’s prologue Behr suggests the eighteen verses in question is “best designated as a paschal hymn” (270). Correspondingly, he refers to his own book as ‘a symphony that is polyphonous, both diachronically and synchronically […] that enables the diversity of voices to be heard as a symphony […] historical, but also inescapably exegetical and phenomenological’ (331). The key question with which patristic and biblical scholars will confront Behr is why we need Michel Henry at all in order to better understand the gospel of John and its legacy, especially as Henry ‘rejects in principle the historical and exegetical project undertaken by modern scholars’ (306), as Behr himself puts it. Consequently, Behr admits that the third part of his threefold study, entangling historical research and modern biblical exegesis with phenomenology, may appear to be difficult to comprehend and will only reveal its precious fruits in a painstaking investigation. Only then does Henry’s phenomenological analysis of the Arch-intelligibility disclose how Christian revelation does not proceed by analysing texts as ‘it is only because texts speak of a referent which also shows itself to us that texts can even speak of it’, namely ‘Christ showing himself to us in the immediacy of our own pathos of life, which is ultimately his originary pathos, and calling us into life as enfleshed beings’ (307). Only then we may be able to grasp why the fourth gospel was written and should be read today as ‘paschal gospel’, as the revelation of Life itself, as Behr postulates.

With the notion of a ‘prologue’ as both agenda and frame, it becomes even clearer why Behr stresses so eagerly in his preface that “this is not a commentary on John!” (vii). Indeed, although in parts the text comes very close to this, Behr does not provide us with another commentary on the Gospel of John. Instead, he gives us a new way of formulating ‘prolegomena’ to theology, which he in this instance bases on three very different perspectives on John inspired by recent historical, exegetical and phenomenological scholarship. In view of the refreshing and insightful approaches Behr combines, it is not too far-fetched to draw a parallel to Karl Barth and his commentary on the Letter to the Romans, published 100 years earlier in 1918. Although Barth, unlike Behr, explicitly wrote a commentary and not ‘prolegomena’, Barth’s study, by adopting neo-Kantian thought, would become one of the most influential prolegomenon to 20th century theology, as well as the starting point for a radically new and revolutionary school of theology based on Barth’s readings of Paul (today, better known as neo-Orthodoxy). It would perhaps be too reductionist to describe Behr’s endeavour with John as fully corresponding to Barth’s Pauline explorations, only substituting neo-Kantianism with Henry’s phenomenology of Life. Yet, at the same time, Barth and Behr obviously share a common ambition as theologians of their ages, namely to lay new foundations for contemporary theology based on a key biblical author and his respective theological signature, whether Barth’s Paul in 1918 or Behr’s John in 2019.

As is the custom with carefully elaborated musical compositions, it is worth listening to the work as a whole from beginning to end. Behr’s textual symphony also rewards such an approach; much like a musical piece his work surprises the reader with the regular return of familiar themes and contents. The attentive reader will quickly notice that formerly loosely related passages become increasingly interwoven and, with slight modifications, present themselves as increasingly merged into one another.

Let’s start our journey through the book with Behr’s critique of contemporary theological practices: Behr commences his large-scale project with the paronomasia ‘methodology and mythology’, immediately finding Hans-Georg Gadamer and his concept of ‘Wirkungsgeschichte’ to be instrumental in historical theology as Gadamer postulates that understanding is always the melding of the historical horizons and our own contemporary horizons, rejecting the notion that each exists by itself. That being said, the task of projecting a historical horizon, Behr urges, needs to contend with Quentin Skinner’s concept of ‘the mythology of doctrine’. Skinner describes the historiographical practice (or malpractice) of converting scattered or incidental remarks of historical text into the retrospectively constructed historical author’s coherent ‘doctrine’ on an issue that today is commonly attributed to that person. In the context of Behr’s study, this applies foremost to the term ‘incarnation’, which has become a mainstay of Christian theology and is often associated with the prologue of the Gospel of John.

In the preface the reader is introduced to the latent leitmotif by Rowan Williams, who thenceforth serves as a marker for a tenacious tradition of misinterpretation, albeit Williams, as Behr points out, does not adhere to this, but rather criticises it. Williams characterizes certain manners of speaking within theology that use the term ‘incarnation’ as if it simply denotes ‘an episode of the biography of the Word’, which is to imply that first the divine Logos operated simply as God within the Trinity before eventually becoming human in Jesus Christ, and finally returning to its original position as divine Logos within the Trinity (19). Behr counters this idea of a ‘story’ of the divine Logos in two ways: First, to elaborate on the philosophical difficulties of an intersection between time and eternity, Behr draws on Herbert McCabe’s claim that there is no such thing as the pre-existent Christ by debunking such manners of theological speaking as a nineteenth century invention to cure modern iterations of adoptionism. Citing McCabe, Behr’s conclusion is that

‘the story of Jesus is nothing other than the triune life of God projected onto our history […] not just reflection but sacrament – they contain the reality they signify […] that the Trinity looks like (is a story of) rejection, torture and murder, but also of reconciliation is because it is being projected on, lived out on, our rubbish tip; it is because of the sin of the world’ (21).

Second, and here, Behr is in his element, he demonstrates compellingly through a series of close readings of patristic texts (primarily of Origin, Athanasius, and Gregory of Nyssa) that this obvious ‘mythology of doctrine’ is not tenable on the basis of the surviving sources of early Christianity.

In light of Gadamer’s melding of horizons, Behr proceeds by further exploring the historical horizons around the Gospel of John, always cautious to identify possible traps of own and other’s ‘mythologies of doctrine’. In clarifying the untenability of the ‘mythology of doctrine’ concerning the term ‘incarnation’, Behr starts to gradually resolve the primordial misunderstanding. Rooted in antiquity itself, an (almost lost) original meaning of incarnation has its essence in its relation to the Passion of Christ. The key is to understand both incarnation and Passion as one revelation. It is then that Behr finally approaches the topic of how to speak today of them properly. Behr finds the questions addressed in the Gospel of John.

In its first movement, Behr’s symphony takes the reader into a detective story throughout the first centuries AD, investigating the person we so instinctively call John. To reveal the mystery in advance, Behr notes that the aforementioned John was most probably not the same John of the twelve apostles in the Synoptics, but rather a central, yet mysterious founding figure of an independent early Christian tradition, perhaps even the high priest of the Jerusalem temple himself (96). Instead, Behr suggests that it was from this John that the first Christian paschal tradition originated, making the Gospel of John an originally ‘paschal gospel’ (92). To prove this, Behr once again invites the reader to an array of diachronic close-readings throughout the first centuries (focusing on Eusebius of Caesarea, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus of Lyon) revealing fractures, manipulations, and counter-traditions that are usually concealed in conventional linear church histories. In order to understand more fully the function, position, and significance of such a ‘paschal gospel’ within its distinctive early Christian tradition, namely that of the so-called John the Elder, Behr makes a cross-disciplinary shift to the second of the symphony’s three movements: to the ongoing discussions within contemporary biblical scholarship.

Here, Behr draws primarily on the recent scholarly debates surrounding the ‘apocalyptic Paul’ and its prominent advocate J. Louis Martyn, along with his criticism of modern ‘salvation history’ (128). At this point, Behr’s continuous practice of interweaving ‘the diversity of voices to be heard as a symphony’ becomes relevant. A good example of Behr’s technique is found in his reflections on the practice of an ‘apocalyptic reading of Scripture’, in which he links contemporary ‘apocalyptic exegesis’ with his own close-readings of Irenaeus and works out a plausible theological continuity between the two. The result is that the Passion of Christ constitutes the hermeneutical key for both the New Testament authors in question as well as their readers and interpreters in the first centuries AD. Citing Richard Hays, Behr concludes that ‘the eschatological apokalypsis of the cross serves as a hermeneutical lens, through which Scripture can now be refracted with a profound new symbolic coherence’ (125).

On the basis of this, Behr’s textual symphony closes its first movement in the echo of the various historical voices heard so far, while the second movement turns the gaze of the reader predominantly to the contemporary exegetical debates around selected key passages of the paschal gospel. The second movement entitled ‘It is finished’ is composed of three thematic parts, namely the Johannine theme of the temple as the body of Christ, the Son of Man as a living human being, and finally the aforementioned prologue, which in light of Behr’s restructuring as triune paschal hymn may no longer be simply read as a preface but as the paschal gospel’s musically performed Crescendo (270).

Following, we are passing by the multitude of contents and topics of the part of the book that is closest to a commentary on the fourth gospel: Behr grounds his argumentation on seven key passages in which he illustrates how the paschal gospel gradually unlocks the meaning of the Passion of Christ, best summarized in the syntagma ‘the temple of his body’ (Jn 2:21). As presented by Behr, the seven passages correspond with the six different feasts mentioned by John during Jesus’ lifetime that structure the entire narrative of the gospel, with three of them being the annual feast of Passover. Five of the six feasts are directly linked with ‘actions and words that identify Christ as the Temple and the fulfilment of the feasts celebrated therein’ and ‘at the Passion itself, Christ is, finally, presented as the Temple’ (138).

The subsequent exegetical gallery tour starts with an etymological allusion found in the prologue referring to the concept of tabernacle in Exodus and continues with Christ answering Nathanael with the self-identification as ‘Son of Man’ and its relation to the ladder of Jacob located at a place called Bethel which means ‘house of God’. Behr concludes this segment with the insight that in John ‘Christ himself is not only the Tabernacle or Temple in which God dwells in his glory, but is also the true house of God’ (141). Behr then guides the reader through the manifold nuances and contours of Christ’s being associated with the temple as John has applied them in the wedding at Cana, the cleansing of the temple, Christ’s encounter with the Samaritan women, and the healing at the pool on the Sabbath.

Next follows a comprehensive discussion of John 6 and Jesus’ scandalous command to ‘chew’ his flesh and drink his blood which Behr yet again uses in the interest of his textual symphony to prepare the foundation for the not yet introduced third voice, that is Michel Henry, who will be heard in the third movement. Especially readers whose biblical interest is limited and who are particularly interested in the third, phenomenological part of the book are advised not to skip this second, exegetical part too easily, as it is precisely here that all the foundations are laid for an in-depth understanding of Michel Henry’s reading of John.

The exegetical journey then progresses with further nuancing and contouring John’s rich understanding of the temple of Christ’s body applied to the narratives of the feasts of the Tabernacles, the healing of the blind, Jesus’ identification with the divine father, and the farewell speech, finally climaxing in the Passion narrative and the words of Jesus on the cross.

The second thematic part of the exegetical perspective considers the Johannine theme of the living human being. In accordance with the practice of resuming earlier elements in the course of a symphony, Behr begins this segment with a ‘relecture’ of the Apocalypse of John and the Church Fathers (focusing primarily on Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyon, and Melito of Sardis) and works out their ‘distinctive approach to what it is to be living human being, that is, a martyr and the glory of God’ (211). As done before Behr gradually entangles his patristic readings with contemporary biblical scholarship and tries to locate possibilities of resonance. As a marginal observation, it may be mentioned that in the fourth chapter (on the living human being), the subtitles are based on the themes and further subdivided into the respective biblical passages, while in the third chapter (on the temple of his body), the subtitles are based on the biblical passages and further subdivided into the respective themes. This can of course be dismissed as random, but it may reflect the differing methodological approaches of chapters three and four.

As already indicated earlier, as the third part of the exegetical enterprise Behr decodes the prologue of John (Jn 1:1–18) again into three unique summaries of the one subsequent paschal gospel. With innovative and elegant recourse to contemporary biblical scholarship and his own reading of patristic source material, Behr points out that each of the three original compositions of John’s prologue is centred around the eschatological apocalypse of divine glorification in Christ’s death on the cross. Entangling the gospel with the Apocalypse of John, Behr identifies the Word in the first of the three summaries (Jn 1:1) with the crucified Jesus who ‘is going towards God’ (260) becoming thus the living human being par excellence and the role model for all living humans. The second summary (Jn 1:2–5) explains according to Behr that ‘the life that Christ offers […] is the life that comes through death, the life lived by the risen Christ and, following him, by the martyrs, living human beings, the glory of God […] completed upon the cross with Christ’s words, ‘it is finished’, brought to perfection’ (264). Finally, the third summary (Jn 1:6–18) ‘structured as chiasm, with the world’s rejection of Christ at the crucifixion as its centre and climax’ (269) completes the triune composition and the entire prologue is thus, as Behr suggests, best considered as ‘paschal hymn’ and gateway to a truly paschal gospel (270). So, what does it mean for John to be a truly paschal gospel according to Behr? It means the eschatological apocalypse of the cross of Christ, which reveals to us what it means to become a living human being, to receive the gift of Life.

The third movement of Behr’s symphony finally calls Michel Henry and his phenomenology of Life onto the stage. For this, Behr proceeds with a close-reading of Henry’s three books concerning Christianity, namely C’est moi la verité: Pour une philosophie du christianisme (Paris, 1996), Incarnation : Une philosophie de la chair (Paris, 2000), and Paroles du Christ (Paris, 2002). An important motif that Behr identifies in Henry is

‘the duplicity of appearing that occurs on the world’s stage’ and means that ‘in Christianity everything is doubled: appearance and truth; body and flesh; the me given to myself in the pathos of life and the I that I project in this world’. Imagined reality can only be avoided in the pathos of life, ‘which is identical with itself in its self-affectivity’ so ‘that we find our true identity, and indeed an identity, though derivatively, with God. In the world, all we have is the duplicitous doubling of this identity, the appearance of a body rather than the flesh’ (310).

Ultimately, in a final meta-movement of all three preceding movements, Behr allows all voices to sound together to resolve the tenacious tradition of misinterpretation of the term ‘incarnation’ and revealing its relation to the Passion, or as Behr himself puts it that ‘this Coming of the Word in its visible body would seem to be nothing other than the Parousia of the Word upon the cross, visible indeed to the world, but only as dead, while invisibly alive in the flesh generated as the very substance of Life’ (312).

Concerning the multitude of modern and ancient languages in use, special reference should be made to the didactic-philological finesse of this book that very skilfully weaves the ancient Greek and French original into the English text, without leaving behind the reader illiterate in the ancient or modern language in question. Although Behr generally cites from the English standard translations, he interprets the original Ancient Greek and French texts and occasionally refers to specific nuances in both languages.

By using the term ‘prologue’ to characterize the nature of his book Behr contextualizes his study within the vast tradition of theological ‘prolegomena’. This Johannine ‘prolegomenon’ to theology was, of course, not written in observance of a so-called methodological atheism (as it became popular in contemporary European historical, exegetical and phenomenological scholarship) and has never tried to hide this fact. On the contrary, as an Orthodox priest, Behr continually reflects on his own point of view, theological tradition and methodological practices – a feature that, in the light of the various phenomenological traditions, especially Gadamer’s melding of horizons, must admit to Behr an even more profound scholarly habitus than a blindly followed methodological atheism would ever allow. With his symphony that enables the diversity of voices to be heard, Behr has made himself vulnerable on many flanks. The fact that he has been aware of these circumstances becomes most evident in his meticulous treatment of sources and extensive references to contemporary scholarship in all three main areas, namely historical theology, biblical studies and Michel Henry. Of course, sixty pages of bibliography, indices of ancient authors, and of (modern) authors may never be the sole criterion of academic quality but in this case, they bear witness to an extraordinary abundance of critically discussed scholarship, original source material and thematic spectra.

In any case, John Behr’s John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel. A Prologue to Theology is an opus magnum that needs to be studied thoroughly in today’s theology departments and seminaries around the globe and which invites, if not demands, further theological investigation along this initiated path.

Helmuth Plessner: Philosophische Anthropologie

Philosophische Anthropologie: Göttinger Vorlesung vom Sommersemester 1961 Book Cover Philosophische Anthropologie: Göttinger Vorlesung vom Sommersemester 1961
suhrkamp taschenbuch wissenschaft 2268
Helmuth Plessner. Edited by Julia Gruevska, Hans-Ulrich Lessing, Kevin Liggieri
Suhrkamp Verlag
Paperback 20,00 €

Reviewed by: Felipe Catalani (University of São Paulo)

A Chapter of the Philosophical Anthropology in Germany: Helmuth Plessner

The discipline of philosophical anthropology can be described as the work of an historically specific group of conservative German intellectuals, with figures such as Max Scheler and Arnold Gehlen who exerted a relatively large influence in the philosophical debate of the first half of the 20th century. At the same time, in an explicitly leftist and anti-conservative milieu, something of a “negative anthropology” was developed (in an independent manner) by authors such as Günther Anders, Theodor Adorno, and Ulrich Sonnemann, whose intent was to think dehumanization without a positive image of what the human is. Due to his entry into the German intellectual debate of the 1920s, Helmuth Plessner is typically included among the first group, despite the somewhat modest and mostly local reception of his work and his rather moderate and anti-radical political positions. As a Jew, he fled Nazi Germany (while Gehlen’s career was advancing in Frankfurt and then in Leipzig during the period of Hitler) and survived the war hidden in the Netherlands (curiously, in his reflections on language in his lectures, Plessner employs often quite particular examples from Dutch). Although he later received a Lehrstuhl in sociology in Germany, the author of Die verspätete Nation remained relatively isolated in the academic scenario of post-war Europe.

Edited by Julia Gruevska, Hans-Ulrich Lessing, and Kevin Liggieri, the transcripts of Plessner’s lectures on philosophical anthropology held at the University of Göttingen in the summer of 1961 have been published by Suhrkamp. This course is comprised of 18 lessons. The first three lessons are dedicated to the idea and the definitions of philosophical anthropology. In the second block of three lessons, Plessner works on the problem of language. Afterwards, a third block of the course proceeds to the relation of man and his environment (Umwelt). After a lesson dedicated to the “utopia of the lost wild form of man,” in which the conceptions of natural man (derived mostly from Rousseau) are criticized, and another lesson on the concept of person, Plessner approaches in three lessons the concept of role, thought in its theatrical, anthropological and functional sense. In the fifth block of the course, Plessner exposes the main points of a study already been published in English under the title Laughing and Crying: A Study of the Limits of Human Behavior, in which he works out the relation between expressivity and human condition, comparing these with examples from empirical sciences such as biology and zoology. At the end of the course, two lessons address the problem of disembodiment [Entkörperung] and the human consciousness of death. The last one approaches the actuality of philosophical anthropology, with Plessner reviewing the questions worked through during the semester.

Those are already familiar with the work of Plessner will not find new theoretical material, as these lectures are the basis for his work Conditio humana. But the book certainly permits a different access to Plessner’s formulations on philosophical anthropology, in a similar manner as in recent decades the publication of lecture transcripts of authors such as Foucault and Adorno have thrown new light on their work. Plessner (like Adorno) shows a generous and pedagogical clarity with the students, in strong contrast to the technical jargon present in some of his texts. The spontaneity of spoken thought, the constant evocation of the second person (and also of the we) and a text marked by the contingency of a lecture produce a different complicity between author and reader, the latter of whom is treated as a listener.

First, we should highlight the context of the philosophical anthropology. This discipline saw its high point in Germany after the First World War and began losing relevance in the mainstream intellectual scene around the 1970’s. The relationship between the essential determinations of man and the experience of the first enormous catastrophe of the 20th century is a question not ignored by Plessner. In a strict materialistic sense, Plessner says that “this science [philosophical anthropology] made significant progress with the experiment of brain injuries occasioned by the First World War” so that “the war worked as a violent experimenter” (12). The war “opened up” man for insight in different senses, but also literally. The image of mutilated human beings revealed that it was not any longer evident what “man” was: this was the moment of the rise of philosophical anthropology. In the notes to the first lesson of the course, Plessner writes: “Ph[ilosophical] A[nthropology] is the expression of the uncertainty of man about his ‘determination’ [Max Scheler]” (9). The reference is probably to the essay The Human Place in the Cosmos from 1928 (the same year of the publication of Plessner’s Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch), where Scheler writes that “in no historical era has the human being become so much of a problem to himself as in ours.”[1] Already in his Die verspätete Nation (first published in 1935 and then reedited in 1959), which was an attempt to understand the genealogy of fascism, he quoted Golo Mann, who said: “The question of what Germany is, and what should be done with it, was an inevitable one hundred years ago. But time worked fast… What man is, and what man should do with himself: that is the question of the future.”[2] It is also no accident that the new period of ontological uncertainty coincided with a rebirth of conservative humanism (centered in the figure of Scheler).

The historical delimitation of philosophical anthropology as a discipline is something that Plessner approaches explicitly in his lectures: he criticizes openly the idea that there has always been philosophical anthropology, so that it must be seen as an anachronism to speak of a philosophical anthropology in Plato or Saint Augustine. He situates it rather as a late product of bourgeois society that begins to appear in the 19th century, as well as in sociology (that presupposes itself a philosophical anthropology and that has a concept of man diverse from the medical and natural sciences). However, it is effectively in the 1920’s, and as a sibling of the “philosophy of existence,” that philosophical anthropology sees its rise. He says: “Let me say something about the date of origin of philosophical anthropology, in the sense that we want to gradually develop here, and of the philosophy of existence. It is not an accident that both emerged in the 20’s of this century, and at the same time. The first works on philosophical anthropology –  if I don’t think of the predecessors in the 19th century, that actually exist, especially Feuerbach – appear after the First World War, that is, in the beginning of the 1920’s. The problem developed there” (27). Also, the early philosophical anthropology of Günther Anders was named by commentators as a hypostasis of the Homo weimarensis,[3] in which the existential condition of not being completely merged with the world (that is, the “world-estrangement of man”) was at the same time the condition for man’s freedom.  (The latter was, however, “pathological,” as this freedom was a result of man’s “non-identification” and contingency relatively to world – in opposition to animals, that have in the world their “natural place.”) The proximity to Plessner’s formulation of the “ex-centric positionality of man” is evident.[4]

Plessner approaches this motif of the “deficitary nature” of man, of man as a Mangelwesen, a motif that can be traced back to the 19th century, at least back to Herder: Herder would speak of man as an animal without claw, horns, poison fang, or strong bite. That means that the biological existence of man, his instincts, are not enough. If this natural weakness of man was something to be denied – and eliminated – by fascist naturalism (legitimized by the doctrine of race, which was, as Plessner points out, a dominant philosophical anthropology of the 1930s that wished to affirm the natural and “original” force), this separation from nature is, on the contrary, what Plessner wants to affirm: “Man is, before everything, instinctually weak [instinktschwach]” (119). What is not openly said by Plessner, but which we could interpret in this way, is that the instinctual realm carries a historical trauma, the same way as German backwardness appears as an excess of nature, as the “biological fall of man” [biologischer Sündenfall] (as Habermas says in his interpretation of Die verspätete Nation). A moral problem, linked to a specific historical experience as the problem of “evil” (understood as aggression), appears between these lines of philosophical anthropology, which does not wish to naturalize the bestiality happened in the past. Therefore, Plessner’s intention is not to understand fascism as a “destiny” written in human nature – although in these lectures, specifically, Plessner’s reference to German fascism, are quite lateral. In this sense, in a less pessimistic manner as Freud in his Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, the essential determinations of man lie in the fact that he is not subordinated to his instincts (as animals are). The essential is not instinct, but its restraint (the “super-ego,” Freud would say). Plessner became, as it is known, an expert in biology and in other fields of the natural sciences. But at the same time, his interest lies in the limits of nature: a constant procedure of philosophical anthropology is the comparison between man and animals, in order to distinguish them.

What underlies Plessner’s considerations is an anti-Nietzscheanism (in other texts he names the origin of three radicalisms he despises: Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche), and also the critique of what he calls the “utopia of the lost wild form of man,” for him a “biological interpretation of civilization and culture as precisely the fall of man [Sündenfall] from nature” (124). As Habermas points out, Plessner’s vision of human Sündenfall is its involvement in nature, not in civilization (as Rousseau sees it). Plessner certainly doesn’t follow the Frankfurtian interpretation of the Dialectics of Enlightenment and doesn’t see the civilized restraint of the instinctual realm in a pathological manner. Rather, such restraints are what characterize the specifically human and should be positively affirmed. Social norms, which are not identical to vital and biological norms, have a “regulative braking function” [regulierende, bremsende Funktion] (121). “To be human therefore means to be guided and inhibited by norms, to be quickened and braked, directed and at the same time limited. That is, to be human means to be a represser [Verdränger]” (122). A defense of these “humanizing” brakes as a defense of civilization shows an inversion of Rousseau that we could call Plessner’s “utopia of the lost civilized form of man,” that has a special meaning during the Reconstruction and Denazification of post-war Germany. Man may be a “blond beast” – but the “blond beast is in the stable” (126). In a certain manner, Plessner’s philosophical anthropology is a praise to the success of domestication of man.

This negation and repression of instinctual nature has a violent dimension. This theory of compensation of the biologically underprivileged condition of man (in which the spirit would result from the insufficiency of the body) finds in Gehlen’s philosophical anthropology a more authoritarian version, as man becomes not a peaceful creature when he leaves the natural condition of animal, but rather becomes a kind of ultra-strong animal. Plessner criticizes Gehlen in these terms: “Capacity of abstraction, language, intelligence become weapons. They become so to speak second order horns and claws” (120). We could even make a comparison on Adorno’s view of the violence of the abstraction as a “second-order” instinct of self-preservation (so that civilization appears as a continuation of the state of nature), but that would lead us too far. However, the compensation of the biological weakness for Gehlen is the social strength – the institutions. Plessner’s view on the break of the biological dimension is different, as he emphasizes language: “Where does man show himself as man, specifically? There where the breaking [Brechung] through language takes place, that is, there where he enters a totally other dimension as the purely biological dimension” (107). To become human means to leave nature behind. We could even identify a proximity with the Habermasian approach (formulated a decade later) on the communicative action as the “breaking out” of the dialectics of enlightenment, in which reason (understood by Adorno and Horkheimer as originally instrumental) is no longer a “second order” instinct, that is, a continuation of the history of violence. However, strangely enough, Plessner doesn’t make any reference to the Dialectic of Enlightenment, a text he certainly knew. When he understands language as a social structure, Plessner “sociologizes” his philosophical anthropology, in which this being for the other – the “communality” [Gemeinsamkeit] – is central. But Plessner never ceases to investigate the relation to nature and the form of the body. He is interested in the mouth, the tongue, and in the capacity to produce sounds. “Language and voice belong to each other” (73). His interests continuously flow from biology to sociology, and back, so that we notice a continuous tension between nature and society, although they always need to be separated.

If Plessner performs this double movement between biology and sociology, it is because his interest lies in the “determination of the double nature of man” (9): on the one side, the cultural and spiritual existence of man, and on the other side, his vital expressions in the biological world. And so he comes back to the discussion with Descartes and the separation of body and soul. This disruption as the essential determination of man is Plessner’s point of departure, and also the point to which he comes back in the last lesson: “a unity that has a break [Bruch] in itself” (219). It is interesting to note how this idea of a unity that breaks itself in two (the gap between body and spirit) is also present in his interpretations of the German historical process. The epigraph of the second edition of Die verspätete Nation (1959) was a quote from Thomas Mann in 1945: “There are no two Germanies, an evil one and a good one, but one, whose best turned to evil through a diabolical ruse.”[5] This was the classical question for German liberal humanists: how was so much hatred and aggression possible in the country of poets and philosophers?

It is difficult to say if Plessner applies his model of philosophical anthropology to understand Germany or the contrary, if his reflections on human nature are an attempt to explain a determinate historical experience. This German unity-in-duality (that in the 19th century allowed the modern rebirth of dialectics[6]) was represented by Marx as Germany’s small body (material and political backwardness) with its huge head (the advanced ideas). But in Plessner there is no dialectics produced by this gap between Germany’s body and spirit and his vision is not the same as Marx’s (neither is dialectics’ two the dualism of body-spirit). For him, Germany’s small body was actually a monster, it was a body without spirit: “Bismarcks Reich, eine Großmacht ohne Staatsidee,”[7] power and force without “idea.” The problem was not the State, incorporated in an idea, but rather an excess of nature. Instead of humanity (the spirit), in backward Germany appeared the organic body: the people, the German Volk. The problem was that the ideological national fundament was: “Nicht Staat, sondern Volk[8]. On the idea of Volk, which for Plessner represents the German anti-humanism, he affirms: “This category, shaped by Herder in opposition to the generalizing abstraction of the universal idea of humanity, in order to overcome the vacuum between the individual rational being and the general human reason, the generic human being, is romantic and flourished in the 19th century towards the significant reality, through which it today reveals the power of a political idea.”[9] To sum it up, Plessner interprets Germany’s backwardness as a lack of spirit: in its excess of nature, Germany “lacked political humanism.”[10] As Habermas affirms, in Plessner’s work “humanism, also the political humanism of the western world, should as a mere postulate continue to ethically maintain its force.”[11]

Although we speak of Descartes’ ontological separation of spirit and body, it is important to say that Plessner is not Cartesian, as he follows the break of the 19th century philosophy that brings nature under philosophical consideration. But following the humanist tradition of Enlightenment, evil is always related to what is not spirit: the organic res extensa (as Deleuze remarked about Kant). For Plessner, however, nature is not evil in itself: evil is a specific human tendency that appears in this division between nature and spirit. Man is no “beast of prey,” says Plessner. At the same time there are no murders in nature, properly said. Only man, in his particular “eccentric position,” can become a criminal. Plessner comes back to this problem in the last lesson of the semester: “Evil in this sense only becomes possible as reality through this peculiar disruption [Zerrissenheit] and brokenness [Gebrochenheit]” (221). It is a conception of human essential determinations, and at the same time we can’t avoid reading it as a response to historical problems. Plessner’s philosophical anthropology has its place in 20th century Germany.

[1] Max Scheler, The Human Place in the Cosmos. Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2009, p. 5.

[2] Apud Jürgen Habermas, Politisch-philosophische Profile. Frankfurt am Main: Surhkamp, 1984, p. 133.

[3] Günther Anders, Die Weltfremdheit des Menschen: Schriften zur philosophischen Anthropologie. München: Beck, 2018.

[4] On Plessner’s concept of “exzentrische Positionalität”, see: Joachim Fischer, “Exzentrische Positionalität: Plessners Grundkategorie der Philosophischen Anthropologie”. Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie, 48, (2000) 2, p. 265-288.

[5] Helmuth Plessner, Die verspätete Nation. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1982, p. 11.

[6] For an interpretation of the relation between the modern rebirth of dialectics and the historical experience of backwardness in 19th century Germany, see Paulo Arantes, Ressentimento da Dialética: Dialética e Experiência Intelectual em Hegel. São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 1996.

[7] Plessner, Die verspätete Nation, p. 48.

[8] Ibid., p. 52.

[9] Ibid., p. 59

[10] Ibid., p. 19.

[11] Jürgen Habermas, Politisch-philosophische Profile. Frankfurt am Main: Surhkamp, 1984, p. 134.

Sümeyye Parıldar: Intentionality in Mulla Sadra, Springer, 2020

Intentionality in Mulla Sadra Book Cover Intentionality in Mulla Sadra
Studies in the History of Philosophy of Mind, Vol. 24
Sümeyye Parıldar
Hardcover 77,99 €
X, 171

Emmanuel Housset: Le don des mains: Phénoménologie de l’incorporation

Le don des mains: Phénoménologie de l’incorporation Book Cover Le don des mains: Phénoménologie de l’incorporation
Donner raison
Emmanuel Housset
Paperback 25,00 €

Reviewed by: Steven DeLay (Christ Church, Oxford)

Among the many poignant lines one encounters in Emmanuel Housset’s Le don des mains: Phénoménologie de l’incorporation, perhaps none gives more to think than does a passage in chapter two’s “Travailler et Œuvrer,” which, exhibiting this stunning work’s deeply spiritual undercurrent permeating every page, reminds us of the sacred responsibility our having received the gift of hands in turn entrusts us: “[L]a première préocuppation de la main humaine doit être la justice, et c’est elle qui fait de l’homme un collaborateur de Dieu. L’homme cultive le monde et Dieu cultive l’homme” (67). If, as Housset says elsewhere in the text, “le monde n’a pas d’autres mains que les notres” (153), this is because of our manual vocation to shelter and steward what encounters us as God intends. For as he states further on in one of the work’s middle chapters “Parler et Écouter,” “Le Créateur n’a donc pas donné des mains à l’homme pour remplir une simple function naturelle, mais afin d’assurer une tache spirituelle, qui est de répondre du monde comme totalité” (141). Thus, Housset will say of our hands what Jean-Louis Chrétien in The Ark of Speech has said of our voice. Making the parallel claim that human hands (no less than the human voice) are co-participants with God in creation, or better, laborers alongside God in the current task of restoring it from the Fall, Housset says that with them we can work to accomplish the establishment of the kingdom of God. Throughout its meditations on the hand’s innumerable dimensions, Housset’s work hence puts to us the same question gently but incessantly, one no human life ever succeeds avoiding from asking itself forever: Have you been working what is good, or not?

The hand speaks, says Merleau-Ponty. The hand listens, says Chrétien. So, too, it thinks, says Heidegger. These themes are for phenomenology far from novel, but Housset gives them new life, showing why they have justifiably commanded the philosophical attention they have for so long. As he notes at his study’s outset, and as he will underscore time and again in the chapters that follow, if the hand speaks and listens, its is a transcendence through which man encounters the world and its things, as well as others too. It is, to invoke the term he uses at least once, the “hinge” (charnière) between the world and ourselves. Neither a thing, an instrument, a mere organ, nor even the organ of organs par excellence, the hand is rather the power by which we touch and our touched, that with which we give and receive, build and make, release and grip, grope and explore. As Housset says, “La main n’est pas une simple partie du corps de l’homme et, à elle seule, elle peut manifester toute l’existence de l’homme dans son caractère charnel et temporel” (7). The hand both opens and discovers the world. And not only does it open the world through a transcendence that takes us beyond ourselves whereby we meet things and others, the hand possesses a past and so a future also, a time accordingly making the present one whose presence to the world is ours indelibly. As Housset with Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger never ceases to emphasize, the manual nature of existence means each of us expresses our individual unsubstitutableness through it, a distinctive style evident in the attunement toward being that very style exhibits, one incorporated in every gesture of the general posture by which we inhahbit the world and thereby decide to meet it. As Housset says of the hand,

“Elle n’est donc pas un outil d’outil, car elle ne se rencontre pas dans le monde, elle n’apparait pas dans le monde comme un organe dont je pourrais me servir. Son mode de donnée est tout autre: elle est ce qui ouvre au monde, le lieu d’une rencontre avec les choses” (159).

What, then, shall we say of this capacity of the hand to meet the world?

Placing the human hand within a frame of reference related to the question concerning the nature of man as a whole, Housset accordingly thinks starting from a number of themes explored by Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Henri Maldiney, Jean-Louis Chrétien, and Jean-Luc Marion. In so doing, however, Housset does not consign himself to exegesis. There is very little textual interpretation simply for interpretation’s sake in this work. His attention, rather, turns to what is visible in the world, not what remains just ink on a page. Enacting one of the work’s central theses (namely, that all writing and every writer have their styles), he transforms familiar philosophical material creatively, revealing subtleties we had not yet noticed, deepening insights we thought we already understood, and surprising us by bringing to words what we believed must remain unsaid, things we ourselves had felt before but struggled to express. In encountering what Housset shows, we find often that he gives clear voice to what we felt had persisently been eluding ours. And when these delightful moments of clarity dawn courtesy of his words, what a relief it is!

It is not by chance the work achieves everything it does that we are about to recount. The insights making it such a joy to read are won meticulously, with precision and remarkable attentiveness and foresight. Its unusual thoughtfulness is evident immediately from the start, in how for instance Housset self-consciously conceives of the treatise to begin with. In the introduction, he notes an astonishing fact. What, he asks, explains why there is no true philosophical treatise on the hand alone? As he says, “si la main est vraiment la synecdoque de l’homme, comment se fait-il qu’il n’existe pas un véritable traité des mains comme s’en étonne Valéry?” (7). There are many works that have touched on the hand, to be sure. Yet no comprehensive work on the hand as such exists. One might speculate such a treatise has not been undertaken due to a difficulty Housset himself had addressed a few pages previously in the work’s preface. Any study aiming to embark on an analysis of the hand in its totality, he observes there, must first ask itself whether such a treatise is even possible. The issue concerns a matter of access to the phenomenon, and hence a matter of method. How is one to approach the hand’s essence systematically and in a way that remains properly philosophical without reducing to an anthropological, biological, or cultural perspective? The task, then, is posing the question of the human hand without collapsing that question completely into one asking what man is. While the two questions do overlap, as Housset himself acknowledges, there still is something of a distinction between them worth preserving however intertwined they are. Housset explains,

“Néanmoins, dans mon projet d’ensemble d’une éluciation du caracère manuel de l’existence, je me suis heurté à deux difficultés: d’abord celle de l’immensité du champ à étudier et la nécessité de le circonscrire pour ne pas perdre. Le danger était que la question “Qu’est-ce que la main?” soit simplement reconduite à la question “Qu’est-ce que l’homme?” et que dans une étude indéfinie des representations de la main et de ses usages, ni l’essence de la main, ni l’essence de l’homme ne soient étudiées” (5).

In addition to this danger of obscuring the essence of both the hand and man himself by posing the question of the former in a way that eliminates it, by reducing it entirely to a question of the latter, Housset notes a further danger that must be avoided. One could make the mistake of dissolving the question of the hand’s distinctive sense into the more general question of what man is, yet one might also take too piecemeal of an approach to the hand itself. The danger here, in short, is taking an approach that gets bogged down in what amounts to an “analyse régionale” of the hand, one calling for the specialism of the art historian, anthropologist, or theologian. Were this to happen, the hand’s essence is lost amid the various analyses sketched of its figures from their correspondingly various theoretical perspectives. What Housset seeks, instead, is a truly philosophical account of the hand. And yet, this analysis also comes fraught with its own hazards. After all, even if one were able to approach the question of the hand from a strictly philosophical perspective, there is then the danger of traditional philosophical assumptions and prejudices about the nature of man (and hence the hand) intruding. Rather than revealing the phenomenon as it is, might not the philosophical tradition’s treatment of the hand obscure or even distort it? To uncover the essence of the human hand, thus, it will be necessary, Housset suggests, to question (and often abandon) the dominant philosophical horizons through which the question of our existence has been posed. And as for the hand itself, it will be necessary to find a logos that thinks it otherwise than how philosophy sometimes has. For Housset, this means first of all overcoming aspects of philosophy’s Greek and German anthropological inheritance:

“La deuxième difficulté était proprement philosophique: pour ne pas simplement raconteur des histories de mains, pour ne pas s’en tenir à des considérations anthropologiques, aussi importantes soient-elles, et pour parvenir à developer une ontologie de la main ou pour defender l’idée que la verité de la main est au-delà de l’ontologie, il me fallait une véritable these sur le devenir corps du corps, sur l’incorporation, et cela supposait de pouvoir montrer que l’identité de la main, comme identité d’exode, puisque la dignité des mains, leur glorie, est de s’oublier dans l’action, ne pouvait pas relever de la comprehension parméndienne de l’être. Ce travail a donc pris son temps afin de deployer une conception de l’incorporation qui ne soit ni grecque, ni nietzschéene, ni husserlienne, et qui défende l’idée qu’il faut manier pour voir, pour parler et pour répondre.” (5-6).

The aim, then, is to take an approach that liberates the phenomenon from whatever traditional philosophical assumptions are occluding it, while doing so in a way that gets to the heart of the hand as the regional analyses of other theoretical disciplines do not. In a word, Housset proposes a phenomenological treatise of the hand.

“En consequence, une parole philosophique sur la main ne peut être qu’une description phénoménologie de la main à partir de son mode de donnée propre; la main se donne à la conscience, après reduction, comme un ensemble d’actes: manipuler, apprehender, travailler, œuvrer, toucher, se toucher, parler, tâtonner, caresser, tendre, écrire, donner” (8).

As the first chapter “Prendre et Manipuler” makes clear, the resulting analyses exemplify that approach, for they are neither haphazard nor disjointed. There is a logic governing the hand’s acts to which Housset attends, a logic his exposition renders explicit by tracing the eidetic laws interconnecting the acts in question. In turning to the basic acts of taking and manipulating, for instance, Housset is doing so while simultaneously formulating a background question that he works out as the chapters progress. By first examining the acts of taking and manipulating, Housset invites us to wonder whether the paradigm of power they presuppose is truly the best way to understand the hand’s essence. Is this the deepest dimension of the hand? As Housset writes, “Tel est le cœur de la question: la main vraiment main est-elle celle qui prend, qui decide, qui impose, ou bien est-elle celle qui est toujours un dialogue, qui si comprend toujours comme une réponse dans la poignée de main comme dans le soin?” (10). In the same spirit of Heidegger’s own criticisms of representational thinking, here Housset thematizes the hand as something whose way-of-being undercuts the modern cult of power, control, and independence, the technological conception of man as the measure of things, as the one who gives to himself his own destiny by mastering what encounters him through his own desire and strength alone. As Housset says,

“Une telle question ne va pas de soi aujourd’hui et demande à être construite, dans la mesure où l’homme moderne, issue des Lumières, se prend pour la mesure de toute chose et, dans son reve d’un pouvoir fondé sur le savoir, il se définit d’abord par le projet de se prendre en main, d’être son propre projet et d’être ainsi le créateur de lui-même” (Ibid.).

Very early on, as we see, Housset is already carefully crafting the foundation for the work’s later critical reflections on the modern technological era’s mishandling of our humanity. For as he notes, any faithful description of the hand’s openness to the world entails a recognition of the limits to the hand’s powers, and so in turn our finitude. This recognition is one that we today, with the Enlightenment philosophical tradition epitomizing it, dislike to admit: “Cela dit, cette reconnaissance de l’essentielle finitude de l’action humaine est peut-être ce qu’il a aujourd’hui de plus difficile, car elle suppose un renversement complet de la représentation de son être” (11). Even when the hand is considered in light of its capacity to grasp or manipulate things, it must not be forgotten that this capacity presupposes a more originary receptivity to what already first encounters and solicits it. Whereas we tend to conceive of ourselves as subjects able to take and do, Housset’s opening chapter initiates a thoroughgoing deconstruction of the modern myth of the will to power. A self-understanding that sees itself as an autarkic being capable of creating itself by imposing its virility on its surroundings, as he says, overlooks the hand’s true fragility. In a comment reminiscent of Michel Henry’s observation regarding life’s inability to be the origin of its own powers, so Housset emphasizes how nobody has given his hands to himself. Furthermore, nor is anyone immune from the constant threat that its powers will suddenly abandon us: “Ainsi, la main n’est pas un bien don’t l’homme disposerait toujours déjà, mais une possibilité qu’il n’a qu’à la developer sans cesse, dans la conscience de pouvoir la perdre à tout moment, volontairement ou involontairement” (12). According to Housset, this fragility means the manual nature of existence is normative.[1] One can succeed or fail at having hands! As he says, “nous devons apprendre à avoir des mains, comme nous devons apprendre à marcher et à penser, dans la conscience de leur fragilité” (12). By this Housset does not mean that everyone is (or is not) an amputee, is (or is not) a paralytic. Rather, insofar as the modern notion of self-sufficient and invulnerable man is a myth, Housset means to accentuate how in turn it falls to each of us to recognize and embrace that weakness. The point is we may do so to better or worse degrees:

“En effet, encore une fois, il est difficile et necessaire de déconstruire l’idéal modern de la main conquérante, invulnerable, qui sait trancher dans le vif, en montrant quelle image de l’homme est à l’origine d’un tel ideal, et cela de facon à pouvoir retrouver une certaine humilité des mains” (13).

This deconstruction of Camus’s Sisyphean rebel who persists in trying to forge meaning on his strength alone serves to underscore Housset’s original phenomenological purpose. The hand, we see indeed, is neither simply a thing, an instrument, or an organ, but a way of standing open to the world. Highlighting the sense in which the hand is something more, Housset alludes to the notion of style, a theme from Husserl’s and Merleau-Ponty’s own philosophies to which he will often himself recur in the pages that follow:

“La main n’est donc pas une chose ni une partie du corps, mais elle un movement, un verbe, une puissance de manifestation du sujet agissant, et en cela elle est pleinement esprit et pleinment corps, sans qu’il soit possible de dissocier en elle ces deux dimensions de l’existence” (13).

Here already, if only obliquely, Housset has introduced into the account of the hand’s power to take and manipulate the more primary notion of style, a phenomenological notion denoting a fundamental dimension of human existence he in turn will explore at length in later chapters.

The hand, which thinks, and which is not simply the expression of a mind but rather the expression of the whole of one’s existence as man, cannot thus be reduced to a marginal or regional analysis. If we cannot think without hands, and if thinking itself distinguishes us from the animals, reflection on the human hand leads to a consideration of the ancient conception of the difference between man and the animals. Whereas man dwells and builds amid a world, animals simply live in an environment. The hand explains this difference, for in our case the hand possesses a power of touch whose sensitivity far surpasses what is known to the animals. Following Aristotle, Housset notes that of the five senses, touch is the most basic, for as the power of refinement and taste, it most marks the humanity of man:

“Ainsi, comme l’explique Jean-Louis Chrétien dans L’appel et la réponse, le toucher n’est pas d’abord pour Aristote l’un des cinq sens, mais ce qui fait que l’homme n’est pas un simple spectateur et qu’il est par le toucher engage dans le monde, cet enagement étant à la fois ce qui l’expose et ce qui lui permet d’agir dans le monde” (82).

Yet if Housset agrees with the classical distinction between man and animal, he is not completely satisfied with the common picture of it. At this point in the text, his many mentions of working and building will have brought to the reader’s mind Hannah Arendt’s famous analyses of these acts. And in chapter two, “Travailler et Œuvrer,” Housset indeed takes up Arendt directly. Man acts with his hands. He works with them. Such work takes many forms: work of the farmer, the surgeon, the writer, the carpenter, the painter, or the postman. What are we to make of this work? Were one to follow Arendt’s line of reasoning in The Human Condition, accepting its firm distinction between the private and the public, the oikos and the polis, and hence a corresponding further distinction between labor (travailler) and work (œuvrer), one will be inclined to conclude with her that, in our modern society, work as the ancients produced it no longer is. As Arendt and Heidegger (or Jacques Ellul and Neil Postman) have noted, today most of what we fabricate is not a work in the classical sense, but an object, a product made only with an eye to consumption.[2] But if it is correct that the ancient work of art is irreducible to a product, must it be said with Arendt that only artists remain true handworkers? Housset is unconvinced, for he doubts it is so easy to distinguish the labor of the body and the work of the hands absolutely. Here he aims to subvert the Greek logos in the name of a view that instead sees value in all work, at least in principle. He says,

“La main chrétienne se distingue donc de la main grecque par cette idée que le travail n’est pas une simple nécessité, mais participe à l’accomplissement de l’homme et que le corps participe au salut dans l’union de l’homme à la terre” (58).

Overturning the modern myth of man as the measure, it is also necessary to jettison the idea according to which there is a clear dividing line between a domain of manual labor somehow less noble than work. In the name of a more thoroughgoing humility, it must be recognized such a distinction does not hold, for everything (evil excepted) done with the human hand has its dignity. Having encountered this stretch of text, one inevitably will have called to mind the biblical story of toil’s origin. A page over, Housset fulfills the reader’s expectation, mentioning the Genesis account explicitly:

“[S]elon Genèse I, 28 ‘Emplissez la terre et soumettez-la,’ le don des mains n’est plus le don par la nature de l’organe de tous les organs, mais un don de Dieu pour achever la Création […] le travail n’est ni une simple soumission à la nécessité, à laquelle il faudrait idéalement échapper pour être libre, ni ce qui simplement sauverait de l’oisiveté et de tous les vices quis sont liés” (59).

Work (and labor) takes on a spiritual dimension, says Housset, for in putting them to use, our hands become “armes de vertu, de justice et de beauté” (Ibid.). Against the Greek view, it is not that man attends to life’s necessities in the home only then to act freely in public. To the contrary, paradoxically, he is always already free in virtue of his placing himself in submission to God. Neither the servant of the world nor a human master (or today a corporate employer), he is the servant of God. It is this reversal of perspective on work that gives a new understanding to labor, and hence a greater exigency to even our most quotidian or unrefined of deeds. From the eternal perspective humbled in the sight of God, the smallest deeds are a work too.

In the opening segment of chapter three, “Toucher et Se Toucher,” Housset observes how the question of taking and work show that the hand opens us beyond ourselves while always returning to itself: “la main est à la fois ce movement de s’avancer vers le monde et de la ramener à soi” (79). Equally reflexive and transitive, the hand’s movement entails we recognize that touch is self-implicating and self-transcending. Housset’s rigorous account of the way the hands touch and are touched (and even touch themselves) is of such complexity that doing its nuance justice exceeds the scope of what is here possible. Better anyway for oneself to look and see what Housset does to rework a longstanding phenomenological problem that commanded the attention of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. Maybe the greatest importance of Housset’s analysis of touch lies further on, when, in chapter four’s “Parler et Écouter” attention turns directly to a number of themes that occupy the book’s remaining pages: time, history, speech, listening, writing, and others. For if, as we read, “la main est en elle-même un movement de transcendence vers les autres et vers les choses” (158), far from being only what puts us in touch with things, the hand “elle est également ce qui lie l’homme aux autres hommes” (119). And an encounter with others is crucially different than one with mere things. It is because we are linked to others, for instance, that we have a personal history. For our encounters with others leave their mark: “Ma main en tant qu’elle est la mienne porte mon histoire, mais également ma manière d’être, le style de ma relation au monde” (124). And if the hand links us to others, giving us a history, this is so because the hand, which is itself entwined with the word, allows us to both speak and listen. Hence, in order to understand the hand’s history, its relation to others, and so with an eye to the later question of style, “pour la comprendre plus largement comme une capacité de parole et d’écoute” (124). Now as Housset notes, for someone as Husserl, one’s personal history is a matter of a temporal synthesis, one whose passivity sediments past perceptions and experiences into memories and thus a stable identity that in turn can serve as the basis for further free deliberative action and thought: “Sans reprendre ici les analyses de Husserl sur la synthèse passive, il est possible de s’appuyer sur elles pour élucider l’historicité de la main: elle a ses perceptions sédimentées, ses souvenirs, les actes qu’elle a poses” (125). Passive synthesis, as Husserl would call it, explains habit’s formation. Without it, the hand would not remember or know as it does. The Husserlian analysis is sufficient so far as it goes. It accounts for a crucial dimension of human embodiment successfully. According to Housset, however, it does not go far enough, for its description of manual habit as owing to temporal synthesis remains beholden to the idea that the hand is an expression of the mind, and hence still just an organ. But more importantly, Husserl’s account of the hand’s history overlooks a paradox Housset stresses must be addressed. It is one Housset describes as a circle: “Tel est le cercle: le monde ne peut apparaitre qu’à un sujet qui s’éprouve dans l’unité de son historicité, néanmoins le sujet ne peut se saisir dans son historicité qu’en agissant dans le monde” (128). Here again, for Housset the point is to see in this circle a radical fragility of the human hand and mode of being, one the myth of modern man discussed earlier neglects to acknowledge:

“Au-delà de toute téléogie organique ou rèflexive, l’expérience ne reconduit-elle pas à une absolue contingence du don des mains, à savoir qu’elles ne peuvent pas se réduire à une capacité innée du corps et de l’esprit, mais sont plutôt une capacité recue d’ailleurs?” (133).

The hand forges its identity by welcoming what lies outside itself and beyond its control. In this sense, it comes to be what it is, not through an auto-constitution, but through a movement of transcendence into the world where, meeting what it does, it answers to what has addressed it. The hand’s mode of presence to the world, thus, is not one of virility and initiative, but dialogue, as it always is in conversation with what it hears. As Housset says, “Elle devient radicalement autre, elle trouve son identité dans son envoi dans le monde, une identité qui est donc toujours fragile, sans point fixe et stable, car elle se construit à partir de l’appel des choses” (139).

If the preceding chapter four explores the eidetic link between hand and word, that bond inevitably leads to a consideration of writing, “dans la mesure où l’écriture engage toute la capactité du corps à render visible le monde” (153). Housset opens chapter five “Écriture et Style” by observing with Husserl (and Derrida too who comes up now and again) that “le champ d’écricture est un champ transcendental sans sujet actuel” (154). Writing assures the objectivity of ideality, by in effect establishing a repository of sense where such sense is available, waiting to be activated by anyone who comes across it. And yet, as Housset notes, there is an empirical fragility at work even here in the constitution of this transcendental language. Books, after all, can be lost, censored, buried, or burned. Housset will here criticize Husserl for failing to emphasize the sense in which even the incorporation of an ideal geometric language’s sense in writing is still for all that a work of the hand, or better, a work of the whole body. The blindness, says Housset, is due to Husserl’s decision to characterize the hands themselves in terms of the subject’s auto-constitution. Husserl, he will say, has introduced a kind of universalized architectonic where there is not one. The cost of this intellectualism, he continues, is evident in Husserl’s struggle in the Crisis to account for today’s epistemic, moral, and spiritual waywardness. Husserl fails to come to terms with radical evil. And if Merleau-Ponty himself never addresses the moral dimension of the hand squarely, neither says Housset does Husserl, who, despite his elaborate analyses of embodiment in texts as Ideas II, still maintains an ocular stance toward things. As Housset comments,

“Autrement dit, en dépit de toutes ses analyses sur le corps, Husserl en reste à une philosophie de la vision dans laquelle la seule réponse au mal est l’exigence d’une vision plus rigoreuse de l’universel. Il est possible de voir là un manque de prise en considération de la radicalité du mal, mal qui est plus qu’une erreur, un oubli ou une fatigue, et qui peut se comprendre comme une volonté délibérée de mainmise et de destruction, voire comme une jouissance de la negation” (157).

In the wake of this discussion of modernity’s inability to explain radical (but banal) evil, it is here that Housset takes up Heidegger’s later work on thought and speech explicitly. If, as Housset with Heidegger says, “Toute pensée est une œuvre des mains,” this is because the hand, which is more than an instrument to manipulate things, is “qui est une écoute du logos” (159). In an accompanying footnote to this stretch of text, Housset quotes with approval Heidegger, who himself in the passage in question emphasizes the essential connection between man and the hand: “Ce n’est pas l’homme qui ‘a’ des mains, mais la main qui porter l’essence de l’homme, car la parole comme domaine d’essence de la main est le fondement de l’essence de l’homme” (162). Now as Housset observes, if thought is a work, a work of the hands even, this is because of writing: “ce travail de la pensée, qui est un travail des mains, suppose l’écriture” (163). Housset’s early disagreement with Arendt should not be misunderstood. Here, it is clear how one should not take Housset’s criticism of Arendt’s position to mean he believes that there is nothing deeply disturbing about our modern condition. Far from it! Housset addresses this lingering potential misunderstanding when, emphasizing the interlacement between hand and word, he goes on to explain how modern technology attenuates that connection, thereby dehumanizing man. According to Housset, technology treats the hand as an organ. And what is the danger of doing so? If the Heideggerian formula according to which the hand thinks in fact is true, so too writing takes place with and through the hand itself. Housset’s concern, then, is that modern technology which veils our relation to being, leads us to forget writing is an act of the hand. And so, as he says, we consequently lose touch with our humanity: “Une main qui n’est qu’un organe pour taper sur un clavier, ou encore pour ‘textoter’, etc., réduit nécessairement le mot en moyen de communication et le perd comme espace de pensée” (167). Housset is mounting a criticism of the technological era’s thoughtlessness in terms of its corresponding mishandling of the human hand. In a world of touch screen devices, there is less space for the work of the hand, and so too there is an absence of thought. The hand, whose true integrity consists in its capacity to hear and respond to the word, instead is deformed into a machine tool that manipulates.[3] Hence, thought recedes and language wanes.

“Sans entrer dans toutes les analyses du Gestell, il s’agit de montrer que l’essence de la technique modern correspond à une degradation de la main en simple organe qui s’adapte à l’évolution de la technologie, mais qui n’a plus sa place dans le travail de la pensée; elle ne fait plus apparaitre, elle communique” (165).

Alluding to a thesis that will be familiar to readers of Jean-Luc Marion’s account of love in Prolegomena to Charity and The Erotic Phenomenon, Housset for his part claims it is love that puts the hand to work in a way worthy of what calls it. Only then are the world and its things no longer reduced to unfeeling and thoughtless manipulation. To anticipate another gesture Housset will explore two chapters on, here it is a matter of the caress. One must have a loving touch: “Le main manie vraiment quand elle se laisse prendre et organizer par l’armour, donc dans le paradoxe d’une dépossession et d’une possession” (167). Love’s delicate touch, as Housset stresses, makes possible a writing that overcomes the banal communication of technological chatter, by instead showing what has not been seen or else reminding us of what we have forgotten. It turns us from a virtual world, redirecting our attention back to the visible world. Writing, then, when it accedes to its task of giving voice to the things which have spoken to it, lets things speak rather than cancelling out what they say: “écrire, ce n’est pas imposer sa mesure à la chose, mais c’est laisser la chose être sa propre mesure, c’est en user dans un respect, qui est une reconnaissance de sa parole” (169). Concurring with what Jean-Yves Lacoste has said in Thèses sur le vrai of Angelus Silesius’ rose or Gerald Manley Hopkins’ sky, Housset’s analysis reminds us the written word is able to show what we had not seen. True speech shows.

Following on this description of writing as a work of the hand, Housset turns next to the notion of style. For here, to begin with, the term is not to be taken in its “usage en rhétorique or en historie” but rather “comme une structure de l’existence.”[4] Style, in the existential sense, is a matter of one’s distinctive being-in-the-world: “La question du don des mains va ainsi conduire à decrier le style comme une manière d’être au-devant de soi en agissant dans le monde” (171). Contrary to a line of argument that would dismiss the notion of style as unfit for philosophical analysis because of its ambiguity, Housset argues that the notion’s polysemy is precisely what makes it so fecund. Taken in a first sense, style is a linguistic feature. As Housset says, in that regard every writing bears a unique signature. Style in this way concerns the fluctuation around a norm—what Housset terms a “catégorial-objecif” notion concerning the work’s general form of expression and the singularity of the author. But Housset notes style, taken as a general structure of the intentional mode of being-in-the-world, does not alone suffice to explain how writing is an act of the hand. Further at stake, in short, is one’s personal history, but not, as we had seen with Husserl in the context of passive synthesis, a history constituted by oneself. Instead of an auto-constituiton of a self in its own history, Housset has in view an irruptive history, one that shattering the enclosure of the self exposes whoever it calls to a future which would otherwise have remained closed. Borrowing from Merleau-Ponty, Housset sometimes will use the term “verticalité” to denote this rupture. Now, if here existential style concerns a personal rhythm, it is an attunement no longer reducible to a subjective perspective of what is otherwise objective (as if style were a mere lens or gloss), but rather a mediopassive mode of encounter. This style is a “tonalité fondamentale,” a manner of adjusting oneself to the manifestation of being. With this other history freed, man stands open to a destiny calling him. Adjusting himself to the truth of being, the work of his hands accordingly becomes neither an act of prideful strength nor a pure act of freedom, but a free response to a call. As for writing, it becomes the hand’s vocation, our answer to what has first addressed us.

If in his reflection on style Housset mentions Husserl and Heidegger first and primarily, in turn he invokes Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty, Housset notes, not only observed acutely that style is an expression of our relationship to the world, but also that there is a connection between style and the hand. As readers of the Phenomenology of Perception know, for Merleau-Ponty a gesture’s meaning does not consist in some intention residing in the mind initially, for its sense is to be found nowhere else but in the gesture itself. The hand (or the entire body) speaks, which is why even the sleeping body, assuming the pose it does, is never entirely mute. It is this excess of sense underlaying the propositional domain of discourse that Merleau-Ponty claims the writer and painter express. According to Merleau-Ponty, the world itself has a style. Summarizing the upshot, Housset concludes,

“On comprend bien alors que le style n’est plus ici un écart par rapport à une norme ou un mode singulier de constitution, mais est cette charnière entre ma chair et la chair du monde qui m’envoie dans le monde; il est cette cohesion sans concept, antérieure à toute synthèse d’indentification et sans laquelle cette synthèse demeurerait une intellectualistation de la sensibilité” (185).

Housset’s study of the hand has to this point shown why the hand cannot be understood as a tool or an organ, a lesson chapter six’s “Tâtonner et Caresser” magnifies. Returning to the work’s earlier chapter on touch, here the issue is that of the caress. In keeping with the work’s central thesis that our existence takes form only in response to what encounters it, so here Housset will insist that this is so with the caress: “l’étude de la caresse va venir confirmer que la main est une capacité reçue de l’autre corps” (191). For as he continues a few lines down, if the hand in the caress “touche l’intouchable” (192) this is so because the hand is constantly groping for what always retreats in the face of the hand’s advance. Following Jean-Luc Marion’s paradoxical statement in The Erotic Phenomenon, Housset notes accordingly how the caress touches nothing: “la caresse il ne s’agit plus vraiment d’un contact, ou même du toucher, et on peut risquer le paradoxe selon lequel la main qui caresse ne touche pas une autre chair, puisque cette chair se dissipe quand on s’en approche” (201). As Housset goes on to say, it is this hand’s act of groping for what it cannot find that “donne à toutes les autres leur signification véritable” (Ibid.). In language deliberately reminiscent of Levinas and Ricœur, Housset attempts to pass from ontology to ethics, claiming that this constant retreat of what encounters the hand is nowhere felt more profoundly than in the encounter with the human other, who, no matter how close we get, still recedes as one approaches. As he explains,

“plus on approche l’autre la caresse, plus le mystère de son existence corporelle se dévoile. L’autre homme n’est pas une énigme qui se dissiperait peu à peu un fonction des syntheses d’identification successives, mais il se rencontre comme un mystère qui ne cesse de se refuser” (193).

In characterizing the reciprocity between call and response structuring the fundamental tenor of human existence, Housset shows how this conversation between things and ourselves is manual, ever unfurling through the hand that gropes for something to hold onto.

For this reason, Housset declares it is Levinas who above all has come the closest of the phenomenologists to revealing the hand’s truth. Unlike Husserl for whom the hand remains the power of perception and freedom, Merleau-Ponty for whom the hand is what gives things to be seen in the world, or Sartre for whom the hand participates in the drama of desire, Levinas sees how the hand’s fundamental dimension consists in “dolence, capacité à souffrir, à éprouver la douleur, mais également affliction par rapport à cette douleur” (211). Here Housset quotes with approval Levinas’s assessment of the hand in Totality and Infinity: “La main est par essence tâtonnement et emprise” (216). The hand trembles in its ache for contact. And so, the other is there, always appearing within the horizon of indeterminateness forever soliciting the hand that seeks to traverse its mystery.

Taking up the manual acts it has, Housset’s work as a whole, we have seen, undertakes a reversal of the modern myth of self-sufficient man, a deconstruction culminating in the work’s final chapter “Recevoir et Donner.” We grope for stability and assurance. And when we receive that assurance, it is always given to us, which is to say, it arrives as a gift we must receive. Now, the subject of the gift is not new to phenomenology. At least in the phenomenological context, indeed, the term has almost become synonymous with the work of Jean-Luc Marion, Housset’s own dissertation director. It is only proper, then, that a study of the human hand as this one should end as it does, with a meditation on receiving and giving and thus the gift, the very phenomenon to which the study owes its title. At the beginning of the last chapter, Housset will speak of “la main nue,” a hand having nothing but its own possibility of becoming what it will through responding to what it encounters. This is not the hand of a superhero, says Housset, but a fragile, humble, and weak hand dispossessed of everything. These are the hands of someone who has accepted the realization he has never given himself his own beginning. In this resulting humility of the hands abandoned to their own weakness, this powerlessness, says Housset, “ouvre sur une autre forme de puissance, qui est la puissance même de l’amour” (235). Love allows one to give without concern for a return. And just the same, love is also what strengthens us to receive, since, in impatience or pride where love is absent, too often we consequently refuse to receive what is offered us—there is nothing more pride despises than to be helped! This ingratitude, which here takes the figure of the modern subject who thinks he is in charge of himself, encloses itself within itself, refusing stubbornly to receive assistance from anything beyond itself or what its fellow man can provide. Such a figure, hence, refuses the greatest gift our hands may receive. For these closed hands refuse to receive grace. This, then, Housset will suggest so boldly, is the final position of the human hand that, succumbing to the cul-de-sac of defiance, knows no power but its own. This is the hand that does not take hold of God’s hand. Cut off from “l’amour de Dieu,” it is one that finds no destiny to which it is able confidently to consecrate its works. For, everything it does is destined only to fade.

Here, concluding our review with the gift and work in mind, what are we thus to say of Housset’s own work as a whole? Shall it endure? Bemoaning the embarrassing state of the philosophial literature of the time, Hannah Arendt in correspondence with Karl Jaspers said, “The academic journals are full of nonsense that not even the author believes but that is necessary for his career. None of these journals pays a red cent; very few of them are read.” Housset’s book is not nonsense; neither can the author’s sincerity, which can be felt on every page, be doubted; and his writing makes plain it was born of aspirations rising high above the petty ones known to those who write for an academic career. With a work as this, thus, it is entirely fitting to conclude with a note of prognostication. What future awaits this work? To be sure, Housset largely remains a name unknown to Anglophone readers. In the face of that unfortunate obscurity, an author could be forgiven the temptation to doubt the use of writing, especially when the truly philosophical works that result are bound to be less understood and appreciated now by reading audiences than in Arendt’s day. One imagines hearing Housset in Caen groaning: “Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labor that I had labored to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun” (Ecc 2:11). Is, however, this sigh of futility warranted here? Perhaps not! In an age when a work as this one receives far less attention than it deserves, that very neglect just serves to underscore its importance, for the relative obscurity in which it is received belies its fidelity to the philosophical spirit. Work of good that it is, Le don des mains will stand the test of time, and it will be read long after so much else written today is not. May there be readers who enjoy it now!

[1] Analytic philosophy currently is undergoing an “normative turn,” particularly in ethics, moral psychology, and the philosophy of action. Meanwhile, in the phenomenological milieu, Steven Galt Crowell, my dissertation supervisor of record, has more than anyone explored the normative dimension of human existence, first, in Husserl, Heidegger and the Space of Meaning: Paths towards a Transcendental Phenomenology (Northwestern: 2001) and, again more recently, in Normativity and Phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger (Cambridge: 2013).

[2] Hubert Dreyfus’s overview of technology in Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I (MIT: 1991) still provides an excellent statement of this concern that today everything increasingly is being reduced to the measure of flexibility and efficiency.

[3] Crucially, it should be noted that for an ideological program as transhumanism to succeed, it is as necessary for humans to become like machines as for the machines themselves to become humanlike. The melding of man and machine depends essentially on the dehumanization of the former.

[4] There are many fascinating overlaps between what Housset will say here of style and what Claude Romano, taking up the history of authenticity, says of Cicero, Castiglione, Montaigne, Rousseau, and others in Être soi-même: Une autre histoire de la philosophie (Gallimard: 2019).