The aim of this work is to examine Heidegger’s social ontology, roughly the human being’s relation to others. In eight chapters Knudsen elaborates Heidegger’s thinking of being-with, different forms of being-with (such as shared action) and, say, the politics of being-with. Knudsen, understandably, focuses on the early Heidegger and attempts to relate Heidegger’s thinking concerning social relations to fields that, quite often, have not studied Heidegger at length to develop their positions: one will find, for instance, accounts of Hilary Putnam alongside Heidegger.
This dialogue between the two big strands of contemporary philosophy is perhaps not always successful even though it at times surely is illuminating. Knudsen’s book, however, takes a slow start and at times gets lost somewhat in the definition-craze that haunts much of analytical philosophy (a craze that is a bit ironic when compared to Heidegger’s questioning of what a being actually “is”, for Heidegger obviously never allowed a definition to exhaust the being of an entity). Knudsen throughout offers a very lucid account of Heidegger’s positions—certainly when it comes to Being and Time—and of contemporary thinkers in the field of social ontology. It is clear, too, that Knudsen is somewhat enamored with phenomenology—who can blame him! Yet, although Knudsen for instance assumes the normativity of phenomenology—one must “get the phenomenology right” (130-1)—it is hard to imagine whether this alone will convince his dialogue partners. It is this that makes this reader wonder whether the dialogue between the two strands of philosophy here has always succeeded.
In the Introduction already, Knudsen describes Heidegger as an externalist: the reality of the outside world, better, the “solicitations of the environment” (2), make for the fact that the human being is always caught in, and claimed by, a network of relations on which he or she, in turn “constitutively depends” which puts Heidegger “at odds with […] contemporary analytical social ontology as well as recent social phenomenology” (5) which both see individuals or the dyadic relation between the other and me as the ultimate level of explanation. Using a term from Donald Davidson, Knudsen describes Dasein’s relation to the world and to others as triangulation: Dasein understands itself through the world which it always shares with others.
Chapter one sets out to elaborate Heidegger’s social ontology by pointing to a transcendental social structure according to which entities, properties, social and natural alike, appear as they do because “subjectivity itself implies a set of necessary and a priori social relations” (19) that is, the transcendental structure of intentionality as such already “implies a form of intersubjectivity” (22). I am who I am only by virtue of others. Sociality, then, is not something that is construed, constructed or constituted afterwards, after, that is, the ego is fully erected. This is why social ontology is an ontology precisely: it does not pertain to just a domain of existence, but rather is a dimension of existence itself (23).
Knudsen then proceeds by showing how Heidegger early on attempted to integrate “social ontology into fundamental ontology” (23), an attempt that, for Knudsen, is complete only in 1924 in Heidegger’s The Concept of Time, when he finally abandons all ambiguous distinctions between the surrounding world, the self-world and the with-world by pointing to a fundamental Miteinandersein of all beings with all beings. (24-28). Other Dasein are strictly speaking not a part of the world, a “form of world” (29), they share world with us because being-in-the-world, as an ontological dimension, is itself shared and spread out through all Dasein. Of course, the world of the other is different than my world. Yet the social ontological dimension of ‘being-in-the-world’ points to an underlying structure which is shared in all different and particular worlds. Being-in-the-world therefore consists in a “non-thematic awareness” (32) that is only “tacitly operative in our thematic awareness of an object” (32): we are hammering with this particular hammer long before this hammer shows up as a hammer precisely. Being-in-the-world, then, ultimately “is the relational whole of significance that makes our involvement with entities possible” (33). Our being-in-the-world is, however, not strictly formal or void. The world of the other and my world both share certain characteristics. Heidegger points here to in-order-to relations (Umzu) and the for-sake-of-which of these relations (Worumwillen). I hammer with the hammer in order to build the shed for the sake of the dog. Knudsen likens these in-order-to’s to the contemporary concept of affordances and the for-the-sake-of-which to a form of commitment (33).
Knudsen then quite poignantly warns us not to see this being-in-the-world solely as a “basic layer” or rather as “the non-social building blocks needed to understand all features of social life” (35). It is not because Dasein always and already has this transcendental make-up that it can turn to others. On the contrary: it is because Dasein is already turned to others that this transcendental-make up can be detected in the various particular worlds. Knudsen concludes by stating, intriguingly, that “there is a very minimal sense of the word to share at stake here” (38)
Chapter two compares the transcendental social ontologies of Husserl and Heidegger. In Husserl, there are for Knudsen two approaches, the one beginning from empathy—which Heidegger for the most part rejects—and the other starting from “open subjectivity” which is closer to Heidegger (38-45). Meaning is neither constructed by or given to a subject (which it then compares to the meaning of and for others), meaning has meaning only because it ‘shows up’ between us and because there are others in the first place. There is no meaning for one alone. Herein too lies Heidegger’s critique of Husserl’s layered ontology (48): there is no real and objective meaning that then needs to be traced back to the transcendental structure of an ego that then builds a spiritual community with other egos. On the contrary, for Heidegger, all of these are there quite immediately. Knudsen concludes that Husserl, for Heidegger, “proceeds in an unphenomenological way” (51).
The question is in what way Heidegger’s approach then is still to be considered transcendental. Knudsen correctly points to Heidegger’s use of “transcendence” in Being and Time. “Transcendence is the primordial surpassing of entities towards the structure that makes them intelligible [which is] the world. Transcendence names the phenomenological correlation between mind and world, and the investigation of this correlation is rightly called transcendental” (56). In a beautiful definition, Knudsen defines Heidegger’s phenomenological approach as follows: “Phenomenologically, to be a subject is to exist in an experiential field as the one to whom experiences are given” (57). One will then see that the “mind is intrinsically world-directed and -engaged, while the world is phenomenologically senseless apart from the mind” (ibid.). Heidegger so adds a worldly, experiential, almost empirical, but in any case utterly historical dimension to transcendental thinking. Indeed, “our surpassing entities towards the world always take place in a particular or finite way” (58). Dasein’s transcending is always particular—it transcends to this rather than that, at this particular place rather than there—but it is a transcending nevertheless. It is open to the field of possibilities opened up to it by this particular place in time.
Chapter three’s worry about this historical dimension is that it might be an instance of relativism. If “different people have different understandings of being” (69), how then can they “refer to the same objects” (71)? The chapter focuses on Lafont’s account of linguistic idealism and Dreyfus’ pragmatic conventionalism but sometimes seems to get lost somewhat in the peculiarities of these positions. It takes Knudsen a long time to get their points straight and to bring his own point home. Let us therefore turn to its conclusion and Heidegger’s take on the problem mentioned. Knudsen finds in Heidegger’s Introduction to Philosophy (from 1928/29) an example of joint attention, in which “there is a mutual non-thematic awareness between the co-intenders, who are thematically oriented towards an object that is, accordingly, experienced as a shared object of attention” (78). Here Heidegger had in fact asked “what enables several people to intend the same piece of chalk?” (ibid.) when attending his lecture. All of them are looking at the piece of chalk, for a while unawares of the precise educational point of the shared attention for this object and non-thematically aware that the others, too, are watching this piece of chalk held up by Heidegger. Yet all, because their field of possibilities in this case too is determined by their particular situation and backgrounds will look at the object differently. The teacher looks at the chalk differently than the students do: for the teacher it is a tool in order to teach, whereas for the student the tool is unnoticed—surpassed say—in order to focus on what will be taught. “This leads Heidegger to argue that a strict similarity in our practical comportment is simply too demanding a criterion for determining what constitutes their jointness” (79)—“even if we see things differently, we do not see different things” (78).
It is this play of sharing and dividing that now attracts Knudsen’s attention: for Heidegger, “we share and divide ourselves in [the] unconcealment [of entities]” (81, cf. GA27, 105)—we share the very looking at this object yet are divided in the meaning our comportment towards them attributes to these objects. “Two Dasein can intend the same object in roughly similar ways if they share an understanding of being by being raised in the same social practices” (82). Yet this doesn’t make Heidegger a relativist or a strong social externalist like Lafont or Dreyfus, where (social) meaning solely determines reference. Instead, “Heidegger endorse a weak or open-ended social externalism according to which meaning depends on ongoing social interaction” (83). These Dasein, however foreign to one another, will figure it out simply because Dasein is such a figuring out (of potential uses for objects).
This “figuring-out” is used here figuratively, although it is described by Heidegger quite literally as a “non-thematic other-awareness” (84) even when no others are around. Objects take on meaning because their use is useful if and only if it can be, sooner or later, related to others. Usefulness only ever arises because each Dasein is as the sharing of world with others. Knudsen emphasizes rightly that this transcendental-ontological condition of being-with, this non-thematic awareness is a form of communication. For Knudsen, “Heidegger’s point is that whenever another Dasein shows up in my realm of manifestation, his behavior will affect how I comport myself towards the surrounding entities” (85) because, in effect, we are constitutively open towards others” (86). It is because we are constitutively open to others—share ourselves in and as world, are broken open toward world—that not one object is without a reference to others even when no others are around to communicate with.
Knudsen likens this openness to Donald Davidson’s idea of triangulation where, on the one hand, we adjust our understanding of objects in light of other’s behavior, of social relations, and, on the other hand, we adjust our understanding of these others through sharing the environment, through objective relations (87). Such, if I may, transcendental triangulation is first. Prior to “shared conventions, rules, or routines” (88) there is, Heidegger says, an “originary, essential agreement” of human beings with one another (ibid., Cf. GA 29/30, 447f) and through which Dasein, throughout, comport themselves to entities in roughly the same ontological way. The remainder of the chapter explores the differences between Heidegger’s take on language and that of Davidson, Lafont, or Dreyfus who all, in one way or another, want to trace this linguistic condition of possibility back to propositional attitudes or at least shared linguistic conventions whereas for Heidegger the sharing of world goes “beyond the exchange of linguistic utterances” (92).
Heidegger’s “pre-reflective triangulation” (93) is such that even if we would meet someone who is totally other, we would still see and use the same entity, simply because our diverse interactions with it, and the possible uses the other of this entity that the other might manifest to us. Even if we do not share the same understanding of being, we will nonetheless both have an understanding of being. In the case of the lectern or the piece of chalk, this open interaction would show “the lectern not simply in light of the usage characteristic of the social practices that he is socialized into” (94) but as an entity toward which other comportments are possible too. Knudsen, quite rightly, concludes that “the idea that different people live in different worlds should be rejected” (95).
The second part of the book focuses on different forms of being-with, and opens with a chapter on interpersonal understanding. What indeed do we know about others? What do others know and how do we know others? Knudsen explores the phenomenological tradition of empathy, ranging from Theodor Lipps up to Edith Stein and Husserl as well as more contemporary (but analogous) debates on social cognition. Heidegger however was no clear partisan of these theories of empathy: the fact that an ego would need to ‘think about’ how the other would possibly feel only then to imagine if and whether the ego ‘would feel’ roughly the same thing, simply contradicts Heidegger’s non-reflective, immediate dealing with the other and others where we recognize the other as other before we would even try to project upon or reproduce artificially the other’s supposedly mental states. Heidegger, in this sense, “effectively dissolves the traditional problem of other minds” (109), since this problem is from the outset regulated by “non-thematic awareness”. It is because the other shares a world with me, constituted by a similar Umzu and Worumwillen, that we can “read [intentional statements] off the practical comportment of others” (109).
When we see a human being, we do not first wonder whether this is in fact a human being who thinks, feels and senses like me, we simply see a human being with whom we are interacting. This turns Heidegger, for Knudsen, into a “proto-enactivist” (ibid.), one of those recent theories nowadays advocated by Hanne De Jaegher’s research into participatory sense-making. Over and against the theoretical and cognitive bias of many of contemporary theories, Heidegger also criticizes the older phenomenological tradition for wrongfully prioritizing the face-to-face relation. Our understanding with others is “cut from the same holistic cloth as our understanding of ourselves” (112). For Knudsen’s Heidegger, this means that “interpersonal understanding cannot be a relation between two distinct entities. It can only take place by virtue of the transcendence of the shared world in which I and you coexist as different polarisations of a field of possibilities” (114). I understand the other, and the other understands me, because both of us live similarly in a roughly similar world with roughly similar entities at hand. It is by “going along with”—Mitgehen—the other seeing how he or she is and comports his-or herself that we discover what it is like to be this entity. It is therefore through an immediate non-reflective Versetzen or “transposition” that we understand the place of the other (Cf. 114-5; GA 29/30, 296) and discover that the other’s behavior is appropriate for a being that is being-in-the-world. There is little interaction with the stone, for instance. The stone, for Heidegger, does not have a world: it lack all Worumwillen and Umzu. In this regard, the other turns out to be just another “polarization of the same matrix of salience” living in a world which is “meaningful” and “makes sense” from the very start.
Here Knudsen disagrees with some commentators of Heidegger who argued that his account of solicitude—roughly: the care for the other—contains an “inauthentic” mode in which the other would be, à la Kant, reduced to a mere means to an end. Knudsen, interestingly, argues that all forms of solicitude, even those where we leap in for others and take their tasks away from them, “involve a minimal level” (119) of the acknowledgement of the other’s Dasein-like character. The distinction between leaping-in and leaping ahead is then not an ethical one (where the former would be bad and the latter good) but rather an ontological one: it depicts two ontological extremes of intersubjective care for the other (120). Knudsen convincingly concludes this discussion with some examples of his own that in effect carefully deconstruct why leaping-in would always be a bad thing and leaping-ahead would everywhere be a good thing.
Is there a transpositioning, a “going-along-with”, a walking the ways, with dogs, animals and stones? Heidegger’s example of the dog “under the table” became famous (notably through Jacques Derrida’s unrelenting analysis). Heidegger, one might say, directs his attention phenomenologically to the dog: he goes up the stairs with us, eats with us, and walks the same pathways as Heidegger once did. “There is a going-along-with […] a transposedness, and yet not” (121, GA 29: 308). Something is different. Heidegger says: the animal is poor in world. The animal, Knudsen states, “can only experience entities as correlates of its drives and capabilities” (125). The dog’s world only pertains to his next meal, say, whereas the world of humans is open-ended and characterized by a multiplication, Vermehrbarkeit (GA 29, 285) through which ever more entities can obtain ever more uses. This makes for the fact that, in the end, for Heidegger “the world sharing is asymmetrical” (127): we can transpose ourselves in the dog, know immediately to run away from a snake, and know not to run away from the gorilla if he’s in a cage in a zoo. We transpose ourselves into animals but animals cannot be expected to transpose themselves into us (127).
Chapter five focuses on shared action and opens with the constatation that many of the contemporary accounts—Knudsen mentions Gilbert, Searle, and Bratman—are overly intellectualistic and should be complemented with a phenomenology of action, which will speak, again, of a “pre-reflective agency” (131) responding as it does to solicitations of the surrounding world. Knudsen pays attention to “small-scale, egalitarian, and temporary group formations” (ibid.), say, people involved in dancing, in order to argue for a “plural pre-reflective self-awareness” (ibid.) whereas existential phenomenology, in its early days at least, tended to focus on rather individualistic actions.
Shared action meets three conditions: we are with more than one, we are forming a group, and we are aware of us forming a group (132). We are doing things together when we know that we are doing things together. It is on the latter, quite intellectualistic, aspect that Gilbert and Bratman focus. Once more Knudsen shows himself to be enamored with phenomenology: “we often engage in intentional activity without being aware of the desire and beliefs that supposedly distinguish our actions from mere bodily movement” (136). Yet such “pre-reflective action” does carry some awareness with it: I know that I am dancing and know that we are dancing without consciously representing a desired goal for this action. It is clear that most of our actions are in this sense pre-reflective. The rest of the chapter asks whether such a prereflective awareness is also present in groups. In this regard, Knudsen discusses Hans Bernhard Schmid’s work on plural action and argues that it misses precisely an account of “holistic singular self-awareness” (141) through which actions are always and already a response (rather than a reaction) to what is happening in the surrounding world: we go dancing, for instance, because suddenly there is a good tune or a good ‘vibe’. At best, Schmid arrives at a “formal social mind” (144)—we are aware that we are dancing—but not at an, say, empirical one, one that is “unified by the solicitations that prompt us to respond” (144): it is this particular song that got us on the dancefloor. To elaborate such an awareness, Knudsen then develops and expands an example of Heidegger describing the joint goals and joint actions of two campers (GA 27, 91).
Interestingly, Knudsen returns to Heidegger’s account of language—Gerede—to show how individual action is transformed into shared action. The simple exclamation, ‘Dance with me’, for instance, changes one kind of solicitation into another kind, shared this time, of solicitation of the environment (152). More than in the earlier chapters on intersubjectivity, Knudsen focuses on the ontological aspects of Heidegger’s social ontology, for just as we are with others even when we are alone, just so are we speaking even when we are silent or just listen or read (154, Cf GA 12, 9). There is an overlap between world and speech: world is what is spoken about, what “makes sense” prior to being put into one or the other proposition. In this regard, the song that get us on the dancefloor is just the empirical case that expresses, makes salient, an environment that already is “inherently shared [,] inherently expressive [and to which we are] inherently responsive” (156).
Chapter six discusses social normativity. Here too Heidegger’s account, for Knudsen, is “phenomenologically crucial” (166) amidst the ongoing contemporary debates. Heidegger was no fan of social conventions and his discussion of Das Man—the anyone—makes this quite clear. Knudsen engages in very detailed and intriguing reading of the ambiguities in Heidegger’s thinking of the anyone’s mediocrity where everyone does, reads, and says what everyone does, reads and says. Knudsen argues that “the anyone [is] reproduced by the weight of precedent alone” (168): we read what everyone reads, in a sense, because people have been reading this all along. Heidegger’s ultimate aim here is to “uncover the ontological foundation of our responsiveness to social norms” (170) rather than describe Dasein’s “desire for social affirmation”, as Fredrik Westerlund has it (ibid.). With Haugeland, Knudsen explores the ‘weight of precedent’: we do as always has been done because we are “temporal creatures with habits and memories” (171) and so tend to “reproduce” certain behavioral norms rather than others. This process of “stabilization” (ibid.), as Haugeland names it, will for Heidegger always amount to a sort of primacy of averageness and levelling down. “We unconsciously accept a standard way of doing things” (172).
Knudsen quite convincingly shows that there is no one-way ticket from the inauthenticity of the Anyone to the authenticity of a “proper” Dasein. Instead, the Anyone for Knudsen is a “necessary feature of Dasein” (173) that, at times however, can be reconciled with the quest for an authentic self. Dasein does “have options” (174): it is not condemned to the unfreedom dominating the Anyone. Knudsen ultimately argues that the Anyone or the “public” covers up aspects of the accepted and prevailing social norms in a very peculiar way: it tends to turn the current and standard set of social norms into an ahistorical, absolute set of social norms (175). Our way of doing things then becomes the way of doing things. With this thesis, we have reached the heart of Knudsen’s book—at least for this reader coming from the phenomenological tradition. For Knudsen, it is, on the one hand, necessary “that there are social norms”—this is the transcendental, existential aspect—yet what these norms concretely and empirically are differs throughout history—they are ontic, historical indeed, and therefore provisional. It is these latter chapters, in which Knudsen develops this insight, that one finds the most read-worthy passages of the book.
Especially interesting is Knudsen’s take on Heidegger’s odd, if not awkward, stress on the “destiny of the people” which, as we all know, starts in Being and Time and only keeps worsening after 1927. Knudsen turns to Heidegger’s account of historicity, late in Being and Time, and considers that there is a distinction between the Anyone and the concrete “happening of community” (176, SZ, 384) what Knudsen calls “historical social normativity” and through which “the same content, the same social norms are […] disclosed as historical rather than as universal defaults” (176).
Yet what to make of Heidegger’s thinking of the “people”, the Volk? Knudsen makes a great deal of Heidegger’s statement in Being and Time that it is possible for us to disclose “history emphatically” (SZ, 376). This would make it possible for an authentic self to both recognize the normative content of social norms and their historical, provisional character (179). It is in this sense that, to echo Heidegger’s wording, authenticity is a “new modality” (ibid.) of the existence of the Anyone. “In resoluteness […] social norms are handed down as handed down. We thereby come to see our socially inflected factical possibilities as heritage rather than as defaults” (180). We have inherited this possibility of organizing a society rather than that one, yet it is entirely possible and legitimate for a society to organize itself in an entirely other way. If we want to belong to a certain group and certain people then there is always, apart from awareness of all historicity of these social norms, the possibility of explicitly repeating them. In effect, “repetition”, is the more or less explicit choice to hand down the earlier norms again. “Dasein now chooses to follow a precent as a precedent or as heritage” (181), yet that still is “an ultimately contingent product of our historical situation” (ibid.). Dasein so becomes aware of its own historical community as a particular community which happens here, now and for the time being: the “destiny of this people”, of this particular community, is nothing more than the co-happening of all its constituents for this particular amount of time. I can decide to take part in, say, the Belgian community, to claim this as “my own”, to use the possibilities and habits and memories the Belgian community offers me, and so commit myself to the prolongation of this community by realizing that these possibilities are offered up here, now as possibilities next to a dozen of other, historical possibilities (of others, of other communities).
It is clear that Knudsen sees in Being and Time no “precursor to Heidegger’s fatal politics” (182) as early on Karl Löwith did. This is quite right. Being and Time was one of the first metaphysical works ever to be immersed in historicity that it would be downright strange if it in its concluding pages would settle for one or the other predestined destiny. Such a thing comes to Heidegger’s mind only later. But one needs to acknowledge, too, that Being and Time was not finished (and breaks off quite suddenly, with a question that was already present at the beginning): it is possible that Heidegger realized that with the “destiny” of the people, why not of being, other, less commendable, options were opened and that the book “failed” for the simple reason that its author could not decide where he wanted to stand, what choices had to be made. Knudsen concludes: “there is no necessary connection between Heidegger’s conception of history and his political engagement” (184). Let it be noted indeed.
It is true that in the thirties and early fourties Heidegger thinks he must, and can, think politically. “The general idea is that Hölderlin’s poetry can bring about an awareness of and a commitment to the particularity of the community” (185). At the very least, there is the willingness and desire to make people commit to a certain community. One might suspect that existentialism’s insistence on the freedom of the individual was, at best, a productive misunderstanding. In this period, though, Knudsen states Heidegger is occupied by three themes: the fragility of communal life, the pressure toward social coherence and the significance of communal commitments (186). At one of the rare moments Knudsen turns to late Heidegger, he reads this important distinction into the difference between polis and dike: the first is equivalent “to the existential-ontological sense of the shared world”, the latter “names the particular regime of historical normativity” (187) to which Dasein, always already, falls prey (and commits to, or not). This is why the latter is labelled as strife or conflict: decisions need to be made, there needs to be education, and institutions to enable these decisions. The question remains: if one realizes the utter contingency of one’s own community, how and why prolong this community? (Existentialism’s questions are philosophically legitimate). Yet, “on a personal level’, Knudsen states, “Heidegger took this idea to imply authoritarianism and nationalism” (192): someone will tell us that and how we need to commit and that we should commit to this particular community. However, and Knudsen is right here, one might just as well find oneself within a particular community without perhaps too much commitment, and just ask questions as Heidegger used to do: why and what does it mean to be in this community for seventy odd years or so, and why should I commit to these norms rather than others? There is indeed no need for “reactionary politics” like Heidegger’s very particular stance (192).
“Heidegger’s answer to why we should hold exactly these communal commitments is [more] interesting” (199). Indeed it is. Chapter seven opens with precisely this question. At least from 1935 onward, Heidegger believed that the historical task fell to Germany to prevent, as Derrida stated in Of Spirit, the phenomenon of the world from becoming obscured. It was the German state, with the aid of a thorough educational system, in which the people, Das Volk, would give itself a lasting body in which the people becomes an issue for itself (203). It is known, especially from the account of the seminars gathered in Nature, History, State, that Heidegger endorsed, perhaps somewhat unthoughtfully, the Führerprinzip. Yet, Knudsen argues, “Heidegger never offers any argument for this authoritarianism, but it is an intrinsic part of his politics” (ibid.). Authoritarianism is needed to enforce the goal of the state and of the people. Yet Heidegger, here too, wants that these people actually adhere to these goals, and consciously will them by committing to them. In this regard, “Heidegger sees education as a way of tying studentS to the state” (204), as a way of making them aware of the “historical task” weighing on them when taking part in the state and the community.
With Löwith, Knudsen therefore contends that Heidegger’s politics is built upon his conception of historicity from Being and Time onward. Yet, Knudsen, contra Löwith, wants us to distinguish between the need and possibility of communal commitments—an adherence to a particular, historical community—and authoritarianism or fascism (206). There is something to be said about the fact that Heidegger’s fascism is tied up with his notion of the “history of being”. But Knudsen is lucid enough to pinpoint the “highly ambiguous” (206) character of this concept in Heidegger’s writings and offers no less than five different definitions of the term of which only a moderate version is “fine-grained enough to yield convincing phenomenological analysis” (208). This moderate version instruct us “that each historical age is characterized by a particular understanding of being” (206). This, say, historicity of being is incompatible with the larger (and somewhat grandiose) claim that this history of being is nothing but a history of decline and that only a particular state is able to remedy or otherwise turnaround this nihilistic unfolding of being. In this sense, the “geopolitical knot” that Heidegger superimposed on the historicity of being, through which certain people are more (or less) nihilistic than others simply does not hold (209). Heidegger’s “politics”, in that sense, was never a “political philosophy”: these politics, Knudsen argues, were only indirectly important and were to aid the “metaphysical revolution” (208) Heidegger deemed necessary through which his students, through studying “relentlessly the craft of interpreting the great thinkers” (ibid.; GA 94, 389), would awaken to a new understanding of being that stepped outside of nihilism.
Heidegger’s efforts “to [map] different peoples onto the history of being” (212) are obviously “appalling” (209). Yet it should not make us blind for the fact that, in the Notebooks recording his disappointment with the movement, Heidegger realized that the ease with which he spoke of the “Russians”, the “Americans” and the “Jews” did not hold even for the “Germans”: “somewhat despite himself, [he] realized that the Germans are not a unified people with a single fate” (212). Heidegger realized, in effect, and to put it bluntly, that these students couldn’t care less about his metaphysical revolution—“they are disappointing all along the line” (GA 94, 116). Will he have realized that there was no way to educate the nazis, that they were “without world”, so to say, or at least without German Bildung? Perhaps.
In any case, Heidegger abandons all hope in the movement for a metaphysical revolution. The point is, Knudsen says, that “from this tension emerges another conception of the history of being” (213) no longer bound to “geopolitics and communal commitments” (ibid.): Only a God, supposedly the last one, can save us now. The importance of this chapter lies, however, elsewhere, in the mistakes against his own social ontology Knudsen mentions. First, Heidegger’s insistence that the Führer can act as an “ontological sovereign” (215) that can inaugurate a new epoch of being disregards the fact that no one can “step outside” being-with, where “meaning is an indeterminate product of social interaction. [Now] Heidegger takes meaning to be the product of creative acts of creative individuals” (ibid). Over and against the “high-brow” accounts of poets, leaders, and, why not, philosophers, there still stands the phenomenological messiness of being-with certain people in a certain place at a certain time. Next comes, with this, the confusion between ontic and ontological conceptions of community: “the world is no longer shared by equals” (216). Rather, someone steps out to once and for all distribute the terms and goals of this world-sharing. Meaning is then no longer open-ended, surging forth to speak like late Heidegger, from our different interactions, meaning is stabilized—a word Heidegger did not like—in its distribution from the leader to the all members of a community. What is more, once the “phenomenological sense of the historical” (217), through which we become aware of our historical norms as just that, contingent and historical norms, loses its formal character but “concerns content” (ibid.) through which certain people are lesser (or more) able to disclose historicity, “an element of historiological historicity [is] incorporated (ibid.). In other words, something very ontic enters into the mix which Heidegger, in Being and Time at least (but later too, when distinguishing between Historie and Geschichte) always wanted to avoid. Yet, the phenomenological sense mentioned above would “have avoided these problems […] different people or different communities instantiate this condition [of being-with] in different ways depending on their facticity but they never inhabit different worlds” (218). Heidegger’s historicism is, Knudsen concludes, no longer radical enough, no longer able to combine transcendentalism and historicity through which the transcendental take on being-in-the-world becomes aware of its own historical stance as well—we all have world but the world we have differs from people to people and from era to era.
Knudsen’s last chapter discusses Heidegger’s early take on authenticity. How are we take up our own historical fate, especially given no poets or philosophers can tell us once and for all what to do? Knudsen’ aim is “to dispel”, here too, “th[e] individualistic worry” (227). Knudsen understands authenticity first and foremost as a formal framework: I am not authentic when I understand my self from out of one or the other innerworldly entity or activity. Very much like one needs to become aware of social historical normativity as a historical normativity, so too Dasein must become aware of itself as a particular being that ‘is’ only as this particular, individual historical being. It is here, obviously, that the analysis of death plays a prominent role: nothing makes me more aware of my own contingency than a sense of my mortality. Dasein now understands that “it lives its life with reference to the possibilities afforded to it by its being along things and with others” (247) as a “being-possible” (246) amidst all finite possibilities. This formal being-possible is the only constancy that determinate Dasein is granted amidst all “ontological insecurity” (247). It is this ontological transparency—we become a question to ourselves precisely because we understand ourselves as a question, that is, as being thrown into a contingent, open-ended, finite world—that makes for a “non-political way in which the philosopher might become the leader […] of others” (256) by awakening these others too to this ontological question mark that we all are, yet, that we all are together.
Knudsen’s book contains some very thoughtful analysis and shows a deep understanding of Being and Time especially. Certainly, one needs patience to read Knudsen’s book, but such a slow read will pay off and one will be thoroughly instructed about Heidegger’s rightful place within the field of social ontology, mainly through Knudsen’s useful overviews of the extant secondary literature. The links between the sometimes quite diverse chapters, however, might have been somewhat better elaborated.
Yet one can wonder what the target-audience, as publishers call it these days, of the book precisely is: it risks to leave both Heideggerians and the analytical audience somewhat unsatisfied. Readers of Heidegger will at times be bothered by the overly anthropological reading of his work and, certainly the readers of later Heidegger, will search in vain for the ontological viewpoint that is present even in Heidegger’s history of being and thinking of Ereignis. As mentioned, the author is clearly enamored with the discipline of phenomenology and I have listed those instances when it is commended that we must get the phenomenology right. Yet, his appeal to phenomenology is at times somewhat naïve, if not superficial. There’s more to phenomenology than just an appeal to the immediacy of experience. Heidegger’s entire endeavor, furthermore, is an account of what is, not of what we experience—there’s a subtle difference to be noted. As it now stands, this account of phenomenology is far from convincing for those who still think that truth is indeed a property of a set of propositions. That there is a social ontology in Heidegger, however, and one that is thoroughly to be reckoned with in the current debates, that is shown more than convincingly.
It would be fitting, perhaps to start speaking of Madness in Experience and History by refusing to begin at the beginning and stepping right into the centre oscillating towards the periphery through a long and patient outwards spiral. The battleground of reason and unreason, the site of power and resistance; a space where the inside of the embodied subject meets the outside of institutional constraints; the structures offered up by history to consciousness – is the concept of the Flesh. “Flesh, for Foucault, unifies the discursive practices of society and the techniques of the self, bringing together the practices which act on the self with those which are acted by the self” (Venable, 2021). The notion of the flesh is the space of reconciliation, the fundamental schematism that could harmonize the embodied ontology of Merleau-Ponty and the historical ontology of Michel Foucault. Seeking the unified approach, Hannah Lyn Venable offers the reader a comparative analysis between the two prominent representatives of 20th century French thought and a complementary, integrated methodology for interrogating modern psychiatric discourse.
For Merleau-Ponty, Flesh is the body in motion, the human subject embedded in the world through her interactive capacities; the “I can” as opposed to the Cartesian “I think” is what sustains the order of things through the human perspective. Underneath the apparent stability of our empirical observations, the propositions of science and mathematics – facts, objects and states of affairs – the domain of the non-rational both sustains and threatens to undermine our sense of self and others; our relationship to the world. Flesh is where the subject and object come together. The primordial experience of the world is neither thought, speech nor observation, but action. In truth, it is not therefore “the subject” that sustains the world; it is the body. Flesh is already meaningful. This is the meaning of perception.
For Foucault, on the other hand, Flesh is the contested object, it is the apparatus that sustains one’s way of life. The body as an object to be governed, managed and disciplined can offer resistance to the series of objectifications imposed on it through power, which operates vicariously through the institutions of modern science and psychology. The “enfleshed” subject can constitute herself through alternative techniques of the self as a way to refuse the technologies of the self that attempt to render her docile. Flesh is the political battleground sustained by history.
Phenomenological analysis and archaeological historization come together in order to shed light on the history and experience of madness: The non-rational – divided into the pre-rational of Merleau-Ponty and the irrational of Michel Foucault – is juxtaposed against the rational as it is given to us in perceptual (i.e., corporeal) experience and throughout history. An archaeology and phenomenology of madness, according Venable, can shed a new and interesting light on our contemporary understanding of “mental illness” (a recent invention). With this aim in mind, Venable takes us on an uneasy yet beautiful and hopeful journey beyond the rational-nonrational divide into tragedy, the sense of loss and the wisdom of madness.
Madness in Experience and History, quite unlike the object of its investigation, exhibits a beautiful, structured architectonic. The book is neatly laid out and easy to navigate. This makes its otherwise difficult subject matter incredibly accessible to the reader. The book is organized into five parts and eight chapters. The first part offers a helpful diagram of the larger textual cartography laying out the outline, a series of definitions and key terms, the general aims of the text and the underlying methodology of the work. The second part of the book analyzes Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological approach to madness and the pre-rational as a stand-alone intervention in contrast to the third part, which similarly engages with the Foucauldian archaeology of madness and the irrational. The fourth part is where the process of theoretical integration begins. It starts out by tracing the real historical encounters between Merleau-Ponty and Foucault and their mutual influence (mostly the influence of Ponty’s lectures on Foucault), through a biographical study of their lives and the development of their thought. The section further advances into a detailed analysis of the seemingly divergent, irreconcilable differences between some of the important concepts employed by the philosophers. Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological subject is posed against Foucault’s bracketed subject and the perceptually situated subject is contrasted with the historically situated subject. The section concludes through the summary of their differences, bearing in view their potential complementarity and the possibility of reconciliation.
Chapter seven begins the strategic synthesis. Venable starts out by reviewing the existing, yet incredibly scarce, literature that attempts to bridge a sustainable dialogue between Merleau-Ponty and Foucault. According to Venable (2021), “…there are only two scholars, Nick Crossley (British sociologist) and Judith Revel (French philosopher) who have produced full books which attempt a complementary approach to the philosophies of Merleau-Ponty and Foucault…”. With the added difficulty, that Crossley remains nonetheless the only scholar (aside from Venable) to have written a book-length study of the matter in English. Venable continues to reconcile the differences concerning the respective theories of the (implied) subject, the alleged conflict between perception and history, the respective influences each writer had on psychology (mostly Merleau-Ponty) and Medical Sociology together with Disability Studies (Foucault), concluding the section through a summary discussion of the potential contributions that the integrated approach could offer to contemporary approaches in psychology.
The final section, part five of the book, extrapolates on the benefits of the aforementioned contributions through three particular case studies of Schizophrenia, Major Depressive Disorder and Bipolar I Disorder to develop an extensive critique of the bio-medical and reductive models of mental illness. The latter, often unbeknownst to medical practitioners, tend to draw on outdated techniques of governmentality to repress, isolate and subdue the underlying non-rational of mental illness (i.e., madness), through one-sided pharmaceutical interventions. Instead, a phenomeno-archaeological strategy could help identify the social and existential causes of mental suffering and provide an alternative method to the diagnostic model, which tends to compartmentalize the problem and add unnecessary stigma to the patient.
Venable advocates for a return to the seemingly outdated notion of “madness” to expose the deficiencies of the medicalized term “mental illness”. “… “madness” contains certain colloquial meanings which remind us of the broadness and ambiguity of human experience, unlike other more technical terms such as “mental disorder,” “mental illness” or “psychopathology.” (Venable, 2021). Both Foucault and Merleau-Ponty use the term “madness” in their discussions on psychopathology. Venable further introduces the term non-rational. The non-rational is divided into two subsets: the pre-rational and the irrational. The two different modalities of the non-rational aim to capture the distinct ways that our experience of madness tends elude strict systems of classification and sharp conceptual boundaries.
The pre-rational can be understood as the condition of possibility for the rational. It refers to the multiplicity of embodied processes, activities and ways of going-about-in-the-world that have to take place, before the clear and distinct ideas, facts and observations can be given to consciousness. The pre-rational can refer to the simplest non-reflective experience of our day to day lives. Playing sports, driving a car, dancing etc. Anything that involves putting conscious reflection out of play can be safely placed in the domain of the pre-rational. All instrumental and technical know-how belongs to this category as well. To the contrary, the irrational represents everything that stands in the way of reason. The irrational is opposed to reason, it creates ambiguity, problems, misunderstandings, errors in judgment as well as more intense experiences of anxiety, sense of loss, existential dread and melancholia. The irrational, unlike the pre-rational, tends to subvert reason in one way or another. The irrational could also manifest in transgressive behavior and the violation of social norms, bearing a complex relationship to crime and deviance. Finally, the non-rational cannot be understood without reference to the rational. In reconciling the differences between Foucault and Merlau-Ponty, Venable, in her holistic approach to mental illness, seeks to eliminate the sharp boundary separating the rational from the non-rational.
As we mentioned previously, the concept of the pre-rational is attributed to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of madness. In order to develop this idea, Venable draws parallels with Aristotle. According to Aristotle, every single thing bears a form (eidos) which pertains to the essence of the thing. “For Aristotle, the form is what brings the elements together to make it a whole, such as bringing two letters into one sound of a syllable or the forces of nature into one flesh of a living creature” (Venable, 2021). The mentioning of the word “flesh” in the sentence is of course no mere coincidence and as we spiral outwards from that central term, we are soon going to see how it forms a conceptual network with the notions of experience, history, madness, reason, the non-rational and the idea of restlessness employed by St. Augustine. The ancient idea of the whole being more than the sum of its parts plays a crucial role in Venables’s account of the essence of human experience – madness. “…madness arises out of this shared way of experiencing the world instead of being something separate from it…,” explains Venable (2021). The Phenomenology of the pre-rational aims precisely at this; to uncover our common experience of an embodied “being-in-the-world” (Heidegger, 2010) and the integral role of the non-rational in constituting that experience.
The unity of human experience is decisive for Venable and Merleau-Ponty in understanding the importance of the pre-rational and vice versa. An anti-Cartesian sentiment of rejecting mind-body dualism as well as the anti-Kantian sentiment of rejecting the subject-object division, both very important endeavors in the work of Foucault and Merleau-Ponty, are found throughout Venable’s Madness in Experience and History. According to Merleau-Ponty, consciousness is indivisible and “indecomposable” (Indécomposable). Venable successfully monopolizes on the French variation of the term to reveal the richness of the meaning underneath. She explains that the term refers to “something that cannot be divided into parts, broken down, taken apart or separated; it refers to the French concepts of inseparability (inséparable) and nonfragmentation (non fragmentable)” (Venable, 2021). The indivisibility of the human consciousness and the pre-rational manifest themselves in the body as they pertain to the fluidity of the total (reflective and non-reflective) experience, an immersed embeddedness in the world.
In this way, the pre-rational or the pre-logical, vis-à-vis the reflective and the logical, bears the same dialectic relationship to reason, which the non-rational bears to the rational; they are the same. One of the key take-aways in the discussion of the pre-rational as well as the irrational, is to reveal the complexity of the relationship between the rational/nonrational distinction on the one hand and the normal/abnormal distinction on the other. A very important insight offered by Venable, is that we cannot simply group the rational with the normal and the non-rational with the abnormal, as was often done. And we will see further through our journey, it is neither the pre-rational nor even the irrational that cause human suffering, it is in fact the aforementioned relationship; the connecting line between the rational and the non-rational for each individual, or even entire communities. Psychological suffering, according to Venable, is the result of a deformation of that relation, their “falling out of tune” with each other. This discrepancy manifests in the body, within the flesh of our performed selves.
It is true, that perceiving and the awareness of perception can be separated, some perceptions are clearly more “cerebral” or “cognitive”, while others are enacted “unreflectively” and “without conscious awareness”, but the distinction is arbitrary, or methodological, to be more precise. It is a technique of speaking about human experience, much less than a representational model. The division admits of degrees. In other words, we have a scaled understanding of those distinctions, which Descartes and Kant wanted to separate categorically. In this sense, when Venable (2021) and Merleau-Ponty address “the primordial” relation humans have with the world, they are not advocating for a clear division between the pre-logical and the reflective; Venable’s goal specifically is to build on Foucault’s project of an “expanded reason” in order to take into account both the irreducible mystery of the irrational as well as the spontaneous activity of the pre-rational.
The empirical world of a trained and socialized subject and the discourse of science (which today more than ever, plays an important political function in how we constitute ourselves as subjects) is a derived language, it is posterior to the primordial experience of the world. Where the first can be conceptualized as a series of spatial relationships between objects, the latter operates as a field of interactive capacities and actualities. “…the point”, writes Venable (2021), “is that through reflection on the primordial field, we can see the human in the fullest sense, beyond the subject and object divide, and this demonstrates how the human relies on an area of a field, known as the unreflected.” The affective perceptual field is therefore primary and anterior to what we would normally call a world. It is a field of affects. This primordial world can be accessed through various techniques, including of course, phenomenological philosophy, but also the arts, sport activities and limit-experiences.
The center of the primordial field of habitual behavior is the body. The body, once again, is not an empirical object for study, the body objectified through i.e., the disciplines of biology, anatomy, neuroscience etc. The latter is a derived body that bears close to no resemblance to the affective body. This is not a body made up of atoms, genes, cells and molecules. Merleau-Ponty’s body is that which administers affects and re-arranges habits. It is not the metabolic body, rather it is a body of actions, a multiplicity comprised of a dynamic series of affecting-and-being-affected. Without the dynamic body, the empirical body cannot come to being. “The body, as the first, most basic habit, is the platform of nonrational behavior upon which other habits can be built. The process of growing habits is continuous because habits are always in a state of renewal” (Venable, 2021). According to the description, the body bears a direct resemblance to the previous Aristotelian characterization of form. Hence, the body is not a thing among things, but rather the general form of human behavior.
In contrast to Foucault’s “implied” understanding of the body, which does not possess an inside, Merleau-Ponty’s account portrays the body as a center of activity; the pre-rational nucleus of human experience wherefrom habits, actions, capacities and in short: perceptions emerge. Unlike the body of passivity described by Foucault, which always is and can only be inscribed from the outside, even by the subject herself in her negotiations with power, the active body of Merleau-Ponty is a creative actor of the flesh, structuring and re-structuring its own habitual patterns. Venable’s central argument is that the two bodies are perfectly reconcilable, more so, each can account and compensate for the deficiencies in the other.
Entering the Foucauldian realm of the archaeology of madness and the irrational, the opening lines of the third section of the book introduce St. Augustine’s writings on human restlessness. “Augustine’s portrayal of the restlessness of humanity sets an excellent framework for considering Foucault’s account of unreason: both see unspoken pain at the heart of the human experience and both call us to acknowledge the depth of the pain rather than ignore it” (Venable, 2021). Needless to say, unlike Augustine, Foucault does not identify the source of human restlessness in either sin or eternal damnation, nor still would Foucault find the solution to human suffering in seeking refuge with God. Instead, Foucault calls for a historical analysis of unreason to uncover the various forms taken by men’s and women’s anxious relationship to themselves and analyze the different constructions of madness employed by the ages in their attempts to manage and domesticate the irrational.
Venable (2021) argues for an essential unity, which brings together the multiple manifestations of the irrational throughout European history labelling it the “overarching non-rational”. Foucault’s unreason or “(déraison)”, writes Venable, can be understood as something that is opposed or contrary to reason. The Foucauldian unreason is specifically opposed to the Christian and Latin (late Roman) conception of reason: ratio. The latter should not be conflated with the Greek logos. Unlike the former, the latter is not pitted against déraison, such valorization of reason as separate and superior to unreason, Venable states, would bear a closer relationship to Greek hubris i.e., arrogance. Instead, the logos, unlike ratio, offers an expanded understanding of reason having no trouble entering into a dialectical relationship with unreason.
Venable continues to trace the multiple forms of madness describing the ways in which societies chose to govern the mad by following Foucault’s work; the History of Madness, throughout three distinct epistemic formations: The Renaissance, the Classical Age and Modernity. At this point Venable begins to combine Foucauldian and Pontyesque terminology to speak of the “perception of the rational” and the “perception of the irrational” as different manifestations of the same rational/non-rational divide which (unlike Foucault), Venable tends to take as the universal constant in the history of reason and madness. And once again, unlike Foucault’s work, Venable’s seemingly innocent attunement of phenomenology to archaeology begins to sound increasingly Hegelian.
Aside from the three distinct historical epochs, Venable introduces what Foucault terms the four consciousness of madness: the critical, the practical, the enunciatory and the analytical. As we will see, none of these techniques of managing the irrational can be found as stand-alone and entirely separate from the other three. However, with the introduction of each epistemic break separating one discursive formation from the other, we find some of these techniques becoming predominant, while others recede to the background.
Beginning with the 16th century: The play of light and dark is the main motif behind the Renaissance understanding of the rational and the non-rational. The Renaissance was the most tolerant of the three ages. During this period, madness, despite its terrifying manifestations, was seen as something necessary. As an essential counterweight to the light of reason, unreason was perceived as the frightful, tragic path one had to take to achieve light and clarity. Finding multiple expressions in the works of notorious Renaissance artists such as Hieronymus Bosch, Matthias Grünewald and Pieter Brueghel, the age of Renaissance would embody a metaphysics of the tragic, which takes contradiction seriously, but not as a problem to resolve or a sickness to be cured, but rather an irreducible mystery; a cosmic antagonism that needs to be confronted by coming to terms with it. “To try and tear away the illusory and the chimerical would also be to tear away the real and the true. The illusory aspect of the irrational is woven together with the reality of the rational” (Venable, 2021).
The Ship of Fools would come to express the social pragmatics of madness in the age of the Renaissance. The mad were “entrusted” to sailors as useless cargo occupying the decks of traveling merchants and fisherman. As the general undesirables, banished from the cities, they were trapped within the wet liminal spaces of turbulent waters, roaming endlessly from harbor to harbor. Water became the master-signifier for madness. The Renaissance would embody the critical consciousness of unreason, where the opposition between reason and unreason would not preclude and even further; would necessitate the dialectical relationship between them.
The human monster was the caricature for the Renaissance conception of madness. The monster, despite being an aberration, an exception to the taxonomic system, a deviation from a classifiable species-being, served as a reflection of the very human struggle against tragedy, unnaturalness, illusion and the decentered relationship between the subject and the world. “The mad person on the boat and the peasant in the town share the same world: the presence of the wandering boat reminds the peasants on shore of the difficulty in seeking after truth and the reality of the tragic all around them” (Venable, 2021). Both the madman and the man of reason would share a common experience of the unnatural and the monstrous as an essential possibility for mankind.
The Classical age, like the Renaissance, recognized the darkness of the irrational, but unlike the latter, it broke off the dialogue between reason and unreason and modified the critical attitude by exorcising the dialectical relationship. The Classical age, marked by The Great Confinement, is the defining historical period, which according to Foucault, has played the most important role in constituting the modern (our) attitude towards what eventually became known as mental illness. With this in mind, Venable brings our attention to the purpose of Foucault’s project by reminding us of the full title of what is arguably Foucault’s magnum opus: Madness and Unreason: History of Madness in the Classical Age.
The classical irrational, in stark contrast to the Renaissance, far from a natural predisposition of man, was now identified with moral failure. The Classical age therefore activates a new attitude towards madness, which sees the non-rational as a serious problem that requires correction. Unreason was now perceived as the regression of man to a primordial level of development. The madman was labeled as primitive and beastly. The animality of madness was used as a pretext to create distance between reason and unreason, to isolate, confine and place madness out of sight. The radical expulsion of madness was followed by an excess of reason. Every immoral, irrational act was reduced to a series of causes, effects and reasons to the point where madness itself became overdetermined by reason without thereby being assimilated to it. An extreme repression of madness by reason led to an ontological metamorphosis of unreason, where the irrational transformed into a persistent presence of nothingness. “…these three qualities show the steps that the irrational takes toward nothingness: first, the irrational is opposed to the rational, and then it is driven into the void between madness and the rational; here, madness becomes the place-marker for the irrational and is judged by the rational according to some unknown forces. The rational, in the end, appears to dominate, but its foundation remains insecure” (Venable, 2021). This tripartite transfiguration of unreason into nothingness offered by Venable shows how the Classical age, in its desperate attempt to annihilate madness, flies in the face of a paradox and ends up subverting its own foundations of reason. Another, somewhat extensive but very insightful quote will illustrate this point more clearly: “At its root, the content of madness signifies an absence, a nothing, because experiences of madness can be explained only by something positive in the categories of the rational. Paradoxically, this positive display of something real in madness is actually a display of nothingness. This means that the experience of the irrational, which is summed up in the experience of madness, must mask itself as its opposite to be understood” (Venable, 2021).
The Classical age is representative of the critical and the practical consciousness of madness. The separation between reason and unreason is no longer accompanied by a dialectical understanding of their reciprocity. Instead, the practical consciousness is used to divide and conquer madness entirely, until nothing remains but the pure visibility of a totalizing and undisputed rationality. The enunciatory and the analytic consciousness of madness are also present in the classical age. Where the first serves to label anyone and everyone, especially those considered idle and “purposeless,” as insane leading to their immediate or eventual confinement, the latter was used give support and lend weight to the initial superficial “diagnosis” by drawing on “objective scientific claims” about “the nature of madness.” Very different from the Renaissance, where the mad were “let loose” to roam the seas and sometimes the streets, the Classical age sought to confine, cure and correct the incorrigible individual.
Where the rationality of the Classical age can be described as the privileging of order, morality and positive truth, the Modern age would deal with madness through the notions of objectivity (carried over from the Classical age), science and the norm. But most importantly, the Modern age has set itself up as the first discursive formation that attempts to ignore the non-rational altogether. In this way, the irrational becomes alienated, exiled and silenced (Venable, 2021). The analytic consciousness of madness dominates our age. The break in the dialogue with madness is no longer deployed as an active turning toward and excommunication of madness, but rather its alienation and thereby its own self-alienation, the latter being pragmatically implied in the former. Madness is no longer forced into nothingness; it has gone mute.
The Modern age, building on the exclusionary practices of the Classical age becomes the age of humane treatments, cures and rehabilitation programs. “…the modern approach builds on the reality of the already confined mad and takes this preexisting condition as an opportunity for new medical studies and experiments” (Venable, 2021). The transition from the Classical to the Modern age results in the transformation of the incorrigible individual (the human monster of the 16th century Renaissance) into the sexual pervert. The abnormal individual is now portrayed as a threat to the nuclear family, which in turn serves as the foundation for civil society. No longer held morally accountable for his deviance, the pathologized person is pronounced sick; in need of help and treatment.
It goes without saying that the irrational isn’t going anywhere just because we decided to ignore and medicalize it. But it has become easier to fail to acknowledge it for what it is due to the incessant covering-over of madness by modern discourse. “Anxiety”, “Panic Attack”, “Depression,” “Perversion”; the labels used to channel the violent flows of the non-rational act as chimeras that foster substitute experiences in place of the confrontation with the tragic. “Like a teenager rebelling against the strict rules of his or her parents, the irrational revolts against the modern reduction of madness to mental illness; the more it is oppressed and pushed aside, the louder it bursts onto the scene” (Venable, 2021). Perhaps the work on the self in our age, implies a new confrontation with unreason beyond prescription pills and therapeutic interventions and maybe the courage for truth implies a courage for madness. What is the price that needs to be paid to refuse the biomedical model? Alternatively, what is the price paid for acceding to it? Or is this a false dilemma?
An expanded understanding of reason drives Venable’s work on Merleau-Ponty and Foucault. And according to Venable, it is also what motivates both Foucault and Merleau-Ponty to engage with the history and phenomenology of madness. Whether this is indeed the case, especially for Foucault, is a question that needs to be further addressed. Venable seeks to bypass several difficulties in her aim to reconcile Merleau-Ponty and Foucault, especially given Foucault’s explicit rejection of phenomenology, his refusal to formulate any clear theory of the subject, the methodological approach of archaeology and finally, his skeptical attitude towards psychology.
Among phenomenological philosophers Foucault is known as the author of the bracketed subject, while to the comparatively larger circle of scholars he is also known as the author of the implied subject. The bracketed subject can be viewed as a strategic anti-phenomenological deployment. The Husserlian notion of “bracketing” refers to the mental act of suspending or putting the natural attitude out of play. Its purpose is to prepare the philosopher for performing phenomenological analysis. The phenomenological reduction or the epoche is central to the phenomenological method. The act of bracketing is performed by the transcendental subject and the subject is thereby the founding element for the method. By bracketing the subject, Foucault thereby annihilates phenomenology itself, claiming that the subject, far from an undeniable given, as is the case with Descartes, is in fact a complex product of power-relations. The unity of the subject is one of the contested grounds between phenomenologists and Foucauldians. Granted, Merleau-Ponty’s theory of the subject is significantly different from the Husserlian subject due to the emphasis on the role of the body, Venable’s take on the matter is that the Pontyesque body nonetheless exhibits an indivisible (non decomposable), albeit experiential, unity. This unity, either implicitly or explicitly, I argue, is not found with Foucault.
The subject in Merleau-Ponty is the starting point and the ultimate foundation of reality. Ponty takes care to show that the essence of the phenomenon is not simply observation, but an embodied and interactive relationship with the world. As we mentioned before, perception is action, or the capacity to act within a milieu – the ‘I can’. “Everything must begin with my own perspective as a subject for I cannot ever entirely escape myself,” writes Venable (2021). This is clearly not the case for Foucault. Foucault privileges discourse over the subject, claiming that the subject is in fact a product of multiple discourses. One produces oneself through discourse, an on-going narrative of the self about the self; the self is constantly sustained through institutional mediation. In this sense, contra Venable, it seems that the Foucauldian account of experience is one of fragmentation, rather than unity. The subject is dispersed via discourse and all unity is merely an a/effect.
Venable is not the only phenomenologist who levels the accusation against Foucault for him having neglected the role of the body. It is thought that Foucault has somehow “forgotten” or otherwise ignored the body, the lived body as it is experienced from within, in order to address the “more urgent” matters concerning the body of power inscribed from the outside. Another accusation involves labeling Foucault a determinist due to his “one-sided” approach to the body. If the body is exclusively the product of inscriptions and power-effects, how does one negotiate for freedom? Both of these questions will be addressed shortly towards the end.
By speaking of the unity of experience or the unity of the body, Venable does not thereby concede to the existence of a determined or determining human nature; neither do Foucault and Merleau-Ponty. And yet, Venable (2021) argues, “that the body has a certain “universal arrangement” which operates according to common patterns and allows us to discover through perception and through exploration the order of the world.” Why does this universality have to pertain either to the lived body or the inscribed body remains unfortunately quite unclear and in need of further support. In her attempt to link phenomenology with archaeology, Venable seems to do little justice either to Merleau-Ponty, who in his later work abandons phenomenology altogether, or to Foucault, by discarding several of the central theses orchestrating his entire oeuvre.
Venable attempts to respond to these questions in chapter seven and begins the process of reconciliation between the Foucauldian and the Pontyesque views on subjectivity, the role of history and their relationship to psychology. Using a “complementary” approach, Venable offers the reader a strategic synthesis, whereby the dialogue is supposed to result in the mutual enhancement of the two philosophers and their methods. We must ask, once again, how much of the actual content of their work is sacrificed for the presumed effectiveness of the integrated approach? Venable makes a profound point, one rarely encountered in contemporary Foucauldian scholarship; Foucault was indeed interested in the question of experience. And it is without a doubt, that human experience is a problem that gripped Merleau-Ponty as well. But unfortunately, Venable takes a rather unsubstantiated leap, by attempting to link this mutual fascination with experience to a shared understanding of subjectivity. To reiterate, the Foucauldian conception of experience, to my mind, does not by any means imply unity. Quite the opposite. The experience of madness, maybe even by definition, is the experience of dispersed fragmentation. There is, I argue, no implied subject behind this idea of experience. It is fundamentally different from the actual experience of the phenomenological subject. The phenomenological and Pontyesque body may or may not necessarily support the idea of unity, but the Foucauldian conception of flesh at its most “fundamental” level is necessarily disjointed.
The final section of Madness in Experience and History offers novel approaches to mental illness by suggesting several routes for the application of the integrated method. After claiming to have reconciled the differences between phenomenology and archaeology, Venable attempts to introduce her method to contemporary problems in psychology. Starting with the case of Schizophrenia, a modern disorder broadly defined as discord between emotion, thought and behavior and the presence of hallucinatory symptoms, Venable first points out that the element of fantasy never achieves its full expression. The subject’s relationship with reality is never entirely broken down. Perception remains as an invariant structure between the “normal” and the “pathological” experiences of reality. “Both experiences, hallucinatory and perceptual, come from the same structure of human experience… … the primordial relation to the world” (Venable, 2021). The patient therefore, is not cut off from reality, but simply bears a different relationship to it. The pre-reflective non-rational is equally present in the perceptions of the normal as well as the abnormal individual, the difference is, as mentioned before, the relationship between the rational and the non-rational. It is almost as if there was a failure of executing a technique or exercising a capacity, rather than the absence of a faculty.
Melancholia, better known today as Major Depressive Disorder leads to the second diagnosis discussed in the book. Similar to cases of Schizophrenia, Venable via Merleau-Ponty, shows that the melancholic subject engages with the same structures of the common, rational order to “distort” and recreate a world of desperation and hopelessness. Once again, the connection is not severed, the patient “takes what she needs” in order to maintain an anesthetized morbid reality of her own. Paradoxically, the patient uses the world to push it away, maintaining a radical relationship of heterogeneity and exteriority with the social. The “abnormal” individual flees subjectivity. “Even when we feel trapped by grief and sorrow, our senses are still taking in the world around us, such as seeing a brightly colored object across the room” (Venable, 2021). By pointing out, once again, the shared structure of the embodied pre-rational, Venable’s approach helps us see what is left of our shared experience; the non-rational between us and those who suffer from mental distress. And this is more than enough to bridge the gap and overcome the stigma that often accompanies a diagnosis. Where Merleau-Ponty should help us see the common phenomenological experience that allows us to relate with those affiliated with mental illness, Foucault helps us see the bigger picture and the historical horizon that links all cultures and epochs in their attempts to deal with madness, unveiling the larger social determinants of psychological suffering. Both approaches either “reach beneath” or see beyond the compartmentalized logic of the bio-medical model.
Bipolar I Disorder characterized by violent mood swings and alterations between mania and depression is characterized by a movement from the general sense of being lost or “decentered” (Venable, 2021) vis-à-vis “normal” experience, to an intense state of concentration and lucidity. Venable identifies a pattern similar to the one found with the other two cases: “As we have consistently seen in other disorders, there is not a total loss of the rational in the distortion of space, for even during a manic episode a person can often still distinguish between objective space and the “me-centered” reality” (Venable, 2021). Once again, we should refuse to give in to our outdated modes of relating with the other by othering them further and reducing them to their diagnosis. The phenomenology of bipolar disorder repeatedly demonstrates that those who suffer under the label have more in common with those who don’t than may be noticed at first glance. Similarly, Foucault’s historical approach shows that the diagnosis of bipolar disorder leaves much to be desired in terms of rigor and accuracy, revealing, as before, the need for a more inclusive and broader understanding of its socio-historical origins.
Hannah Lyn Venable’s Madness in Experience and History: Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology and Foucault’s Archaeology is a beautifully written, clear and concise work of exemplary academic scholarship. It’s ambitious aims of reconciling two hostile schools of philosophy has not gone unnoticed and will remain relevant for years to come. The original integrated approach holds much promise in improving psychological care and providing a better understanding of the history and sociology of mental illness. But despite the lucidity, usefulness and relevance of the work, it does little justice to the archaeological method. Foucault’s work repeatedly emphasizes the importance of dispersions. The Foucauldian subject is a non-subject scattered throughout discourse and the only unity offered to the self is that which is artificially imposed or self-imposed through power. The flesh cannot exhibit unity, since the self is itself an event, a site of power and resistance where freedom is fought for. There is no inside, because the distinction between inside and outside is itself a structure maintained through discourse. Arguing for an implied theory of the unified subject tends to ignore the real theoretical breakthroughs achieved in Foucault’s work. The reduction of Foucault’s notion of experience to the unity of the phenomenological, albeit embodied, subject of actual experience is too high of a price to pay for the sake of a well-rounded theory of the self.
Crossley, N. (1994). The Politics of Subjectivity: Between Foucault and Merleau-Ponty. Avebury Series in Philosophy
Foucault, M., Murphy, J., & Khalfa, J. (2013). History of Madness. Routledge.
Foucault, M. (2013). Archaeology of Knowledge. Routledge.
Heidegger, M. (2010). Being and Time. Suny Press.
Merleau-Ponty, M., Landes, D., Carman, T., & Lefort, C. (2013). Phenomenology of Perception. Routledge.
Venable, H. L. (2021). Madness in Experience and History: Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology and Foucault’s Archaeology. Routledge.
 In fact, on page 146, Venable almost explicitly labels Foucault a Hegelian, which in my reading of Foucault, especially his interviews, is simply wrong.
 For present purposes a slightly modified, but strictly speaking an incorrect use of the Marxist-Hegelian term.
 Perhaps only second or even third in importance to the voluminous work on the history of sexuality and The Order of Things, which was first to bring wide critical acclaim and attention to Foucault.
 I.e., Foucault’s rejection of all universals, as well as his portrayal of the human subject, including the embodied subject, as a historico-political construct.